Event | Activists hopeful UN conference will catalyze water action in Central Asia
The initiative strives to get more women in the room when water-management decisions are made.
The United Nations on March 22 opened its first conference on water in almost half a century, aiming to address challenges concerning what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described as the "world’s lifeblood." Activists from Central Asia participating in the conference expressed hope that the gathering can mark a transformative moment.
“We must do something. There is no option to not act now,” Meerim Seidakmatova, founder of the Young Environmentalists group at the Kyrgyz National Agrarian University, said during a panel discussion hosted by Columbia University’s Harriman Institute on March 20.
Cholpon Aitakhunova, another panel participant, described the conference as historic. “I really believe … this [the UN conference] is something more inclusive; this is something more participatory.”
Ahead of the conference, UN agencies released a report that warned of a looming global water crisis unless nations immediately address overconsumption and pollution. Water scarcity is projected to affect upwards of 2.4 billion people around the globe by 2050, more than double the number in 2016, the report states. The three-day UN gathering aims to finalize a Water Action Agenda that promotes climate resilience, expanded access to clean drinking water, transboundary cooperation and sustainable development.
Central Asia is among the regions most threatened by stressed water supplies. A recent study showed that dwindling resources are causing the rapid degradation of agricultural land in the region, costing the economies an estimated $6 billion. Land in Central Asia, the study added, was five times more productive in the 1980s than it is now. A different study said the region faces a drinking water crisis, noting that 80 percent of rural residents in Tajikistan lack access to regular supplies of clean drinking water.
Lyazzat Syrlybayeva, a Kazakhstani water management expert, said political will in Central Asia has been building to address transboundary issues. “In general, over the past few years regional water cooperation has been strengthening,” she said. “All countries in the region understand the importance of cooperation.”
Seidakmatova, Syrlybayeva, Aitakhunova and other female activists from the region were attending the UN conference under the auspices of Women in Water Management – Central Asia and Afghanistan, an initiative supported by a variety of international organizations, including the OSCE, the Stockholm International Water Institute and CAREC, the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Program. The initiative enables young activists and experts from Central Asia to gain global experience and build connections, better positioning them to play active roles in decision-making and water governance in their home countries.
“Women are among the stakeholders that need to be involved,” said Aitakhunova, a research fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. She quipped that having at least one woman in the room during negotiations on any given water-related issue can raise the chances of a successful outcome. In Central Asia, “when women are present at the table,” men “tend to be less confrontational, and more cooperative, more diplomatic.”