United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the Aral Sea, June 10 – once the world's fourth largest inland sea, that has now shrunk to about a quarter of its original size due to human mismanagement – and urged the world to take lessons from the catastrophe to ensure that such tragedies are not repeated.
“The Aral Sea's progressive disappearance was not because of climate change, it was mismanagement by humankind of water resources,” said Secretary-General Guterres after visiting Muynak, Uzbekistan, once a port city but now, infamously, devoid of all water.
“It also shows that if in relation to climate change, we are not able to act forcefully to tame this phenomenon, we might see this kind of tragedy multiply around the world,” he warned.
The environmental disaster was caused by diversion (for irrigation) of tributary rivers which drained into the Aral Sea for irrigation projects nearly half a century ago. Lack of fresh water feeding the sea slowly dried it up, increasing the salinity of the area, with serious impact on human health and agriculture.
Terming the catastrophe “probably the biggest ecological catastrophe of our time,” one that demonstrated that “men can destroy the planet,” the Secretary-General called on everyone to make the Aral Sea a lesson and to mobilize the whole international community to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change and to make sure that such tragedies will not be repeated.
Guterres had already stressed last week the importance of diplomacy to prevent and resolve trans-boundary disputes over water resources, telling the UN’s Security Council on 6 June that water serves as “a catalyst” for cooperation among nations, even those that are not on good terms”.
“Water, peace and security are inextricably linked,” said Guterres during a meeting on preventive diplomacy and trans-boundary waters, which was chaired by Evo Morales, President of Bolivia the nation that holds the Council’s presidency this month.
“I commend this Security Council meeting for highlighting how water is and should remain a reason for cooperation not conflict,” Guterres added.
With climate change having a growing impact, water scarcity is a growing concern, he pointed out, noting that by 2050 at least one in four people will live in a country where the lack of fresh water is chronic or recurrent.
Three-quarters of UN Member States share rivers or lake basins with their neighbours. There are more than 270 internationally shared river basins, which serve as the primary source of fresh water for approximately 40 per cent of the world’s population, including the Nile, the Indus, the Ganges, the Euphrates-Tigris, and the Mekong.
“That is why it is essential that nations cooperate to ensure water is shared equitably and used sustainably,” he said.
In the second half of the 20th century alone, Guterres observed, some 287 international water agreements were signed.
In South America, Lake Titicaca, the largest freshwater lake on the continent, has long been a source of cooperation between Bolivia and Peru. The 1960 Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan has survived three wars between the two countries although treaty-related tensions often surface.
The Albufeira Convention, agreed when Mr. Guterres was Prime Minister of Portugal, continues to oversee the sharing of trans-boundary rivers shared by Spain and Portugal including the Douro, Tagus and Guadiana.
The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes became open for all UN Member States as of March last year, offering the opportunity to create a global framework for preventive diplomacy for dealing with transboundary water issues.