Water is life, and at the heart of our agenda

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Water is a critical global security matter and Slovenia intends to put it at the core of its EU presidency, which starts on 1 July, writes Dr Stanislav Raščan.

Dr Stanislav Raščan is the state secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and acting as a Minister for Development Cooperation

By 2040, global demand for water will outstrip supply by 40%. If this issue continues to be neglected, the long-term implications for development, humanitarian and peacebuilding goals will be dire.

As Commissioner Franz Timmermans acknowledged recently, the more the climate crisis progresses, the bigger the battle for water will become.

Not only is water a critical global security matter – as the scarcity of natural resources can drive conflict – it is a powerful tool. Our history and even not so long ago, the devastating war in former Yugoslavia, reminded us of the power of water to build peace.

Clean water, good hygiene and sanitation services are crucial for sustainable growth and to build the resilience of the most vulnerable communities. Access to these basic services is an essential element of the fight against the impacts of climate change, as well as the drive to prepare to face the next pandemic.

As the acting minister for development cooperation and humanitarian aid, I have found 2020 to be an incredibly painful reminder of the very basic principles I was taught as a medical doctor: public health is impossible without clean water and soap.

As COVID-19 highlighted the huge global gaps in the basic services people need to protect themselves against the spread of infectious disease – three billion faced down the pandemic without soap and water to wash their hands – our mission to make water a core priority of our upcoming presidency emerged.

Good hygiene is the first line of defence against infectious diseases such as COVID-19, and essential to a resilient health system. Solving the WASH crisis in healthcare facilities will serve as an important, cost-effective contribution with multiplier effects on many global health threats.

This is why our presidency will kick-off with a high-level event on health & water for all as a priority in the new EU-Africa partnership. It will outline the importance for the European Union and the African Union to strengthen their cooperation in health, and to pay more attention to the lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene in healthcare facilities.

So, what are our duties, as European policymakers?

First, the upcoming Global Health Summit and the preparation of G20 Summit provide unique opportunities to begin building back better health systems beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. In that framework, the EU should primarily aim at strengthening national health systems, including through improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

Second, to address the consequences of water scarcity, and in particular the risk of protracted conflicts, we must support more coordinated cross-sectoral water resources management and stronger governance of water systems based on an ecosystem approach, supported by data and innovation.

We must make our water interventions conflict-proof and our peace interventions waterproof.

Third, climate change impacts are most of the time felt through water: too much, too little or contaminated water. We should ensure that climate adaptation finance increases significantly, especially for locally-led projects, and that water is included in the NDCs and the National Adaptation Plans.

Fourth, there is an urgent need to increase the levels and the quality of WASH Official Development Assistance (ODA). I co-hosted, with the European Commission, in January, the Water and Beyond event, which aimed to build broader partnerships on water and trigger more investments.

The latter is critical, considering that most low-and middle-income countries (LMICs) are not on track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6). The EU is currently setting its priorities for its external aid funding for the period 2021-2027. EU delegations and European donors should put water at the core of Team Europe Initiatives and joint programmes.

In 2019, Slovenian aid to WASH represented more than 10% of our overall ODA, which makes Slovenia the second donor in terms of the percentage of WASH ODA. The EU institutions are the third biggest donor to WASH, but the 13th when looking at WASH as a percentage of their ODA.

Fifth, we should collectively maximise the impact of our aid in the area of human development by ensuring that WASH services are integrated into all health, nutrition, education, disability, gender equality programmes and strategies, with water, sanitation and hygiene targets and indicators included. This is even more urgent in the context of fast urbanisation.

This is why we are determined to make a comprehensive approach to water in all aspects of EU external action a core priority of our presidency and of the EU agenda, longer-term, and why we have already started laying the groundwork for Council Conclusions on Water.

Throughout our presidency, we will call on the EU institutions and on our fellow colleagues in the other EU member states to scale up their investments in water, as a vital tool to build resilience and address the overlapping crises we are facing right now.

The conclusions will also highlight the crucial role played by water as a tool for peace, for regional integration and as a source of innovation and solutions at the local level.

The belief in the vital importance of water goes far beyond a political agenda for me, it is a personal conviction, and I could not be more proud that this issue will steer the EU agenda under the leadership of Slovenia.

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