Water is an essential component in the ecosystem of the planet, the principle of terrestrial life. Where it becomes the object of social unrest, the political community is called upon to assume responsibility that moves from individuals to public and private organizations. Starting from the 70s, on the basis of the recognition of new civil and social rights, policy makers and citizens, in various institutional bodies, started a debate on the issue of water resources as a legal asset to be protected. Over the decades, due to the dramatic consequences resulting from impetuous climatic events, many questions have arisen in the West, not only on the scientific field.
The growing environmental awareness along with the influence of ecological movements on public opinion are producing social changes, thanks also to the diffusion of new media and the process of economic globalization, which are reducing space-time distances and modifying the narration on environmental issues. The analysis of climate change, as a global framework in which to discuss sustainability in the use of water, however, do not find enough attention, despite the stringent daily emergencies. Only in 2010, a UN resolution (GA / 10967/2010) set some essential points, defining water as a “universal and fundamental human right“.
Equity of access and distribution are the guidelines at the base of the UN action plan. “It is now time to consider access to safe water and health services in the category of human rights, defined as the equal right for all, without discrimination […], the UN, through the High Commissioner for human rights, urges the national states to fulfill the task of giving priority to the personal and domestic use of water above all other uses “as well as, continues the document,” in taking the necessary steps to ensure that this quantity sufficient water is of good quality, economically accessible to everyone and that everyone can gather it at a reasonable distance from their own home“.
The water resources management system, however, raises further questions globally: around the collection and transportation networks of drinking water, often poor or inadequate in the face of a growing demand for access, special economic interests are grafted that do not respect agreements, regional or international, signed by governments in different areas of the planet. Agreements in which, on the contrary, the commitment is emphasized in respect of the criteria of socio-economic sustainability and safeguarding of the ecosystem, indispensable prerequisites for a common environmental policy.
“Between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of the world’s population using the best sources of drinking water rose from 76 to 91% [..] 2.6 billion more people had access to better drinking water resources, but still 663 millions of people do not have it“.
European Union has been committed for years to the study of intervention strategies that combine attention to the management of water resources and environmental protection. In 2000, the EU has introduced a framework directive that draws the partition of the European territory no longer by “political” parameters, based on local borders, regional or national, but “natural” through the mapping of the river basins. The European Commission’s Directive aimed to achieve, by 2015, “a state of the water which can be defined good in ecological terms.”
Measures that, complemented by the communication on problems concerning water scarcity and drought (2007), have delimited the operational perimeter of the European Union: the ambitious goal is the realization of a new eco-sustainable architecture of water systems, as included in the Global Agenda for Sustainable Development of the United Nations 2030 (“Clean Water and Sanitation”, sixth of the 17 goals in which the UN project is articulated). An accentuated disparity in access among EU member states is found by observing the geographical distribution of water resources on European soil.
The water exploitation index (WEI) considers the climatic characteristics, the impact of human activity and meteorological phenomena in the observation period: the geographical surveys carried out between 2005 and 2015 include among the risk factors the incidence of drought and stress to which water resources are subjected in the various production districts. The development of the tourism sector in Southern Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal) has increased the demand for water resources, especially in coastal areas. In addition, the advance of desertification on a ten scale and the absence of rain for long periods of the year affect the availability of long-term water handouts.
“Water scarcity affects more than 40% of the global population, a percentage expected to increase. Over 1.7 billion people live in river basins where the use of water exceeds its regeneration”
Serious social difficulties caused by water exploitation are recorded in North Africa and the Middle East. Demand management is complicated by demographic factors and the massive use of water in agriculture. According to the United Nations Regional Information Center (UNRIC), around 70% of the water extracted from rivers, lakes and aqueducts is destined to irrigate crops. Countries such as Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Syria are linked by a water withdrawal exceeds the resources present in the groundwater, which, due to the depreciation and massive use of water in crops (approximately 80% of total use), are emphasizing the exploitation of fossil resources.
The construction of infrastructures for collecting and transporting water has been the subject of perennial cross-border tensions: “pharaonic” works, for costs and dimensions, realized by the Libyan raʾīs Gheddafi around the Nubian water table (completed in 1983) or by the Saudis around the Disi water table, on the border with Jordan, necessary for the regional supply of drinking water and large-scale cereal production. To the quantitative inadequacy is added the complicated access to water resources “of good quality“: UNRC data confirm that at least 1.8 billion people worldwide use sources of drinking water contaminated by excrement and 2.4 billion people do not have access to basic toilets such as toilets or latrines. In fact, more than 80% of wastewater produced by human activities is discharged into rivers or seas without purification systems, with consequences for human health.
The cholera epidemic that has been affecting Yemen since 2014, where a bitter military conflict is fought, is attributable to the aforementioned factors. A “humanitarian catastrophe”, according to UNICEF and the UN, which has affected 400 thousand civilians, killing almost 2 thousand people. Among these many children who, not only in the Yemeni case, are victims of the consequences of water pollution: about 1000 children in the world die from preventable diarrheal diseases related to water and hygiene.
“Floods and other water-related disasters account for 70% of deaths due to natural disasters“
Military operations against the Islamic State (Daesh) in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria have highlighted the geo-strategic potential of water. As explained Eugenia Ferragina, senior researcher at the National Research Council (CNR). “The strategy of the Islamic State is to control the fundamental resources, certainly oil, territories, water. In particular, the Mosul dam is a strategic point that explains how many of the most bloody clashes were concentrated for the reconquest of this area“. Tobias von Lossow, scholar of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, analyzes in these terms the “armed tension” along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that will suffer by 2050, according to UN, a flow reduction of 50% and 25%. Islamic State, says von Lossow, “on one hand, has stored and retained water to keep some regions dry and cut off the administration to entire populations and communities; on the other, it literally drowns some regions to escape the inhabitants and destroy the few survival foods“, as happened in the Iraqi city of Ramadi (May 2014), whose dam supplies five surrounding provinces. To the drama of the war are added large-scale meteorological phenomena, linked, continues Eugenia Ferragina, “to climate change and its effects, such as a very strong aridity that affected the whole area, in particular Syria and Iraq, leading to a decline in rainfall and a strategic decrease in water, both for the water supply of populations and for agriculture. The latter is another problematic aspect of the situation both for Syria and for Iraq, which have experienced problems related to food supply“.
“[…] significantly increase by 2030 the efficiency of water use in each sector and ensure sustainable supplies of drinking water, to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from it […]“
Territorial conflicts are marked by a double competition. To restore an “ecological” balance in the crisis areas, interventions of a supranational nature are required, above all in terms of governance of water resources. Contrasts between ethnic factions and limited prospects for socio-economic development hinder the implementation of sustainable measures to protect fossil water resources, while sharpening phenomena such as land grabbing and unconditional exploitation by multinationals and local oligarchies of resources of the subsoil. Furthermore, water means mobility (environmental migration), food security (price fluctuation in the production chain), biodiversity (wildlife conservation and flora and vegetation conservation).
Humanitarian commitment and political responsibility can have a real impact, reinforcing know-how, scientific skills and technical skills based on solidarity cooperation through the agreement between public institutions, “third sector” organizations and non-governmental organizations involved in the coordination of common strategies. Shared objectives that respect socio-political constraints such as recognition of state sovereignty, non-discriminatory financial burdens, public health and environmental impact. A commitment to an independent recognition of “water rights“, as a guaranteed legal asset, a priceless heritage, a substantial principle of human dignity.
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