On 20 February 2018, UNESCO and the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission co-hosted an information session entitled “Science for Water: Effective Solutions for Achieving SDG 6 and Water-related goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda” at the UN Headquarters in New York.
In view of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 on water and sanitation and in the context of the upcoming “International Decade for Action: Water for Sustainable Development” (2018-2028), the session was a platform to discuss the importance of addressing water-management issues, and to inform member states about the collective contributions of UNESCO and the Joint Research Centre (JRC) to the implementation of SDG-6 and other water-related targets.
The meeting was moderated by Ambassador Rhonda King, Permanent Representative of St Vincent and the Grenadines to the UN and Vice President of ECOSOC.
In his opening remarks, H.E. Mr. Miroslav Lajčák, President of the 72nd General Assembly emphasized the need to bridge the gap between science and policy to achieve water related goals. Recalling the High-level event on water that he will be hosting on 22 March at the UN in New York, Mr. Lajčák further highlighted how leveraging scientific expertise can help find solutions and ensure water and sanitation for all.
H.E. Ambassador Vale de Almeida, Head of the EU Delegation to the UN, noted the connections between water scarcity and the threats to peace and security. With around 2.1 billion people around the world lacking access to water, he stressed the need for strong partnerships, global commitments and decisions based on data and evidence to tackle this issue.
Speaking on behalf of the Steering Committee for the Group of Friends of Water, H.E. Ambassador Sauer, Permanent Representative of Finland to the UN, stressed the importance of data for measuring progress towards SDG6 and other water related goals and targets. In this context he highlighted the upcoming release of the SDG6 Synthesis Report currently prepared by UN Water and coordinated by the UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme.
Mr. Vladimir Šucha, Director General of JRC and Ms. Flavia Schlegel, Assistant Director General for Natural Sciences of UNESCO, outlined the scientific efforts of JRC and UNESCO to achieve SDG 6 and other water related goals and targets. Both organizations presented a series of science based tools that could be used to guide policy and decision-making on water. Mr. Šucha highlighted the findings from the Global Surface Water Explorer, a database that maps the distribution of water surfaces at a global scale over the past 32 years.
Ms. Schlegel highlighted UNESCO’s holistic approaches to the implementation of water goals, and ways that the organization addresses the complexities and interlinkages of issues around water. Through its International Hydrological Program (IHP), World Water Assessment Program (WWAP) and a large network of UNESCO Water Centers and Chairs, UNESCO works towards expanding the knowledge base on water, building capacity for sustainable water management and strengthening the science policy interface for water related issues.
Watch the full meeting here.
In addition to this information session, Ms. Flavia Schlegel also briefed delegations in New York about UNESCO’s water related activities during a working breakfast hosted by H.E. Ambassador Michal Mlynár, Permanent Representative of Slovakia to the UN.
Role of an individual being to save the green earth
It is no secret that for decades, Earth has been incessantly abused, threatened, and destroyed. As man continues to put his selfish needs first, our environment suffers. The amount of destruction humans have caused in the past three decades is beyond comprehension – the glaciers in the poles are rapidly melting which is increasing the water level of the oceans; forests are quickly depleting; the percentage of greenhouse gases and other pollutants in the air is continuously rising, posing a threat to the already thinning ozone layer; energy reserves are exhausting, and the list goes on.
Isn’t it about time we started thinking about our beautiful planet and other life forms that inhabit it?
We all know that in an ecosystem, the well-being of one is closely and intricately related to that of another. Every living being – microorganisms, insects, animals, birds, plants – is dependent on each other for survival. The extinction of one species will naturally create an imbalance within the ecosystem, disturbing all other life forms within it.
Every individual has a role to play in preserving the Earth’s environment. A positive change, no matter how small, holds the ability to create a lasting ripple of change in the long run. Just imagine, if every individual all around the world (that is, 7 billion!) started doing their respective parts in reducing their carbon footprint and adopting the green way of living, how massive a change could we create! Taking baby steps and starting by adopting positive everyday habits could go a long way in saving the environment.
Here are a few things you, as an individual, could start doing to make this world a much ‘greener’ and better place.
- Adopt the 3R technique – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
First, try to minimize wastage of resources and the domestic waste produced as much as possible. Buy only what you need, and it is a wise move to buy large packets(more quantity of product but less waste generated when it comes to packaging). Always reuse items that can be used more than once, such as grocery and shopping bags. Opt for washable utensils over disposable ones. Indulge in recycling products to create new products. People all around the world have come up with many unique ideas to recycle waste and create something new!
- Composting is the way to go!
Instead of dumping away the organic waste(vegetable and fruit peels, flowers, leaves, etc.) produced in your house daily in some landfill, try composting. Dig a pit in your backyard and start dumping the organic waste in it. When the hole is filled, cover it up with soil. The organic waste will decompose in several weeks and will serve as natural manure for the soil. This is the best way to start organic farming in your own backyard!
- Live Unplugged!
Always, always, remember to unplug used chargers from the sockets and switch off the lights, fans, and any other electrical appliance when not in use. You may not realize it, but these little acts of carelessness may be the reason behind your skyrocketing electricity bills. By switching off devices and appliances when not in use, you are not only cutting down on your energy costs but are saving a considerable amount of energy.
- Opt for energy efficient appliances
Replace the age-old and energy-hogging appliances in your home with the new, energy-efficient ones. Today, the market is filled with energy efficient bulbs, fans, heaters, air conditioners, TVs, refrigerators, and so much more. These devices deliver excellent performance while consuming minimal energy. Thus, the overall consumption of electricity in your house will reduce to a large extent, as will your utility bill.
- Plant Trees
Trees provide us with oxygen, shade, and bring rainfall. They are immensely needed to help combat the climate change that is taking the entire world in its grip. Do your part and make it a point to plant trees in your surrounding areas. You can take up the initiative during festivals or special occasions and create a tree plantation drive in your neighborhood. This way, you will encourage others to plant trees for a greener future.
Apart from these major steps, you can also save the Earth by doing the following:
Opt for public transport. Individual cars and automobiles not only increase the overall fuel consumption but also increase the air pollution every day. By riding public buses, trains, metros, etc., you can help reduce this.
Choose e-receipts and bills over paper bills. This will help save our forest resources.
Fix any leaks and cracks, in any, in the pipes, taps, and water cooling system in your homes. Every drop of water is precious.
Adopt rainwater harvesting. By collecting rainwater in clean containers or tanks, you can create an extra buffer of water for fulfilling your domestic purposes(washing cars, watering plants, etc.).
Say no to plastic bags. Use cloth or jute bags.
If each one of us starts following these steps, our Earth will become much greener and livelier in the years to come. Never forget, this is our only Home, and it is up to us to protect and preserve it.
Save the seeds – and the living plants we eat and use
The ‘Doomsday Vault’, storing the seeds of vital crops in an underground vault near Svalbard, Norway, will celebrate its 10th anniversary soon, drawing deserved attention to the importance of conserving seeds that are vital for food and agriculture.
It was the adoption of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in 2001 that gave the impetus to the Norwegian government to proceed with the establishment of the Seed Vault; the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture welcomed and supported the initiative in 2004.
The resources and attention given to Svalbard, now the iconic home to seeds of around one million unique plants, is welcome. While farmers have bred crops for millennia, the emphasis on conservation of crop diversity ex situ is historically linked to Nikolai Vavilov, who set up one of the first genebanks in Russia in 1921. In a quest to end all famines, the botanist travelled to more than 60 countries, listening to farmers and collecting seeds with an eye to their potential to contribute to hardier crops in a changing world.
Accessions from genebanks that were subsequently established have been used to breed crop varieties that are better suited for food production, such as those that proved resistant to the rust diseases that can decimate wheat and maize harvests, and to produce rice varieties able to withstand salty soils, inject new resilience in highly-domesticated crops and contribute to innovations that changing climate conditions may require, such as faster maturation or drought tolerance.
Into the wild
While focus on conservation in genebanks is necessary, many of the genetic resources needed to underwrite sustainable food systems are found on-farm in the form of farmers’ varieties and landraces and also in nature as crop wild relatives.
Consider the sunflower, a native to North America, where samples of 53 species of sunflower wild relatives have been collected and stored. Varieties with elevated oil contents were developed in Russia, followed by significant improvements driven by a French scientist who tapped genetic quirks in a wild prairie sunflower, and today the crop is grown in more than 70 countries and accounts for an annual revenue of $20 billion.
Wild plants, notably those related to edible mainstays, are increasingly under threat and warrant increased efforts for their conservation and utilization. These plants are rarely part of intense crop improvement programmes. Yet experts know they often provide interesting traits that can work wonders on crops.
That’s why researchers scour central Asia in search of apple varieties, Papua New Guinea for sugar cane, and are excited to have found a wild banana in Southeast Asia that may help propagate resistance to a deadly fungus that is decimating the popular Cavendish variety.
Recently researchers have discovered previously unknown information on the genetic history of the wild relatives of cultivated chickpea, offering promising potential for a popular pulse food for which improvement has been hampered by an extreme lack of genetic diversity.
Many locally important food crops grow in parts of the world facing rapid change and high levels of food insecurity. To help countries in the daunting task of protecting the species relevant to their food supply in their natural habitats where they would continue to evolve important traits for adaptation to changes, FAO recently published Voluntary Guidelines for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Crop Wild Relatives and Wild Food Plants.
“Crop wild relatives have saved our skins many times and may become stars in our climate change toolkit,” says Chikelu Mba, a plant geneticist and Leader of the Seeds and Genetic Resources team at FAO.
Setting up protected areas is a key step. “Many countries in fact have them, and there is a potential to combine CWR conservation with nature conservation” notes Mba. “But few know what is inside them.”
Overcome extinction threats
Conservation efforts need to be accelerated now as climate change, urbanization and shifting land-use patterns all pose increasingly imminent threats to the survival of many of these relatively unsung species.
“The diversity of both crop wild relatives and wild food plants are being continuously eroded and many could become extinct if the current level of neglect is not checked,” says Ren Wang, FAO Assistant Director-General, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department.
Wild crop relatives tend to be most diverse and prolific in a food crop’s ancestral center of origin – the potato in the Andes, sugarcane in Asia – and also in secondary diversity zones such as the Mediterranean for the tomato and sub-Saharan Africa for cassava. That, one of Vavilov’s pioneering insights, helps in choosing appropriate locations for conservation areas.
Bolstering public support for such initiatives is easier if they are shown to “benefit humans in a tangible manner,” says Hans Dreyer, Director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division. “Conservation and sustainable use go hand in hand.”
How dangerously dirty water is threatening one of the world’s ancient religions
On an unseasonably warm winter afternoon in Baghdad, Sheikh Anmar Ayid hitches up his robe and crouches by the Tigris river. Rocking back and forth on his haunches, he flicks the water from side to side – all the while chanting rhythmically in Aramaic. After finishing his ablutions, a two-minute procedure, the young sheikh turns to a small mud-brick temple and begins to pray.
In past years, Ayid might then have quenched his thirst directly from the river. As a Mandaean priest, an adherent of a pre-Abrahamic faith that’s native to the Fertile Crescent, he and his co-religionists believe the Tigris – and the Euphrates – are sacred and flow from heaven. Clerics are consequently only supposed to drink from and eat food washed in their waters.
That, however, is scarcely even possible these days. Dirtied and drained almost from the moment they rise, Iraq’s great waterways are in bleak states by the time they reach the country’s heavily urbanized centre. To drink straight from them is to invite near instant sickness. And so as the rivers plumb desperate new lows, seemingly worsening by the year, the Mandaeans are struggling to practice their several thousand-year-old rituals.
“We depend on the water for everything, for worship, for daily life, for food,” Ayid said. “But because the water is going from bad to very bad, we are negatively affected.”
Across the world, water pollution is leaving a devastating trail in its wake. Eighty per cent of all wastewater goes untreated, and much of finds its way back into rivers and lakes – where it contributes to ecosystem and public health crises. Up to a third of all rivers are blighted with pathogenic waste, according to UN Environment data, and a seventh suffer from organic waste problems, mostly from agricultural fertilizer run off. In largely desert countries, like Iraq, worsening sandstorms and diminishing grass cover have caked the rivers with dust and saddled water treatment facilities with a new range of woes.
Never before, though, it seems, has poor water quality imperiled an entire religion. Already threatened by jihadists and criminal gangs, who damn them as heretics and target them for their historic role in the gold trade, the Mandaeans’ numbers have fallen from 100,000 to less than 10,000 in Iraq since 2003. For those who remain, pollution’s assault on one of the central tenets of their faith has added final insult to injury.
In Amarah, 350 km south of Baghdad on the Tigris, the pollution is so debilitating that not even boiling water is enough to prevent local priests from falling ill. At their heavily-guarded riverside temple in the Iraqi capital, Ayid and his colleagues have taken to leaving buckets of water to sit for a day, before skimming off the layer of fetid scum that’s usually accumulated on the top. From Baghdad to the Mandaeans’ traditional heartlands in the country’s far south, there’s so much glass and trash in the shallows that few worshippers dare set foot in the rivers without wearing sandals.“Our religion believes human nature requires hygiene, and so for us many things are built around water,” Ayid said. “But where is the hygiene here?”
What makes this all the more frustrating for many Mandaeans is that the culprits are hiding in plain sight. With insufficient wastewater treatment facilities and lax environmental regulations, ever-growing volumes of industrial and domestic refuse are seeping into the rivers. In Baghdad alone, dozens of places, including the Dora oil refinery and the massive Medical City hospital complex, discharge waste directly into the Tigris, according to local conservationists. All this at the same time as upstream dam construction and reduced rainfall cut the rivers’ flow has brought the lifeblood of the Mandaeans faith to the brink of disaster.
“When water levels drop, the health of that lake or river is likely to be affected, both in terms of quantity and quality,” says Lis Mullin Bernhardt, a Programme Officer in UN Environment’s Freshwater Unit. “And the lower the flow, the less likely that water body is to be able to deal naturally with water pollution and contamination.”
Globally, there is an increasing awareness that something drastic has to be done. UN Environment operates a monitoring system, GEMS/Water, which keeps tabs on river and lake water quality, and also helps states establish their own water quality surveillance networks. “For me, it’s like going to the doctor,” Bernhardt says. “You need that monitoring, those stats and numbers, to understand what’s happening and know a bit more about what you can do about it.” By encouraging the planting of water grasses and the preservation of wetlands, for example, UN Environment is pushing for green solutions to water quality problems.
But for the Mandaeans, the fear is that no manner of solutions might arrive fast enough to save their rituals – and perhaps their very existence. Scattered now across Europe, North America and Australia, they question whether a community as small as theirs can endure in diaspora. That a people whose faith teaches care for the environment might die in part because of it is a tragic irony not lost on Sheikh Ayid.
“Above all, we respect the water, of course. But we respect the Earth and the animals too. It is forbidden, for example, to play with a living tree, to slaughter an animal unless it is needed, or to throw things into the river,” he said. “Our daily life depends on nature, but nature is not being kind to us.”
First published in UN Environment
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