Fresh water is a key resource for human health, prosperity and security. It is essential for poverty eradication, gender equality, food security and the preservation of ecosystems. Yet water resources are under increasingly severe pressure from global drivers such as population growth, climate variability and global change. Although constituting a finite resource, water is being stretched to serve more and more people and usages.
The International Organization for Migration recognizes climate change and migration as the most pressing policy issues of our time. Indeed, the international community recognizes the interrelation between increased climatic variability and water resources availability, which negatively impacts food security and social stability, and triggers or intensifies migration patterns throughout the world. In this context, it is vital for the global community to build sound scientific knowledge in order to support countries to better manage their water resources and respond to water-related challenges. The overall aim is to achieve water security by implementing Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been working towards this end for more than 40 years through its Division of Water Sciences, and, more precisely, the Member States of the International Hydrological Programme (IHP), the only intergovernmental programme of the United Nations system devoted to water research, and water resources management, education and capacity-building. Originally an internationally coordinated hydrological research programme, it now constitutes an encompassing, holistic approach to facilitate education, and enhance water resources management and governance. The UNESCO Division of Water Sciences provides a platform to bring together the scientific research community and policymakers, benefiting from the extended network of the UNESCO Water Family, which comprises IHP, the World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP), and UNESCO water-related Centres and Chairs.
The aim of UNESCO to create knowledge societies is based on the premise that universal access to information and knowledge is key to building peace, promoting sustainable economic development and providing culturally sensitive and gender-responsive approaches to water-related challenges.
Part 1: Responding to the needs of Member States
Water education at all levels needs to be improved if the global water challenges are to be met. Water education can start early in school, in order to forge a societal mindset that recognizes the importance of this vital resource. At the local level, education strategies have the ability to promote community-wide water conservation, as well as enhance skills in local co-management of water resources. The involvement of youth can trickle down towards other members of the community. Objectives also comprise enhancing tertiary water education capacities, particularly in developing countries. However, water education extends beyond the teaching of hydrological sciences. UNESCO also reaches out to media professionals to develop accurate and effective communication on water issues. Collaboration between different educational areas is key to developing tools, guidelines, briefing papers, professional development programmes and case studies connected with water education.
Water education also includes the need to advance scientific knowledge through the training of scientists. Continuous professional development of stakeholders, for example through the UNESCO category 2 Institute for Water Education (IHE Delft), the Netherlands, increases the knowledge on water resources and water-related issues, and ensures the implementation of projects and policies that embrace scientific concepts of sustainable water management.
In this endeavour, cooperation between international organizations, professionals and researchers play a crucial role in sustainably developing and building water-related scientific knowledge. Indeed, such networks allow bridging the knowledge gap by facilitating the transfer, exchange and sharing of expertise between institutions, academia, civil society, local communities, researchers and policymakers. These cooperative processes also encourage North-South and South-South cooperation. Networks such as the UNESCO Water Family, composed of 48 academic Water Chairs and 36 Water Centres and institutes, address water security and other water-related challenges by developing new knowledge, innovative technologies, collaborative interdisciplinary scientific research, networking, training and capacity development. In areas lacking expertise, Chairs and Centres have evolved into poles of excellence and innovation contributing to building strong regional assets.
Part 2: Importance of universal access to information
Access to safe, clean and affordable drinking water and sanitation is recognized as a human right, but the means and the governance differ between countries and continents. Knowledge and information have a significant impact on the management of water resources and thus on people’s lives. Universal access to information is a fundamental condition for building peaceful, democratic and inclusive knowledge societies, which is at the heart of the UNESCO mandate. In the framework of the achievement of SDG 6 at the global scale, there is an absolute need to improve access to data and encourage dissemination of knowledge. Promoting openness in content, technology and processes through awareness-raising, policy formulation and capacity-building is trusted as a tool to broaden access to knowledge. It provides water stakeholders, researchers, students and educators from around the world with unprecedented access to water-related knowledge, information and technologies.
The lack of accurate water-related information, adequate indicators and capacities to analyse and monitor data represents a major development challenge for countries. Indeed, without the ability to process, analyse and transform raw data into information and knowledge in a form that can be understood and used by decision makers, access to data will not make a difference, even if it is available in large amounts. Therefore, providing open-access tools, such as the IHP Water Information Network System (WINS) or the Ocean Data Portal that both offer geospatial data, allows the sharing of clear and straightforward information and creates a sound basis for decision-making. For instance, in 2008, BGR and UNESCO-IHP published the first world map of the then 273 shared transboundary aquifers, which was updated in 2015 when it comprised 592 shared aquifers. This information is available on IHP-WINS.
The need for reliable information to successfully deal with complexity in managing water resources has led to the development and promotion of a number of tools and methodologies. They combine various types of data that harness information and communications technology (ICT) and provide modelling to address water security challenges. The UNESCO Division of Water Sciences promotes the use of these technologies in activities that range from the deployment of hydroclimate monitoring systems in Latin America and Africa, to building Member States capacity for flood warnings and management in South Asia, and development of climate risk management in urban areas, among others.
Combining openness and ICTs, the free and open source software (FOSS) model provides interesting tools and processes to create, exchange, share and exploit software and knowledge efficiently for water resources management. FOSS has the potential to play an important role as a practical instrument for development, since its free and open characteristics make it a natural component for reducing the gap between industrialized countries and those with emerging economies.
Water management-related knowledge is not limited to scientific-based information. In rural and indigenous communities, local knowledge informs decision-making and provides a foundation for locally appropriate water resources management. While previously perceived simply as resource users, indigenous people are now recognized as essential partners in water management. In that sense, the UNESCO Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) programme offers an interdisciplinary initiative to secure an active and equitable role for local communities in resource management, overcoming the barriers created by differences between scientific and indigenous worldviews.
The dissemination of knowledge and the exchange of best practices are important aspects in enabling communication between scientists, local practitioners and policymakers. A good example is the United Nations World Water Development Report (WWDR), which aims to provide decision makers with the tools to implement sustainable use of water and offers best practices, as well as in-depth theoretical analyses, to help stimulate ideas and actions for better stewardship in the water sector. The development of the WWDR, coordinated by UNESCO WWAP, is a joint effort of the United Nations agencies and entities that are Members of UN-Water working in partnership with governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders.
Part 3: Increasing knowledge through the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals
Building scientific knowledge related to water resources depends also on the ability of the global water community to identify interlinkages, cooperate and work towards common goals. This is even more important, considering that universal access to water and its sound management are critical to achieving several objectives and targets of the SDGs. As a result, this knowledge can trickle down to the implementation of the larger 2030 Agenda.
The United Nations World Water Development Report 2016 highlighted that three out of four of the jobs worldwide are water-dependent and that water shortages and lack of access may limit economic growth in the years to come. Therefore, the sustainable management of water resources and the provision of water-related services can positively influence employment growth and decent jobs. In short, addressing youth unemployment, the mismatch of skills and the gender gap in the water sector can contribute to achieving water security at the global scale. One major way to address these challenges is by strengthening water education and capacity development at all levels. This objective integrates economic, social and environmental aspects and recognizes deep interlinkages between water (SDG 6), education (SDG 4) and employment (SDG 8) in achieving sustainable development for all.
The 2030 Agenda provides a foundation for building scientific knowledge in some water-related domains. For instance, while good knowledge of surface water exists, the first phase of the monitoring of SDG Indicator 6.5.2 on transboundary water cooperation, for which UNESCO is a co-custodian, is likely to highlight the water security challenges that countries are facing due to gaps in groundwater-related knowledge. The lack of formal, operational cooperation over shared groundwater resources partially stems from still limited scientific and technical knowledge regarding the location, extent, and other physical characteristics of transboundary aquifers. In that sense, the 2030 Agenda presents a critical opportunity for UNESCO-IHP and United Nations bodies to continue building the scientific basis for groundwater management, at national, regional, global and transboundary levels.
In order to increase countries awareness about global progress on SDG 6 and to enable them to develop a road map towards a more sustainable development, a UNESCO WWAP-led task force of UN-Water was designated to produce the SDG 6 Synthesis Report on Water and Sanitation 2018 This report aims to provide an overview of the status of the implementation of SDG 6 at the global and regional levels. In this process, science, technology and innovation are expected to improve the general knowledge base about water resources.
Moreover, it is crucial to develop joint initiatives that gather the international community and provide a vehicle to communicate on water resources and related challenges and needs. This is the goal of the International Decade for Action, “Water for Sustainable Development”, 2018-2028, which will bring together water-dedicated partners to work towards developing cooperation and raising awareness about sustainable management of water resources.
It is only through scientific research and cooperation that we will be able to fill the knowledge gaps that hinder us from pursuing sustainable solutions for water security. In this context, it is vital for UNESCO to continue building sound scientific knowledge in order to assist countries to better manage their water resources. In this endeavour, UNESCO works to create inclusive knowledge societies and empower local communities by increasing access to information, and preserving and sharing data for better water resources management. To ensure that investments in knowledge-building are fully utilized, the Organization fosters a knowledge-sharing culture by providing the appropriate primarily physical, but also virtual, fora and supporting networks and communities.
UNESCO cooperation networks are an important driver for creating and sustainably building such knowledge. Promoting openness in content, technology and processes can broaden access to knowledge and achieve universal access to information, and subsequently, to water.