Remarks by Angel Gurría,
New York, 24 April 2017
(As prepared for delivery)
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
We are here today because we think it’s time to put water at the top of our global agenda. It’s time to get our water act together. I want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting us as we launch this call. And I thank in particular PJ Simmons for introducing this discussion.
Water is a global strategic issue
Water is at the centre of some of today’s biggest challenges. Half the world’s population suffers from polluted water, while 1.8 billion people still lack access to a safe and sustainable supply of fresh drinking water. More often than not, the poor are most affected by water-related risks and disasters: 89% of the deaths due to storms occurred in low-income countries, even though only 26% of the storms occurred in these countries. Recent work by the OECD and the Global Water Partnership estimates that globally, water-related risks cost more than USD 500 billion every year.
To paraphrase the famous saying in Tip O’Niell’s book about politics in the late ‘90s, I would say that “All water is local”. And this is true in many ways. But it is dangerous to dismiss water as only a local concern. We do not have to stretch our imagination too far to realise how rapidly local water issues can become regional, then national, then international, and then global.
The links between water challenges and increased migration, as well as the potential even for military conflict, are easy to discern. Tensions about the Tabqa dam in Syria, or transboundary water management in Central Asia, for example, underscore the importance of water diplomacy as an integral part of foreign policy today.
We also know that drought in key agricultural regions can affect food markets and prices globally. And climate is changing, amplifying the water resource challenges and risks for many. The availability and distribution of freshwater has already changed dramatically for some. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) identified water as a major driver for sustainable growth and development.
The policy challenges underlying the issues I have just described are numerous. Governance is one of them: how do we ensure the right decision-making systems are in place for the management of water resources, including at different levels of government? Financing is another major challenge. While investing in water security makes economic sense, this doesn’t necessarily result in the financial flows that are needed.
At the OECD, we have been working on these policy challenges: our recent OECD Council Recommendation on Water provides guidance on many of these issues. Our Principles on Water Governance and our Roundtable on Financing Water are other examples of how we’ve tried to distil best practices from a wealth of evidence, and put them at the disposal of OECD Members and non-Members alike.
But one thing is clear: the efforts of individual organisations – although important – are not sufficient to tackle the scale of the challenges ahead. We need a global response. We need a new global water architecture. Today’s such global architecture is simply not fit for purpose. Let me give you three reasons:
As a consequence, the attention we collectively pay to water is episodic and unstable.
With a new Secretary-General at the helm of the United Nations, it is time to put in place a more effective and inclusive global water architecture. I applaud the initiative of the UN General Assembly to discuss the integration and co-ordination of the UN on water-related goals and targets.
But today, even the UN is not equipped for the task – at least not yet. The 32 UN agencies that deal with water are loosely connected, approaching water from the perspective of their respective agendas. UN Water is not equipped to reconcile the sometimes conflicting mandates and instructions given to agencies by member states. The lack of attention to the water SDG has already been noted by the General Assembly, as well as in the assessment made by the then-UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB) in November 2015.
Our role is to support the UN, and to work with and for the UN to build a new and effective global water architecture. Let me conclude by highlighting three key elements that we have to take into consideration while building this new structure:
First, any effective response must be sustained and stable over time. We need to see the right expertise and capacity, as well as strategic political leadership. For cost reasons, we need to build – as far as possible – on existing institutions and capabilities, while recognising that in their current configuration they are inadequate.
Second, any approach to water must be coherent both across geographical scales and levels of government. While national governments will play a key role in delivering the 2030 agenda, there are limits to what they can achieve. Cities and regions must be key players in policy development and implementation.
Third, the global water architecture should not be limited to water: sectoral approaches to other challenges – such as food, health, urbanisation, resilience and energy – also need to embed water concerns more effectively.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
In the 20th century we lost close to 50 per cent of our inland water systems; we cannot afford to lose the other 50 per cent in the 21st. We urgently need a consensus on a "good enough" global water architecture, avoiding the twin pitfalls of either over-ambition or a lowest common denominator response. Let’s step up our efforts, let’s push our boundaries further, let’s get our act together. The water clock is ticking. In the words of Bob Marley: “You ain’t gonna miss your water until your well runs dry”. Thank you very much.