WASH, Water Security and Biodiversity: Reflections from COP15

3 min read
Image: WaterAid/ Julie Truelove

A new Global Biodiversity Framework was agreed in the early hours of Monday, December 19 in Montreal during the final days and hours of COP15 to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Over the last two weeks, people from around the world came to learn, inform, debate, and negotiate commitments towards a ‘nature positive’ future. Sentiments of “biodiversity is where climate was 10-15 years ago” and “this needs to be biodiversity’s Paris moment” brought a sense of urgency to halt and reverse biodiversity loss for the health of people and planet. We know from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report (2022) that water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is considered a ‘low regrets’ action for climate adaptation - we have little to lose and much to gain by achieving water and sanitation targets of SDG6 by 2030 which are currently progressing much too slowly. “Perfection is the enemy of the good” brought similar sentiment to halting biodiversity loss - we don’t have time to wait for perfect solutions, and we have ample reason to act for integrated, ‘nature positive’ investments and actions, guided by Indigenous and traditional knowledge.

WaterAid focuses on the human rights to water and sanitation and WASH for people. There are distinct, and often blurry, lines across the water world - oceans, wetlands, freshwater ecosystems, rivers, lakes, and groundwater to name a few. WaterAid has had a strong presence at the “climate COPs” for several years as we advocate for water security, climate resilient sanitation, and hygiene behaviour change as essential elements of climate adaptation. Yet COP15 in Montreal was our first time in this biodiversity space. It was a time to explore thematic priorities, partners, and identify entry points to strengthen connections of WASH for basic human needs and human rights within the vast world of water for biodiversity and ecosystem health. Halting biodiversity loss, building resilience to climate change, and addressing the global water crisis are inextricably linked. Exploring COP15 further validated these connections - water flows in a vast, tangled web for health of people and planet, while unchecked sanitation and waste disposal pose intensive challenges for sustainable cities of the future. From promoting soil health, halting deforestation, and greening value chains and regenerative agriculture, to considering overarching gender equality and human rights for water, sanitation, and a healthy environment - we must recognize the true value of nature and of the water sustaining it.

Integrating WASH across sectors including health, nutrition, education, and gender equality is not new. But we can take new approaches to more specifically integrate WASH and water security within the bigger picture of environmental health, including the One Health approach formally included in health and biodiversity text from COP15 and already embedded in text of the forthcoming pandemic treaty. Inequalities in access to WASH services, coupled with water insecurity, perpetuate vulnerabilities to climate risks, food insecurity, and hazards of upstream/downstream water and waste practices impacting nature and people. Addressing systemic inequalities in access to financial, natural, and human resources must be part of the ambitious investments and actions that now follow the Global Biodiversity Framework.

Climate change, COVID-19, and conflict have amplified the urgency to address complex global issues; halting and reversing biodiversity loss is part of this equation. People without access to basic services of water and sanitation are among the most marginalized populations vulnerable to social, environmental, and economic impacts of these multiple crises. WASH is everywhere within these battles, yet nowhere in the headlines of negotiations. We are pleased to see the specific freshwater targets and gender equality target in the GBF along with health and biodiversity text. The UN 2023 Water Conference in March is the first UN level water conference in over 40 years - it’s long overdue to ensure basic human needs and human rights for water, sanitation, and hygiene are no longer overlooked but are considered central to achieving climate and biodiversity targets to build a sustainable and more just future.

This blog was written by Julie Truelove, Head of Policy and Advocacy, WaterAid Canada