UNICEF: Children in Middle East/North Africa threatened by water scarcity
By Benedict Mayaki, SJ
World Water Week this year runs from 23 – 27 August. The five-day event is an opportunity for everyone to examine our relationship with natural resources, particularly water, and to discuss management, development and sustainability issues as it relates to this precious resource.
In the wake of a widening climate crisis amid reports of wildfires, earthquakes and hurricanes and other natural disasters in recent weeks, the 2021 theme, “Building Resilience Faster,” will address the climate emergency, along with the impact of other challenges, including the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic which is further exacerbated by emergence of new variants.
Water crisis in the Middle East/North Africa
In the Middle East and North Africa, water challenges have existed for thousands of years. However, the impact of this crisis today is unprecedented as it is now a threat to the survival of children.
A recent UNICEF report released on World Water Week warns that nearly 9 out of 10 childen in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) live “in areas of high or extremely high-water stress with serious consequences on their health, nutrition, cognitive development and future livelihoods.”
The region, the report added, is reportedly the most hard-hit in the world of the 17 most water-stressed countries. Around 41 million people in the MENA region lack access to safely managed drinking water, and nearly 66 million people lack basic sanitation. In addition, “very low proportions of wastewater are adequately treated.”
Children affected by water scarcity
With water scarcity affecting agriculture, causing food insecurity, as well as driving conflict, displacement and migration, children, the poor and the marginalized, have been heavily affected.
UNICEF Deputy Regional Director for the MENA region, Bertrand Bainvel, notes that “water Scarcity is having a profound impact on children and families, starting with their health and nutrition.” It is also increasingly becoming “a driver for conflicts and displacement.”
Within this context, Bainvel added, “it is even more unacceptable that those fighting in conflicts target water infrastructure. Attacks on water infrastructure must stop.”
Furthermore, “in many countries of the region, children are increasingly having to walk long distances just to fetch water instead of spending that time at school or with their friends playing and learning,” said Chris Cormency, UNICEF WASH Regional Advisor for the Middle East and North Africa.
Factors driving water scarcity
The report, entitled “Running Dry: the impact of water scarcity on children in the Middle East and North Africa,” highlights several key drivers behind the water scarcity in the MENA region, including urbanization, poor water management, and climate change.
In countries like Syria, Yemen and Sudan, additional factors contributing to water scarcity include conflict. In fact, “conflicts and regional economic and political instability have increased the demand for emergency water sources including trucking, further exacerbating groundwater depletion,” UNICEF said.
In addition, the rising agricultural demands and the expansion of irrigated land using aquifers places increased strain on the already water-stressed region. The report notes that “while globally agriculture accounts for an average of 70 percent of water use, it is more than 80 percent in the MENA region.”
Joint efforts to combat water scarcity
In the face of the situation, UNICEF reiterates its commitment to support local partners, governments and civil society to address the vulnerability of water resources in the MENA region. This includes working to preserve the individual’s human right to access water and sanitation services with it being compromised by other uses or threatened in conflict settings; creating an enabling environment with policies that address scarcity, as well as working with civil society, including the youth, as agents of change on the value of water and its conservation.
The UN Children’s Fund will also work to create coordination groups between key ministries to support policy revisions, as well as support capacity building of key water sector actors, including regulatory bodies, private sector operators and national water utilities.
World Water Week
World Water Week was started by Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) in 1991. Every year, the conference gathers students, politicians, business representatives, researchers and grassroot groups in dialogue to link practical knowledge with science, as well as policy and decision making.
The five-day observance is held as a digital event this year. World Water Week 2021 will offer sessions with a broad array of water-related topics, including food security, health, agriculture, technology and biodiversity to participants from over 130 countries across the globe.
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