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Water Management in Central Asia and in the World: No Solution without Women

Keynote address at the Workshop on “Water/Health Nexus and Gender Equality for Effective Water Management: Challenges and Opportunities in Central Asia and Afghanistan in a post-COVID World”, organized by the UN Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia and the Government of Canada, March 15-16, 2021

Delivered virtually, March 15, 2021

Stéphane Dion, Canadian Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe and

Ambassador to Germany

Your Excellency, Ms. Natalia Gherman, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Central Asia, and Head of the Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia.

Your Excellency, Mr. Nicholas Brousseau, Ambassador of Canada to the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and the Republic of Tajikistan.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As Prime Minister Trudeau’s Special Envoy, I am thankful for the opportunity to discuss with you what clearly seems to prevail more and more as the main issue of the century: water management, and to make the point that there will be no real solution without the full engagement of women.

You may know that the Government of Canada has explicitly adopted a Feminist International Assistance Policy. It did so because it is convinced that gender parity is a matter of justice for women, but it is also in the interest of men. Harnessing the full creativity, talents and potential of both women and men is a condition to reach development for all.

Consequently, you can guess how much the Government of Canada is pleased to host, in cooperation with Special Representative Gherman, dear Natalia, as well as with the Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA), this workshop dedicated to the cause of women and sound water management in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The Government of Canada will be very interested in the results of your discussions. No pressure!

The water challenge for the World

Water, the challenge of the century? You know the facts. In 2007, the United Nations Office for the High Commission on Human Rights declared that access to safe water and sanitation is a human right. Unfortunately, this right is far from being respected. According the United Nations, 2.1 billion people are lacking safely managed drinking water services; 2.3 billion people are lacking basic sanitation services; 80% of watershed is discharged without treatment; over half of the developing world’s primary schools lack access to water and sanitation facilities.

Challenges around freshwater management, although already immense, will only grow. The OECD estimates that by 2050, 4 billion people could be living in water scarce areas (twice as many people as today).

Furthermore, climate continues to warm at a worrying speed, creating additional water stress. Climate change impacts are often water-related: increasing floods, more severe droughts, higher storm surges, melting sea ice and glaciers, rising sea levels and salinization of land and water, acidification and alterations in seawater chemistry and in fisheries ecology.

Some 40% of the world’s landmass can be classified as dryland, at risk of desertification, and where 2 billion people currently live. Many of these people are on the fringe of being severely affected by soil degradation, food insecurity, poverty and shortage of arable land. Desertification may lead to massive induced migration if we do not act collectively with the proper policies.

Feeding a planet of 9 billion people in 2050 will require an estimated 50% increase in food production. How can we do this with poor water management? Seventy percent of water consumption is used for irrigation; irrigated agriculture accounts for approximately 40% of global food production.

Global energy demand is expected to be 30% higher by 2040 according to the International Energy Agency. And as you know, around 90% of sources of energy (including electricity) require water in their production processes.

The list of what we need to do is compelling: honour our Paris commitments for greenhouse gas reductions, honour our commitments for each and every Sustainable Development Goal – notably those linked to water and poverty, fight desertification and deforestation, and above all cooperate and pull together our efforts.

The water challenge for Central Asia

Central Asia is one of the world’s most complex watersheds. As you know, this region is severely affected by the shrinking of the Aral Sea during the Soviet period, a water area the size of Ireland now almost nothing but sand, having kept less than 10% of its initial surface.

Since the most part of the water supply in Central Asia region comes from transboundary sources, the water-energy-agriculture nexus is a conundrum, involving the Syr Darya and Amu Darya international drainage basins, between upstream states (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and downstream states (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan).

The stress on water supply and sanitation infrastructure will only grow since water consumption is on the rise, with a rural migration to urban areas and with an expected population increase in Central Asia from today’s roughly 73 million to about 86 million by 2040. The region's development would be severely hampered should a scenario occur where there is worsening water quality and water quantity problems, deterioration of infrastructure and declining agricultural yields, and increasing inefficiencies of the irrigation and filtration systems.

In addition, climate change is hitting the region hard, with observed temperatures having risen twice as fast since 1970, compared to global levels, increasingly compounding water scarcity and contributing to the rapid shrinking of the region’s glaciers, which supply around 80% of the total river runoff in Central Asia. The impact of climate change (including droughts and temperatures as high as 60 degrees) will get worse according to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), whose projections show an increase in future temperature by 2-4 ◦C for 2050 and 3-5 ◦C for 2080, for the major part of the region.

According to the World Bank, if population growth continues at its current rate of 1.5% per year, the amount of water available per person will fall to the point that by the next century, water supply will be just one-quarter of current average consumption.

In November 2019, the United Nations along with the Institute for Water, Environment and Health released a report showing that unless well-funded and coordinated joint efforts are increased, ongoing over-withdrawals will cause dangerous water shortages for the populations leaving in Central Asia’s Sea Basin. “The Aral Sea Basin’s many water issues must be addressed by all states jointly or none will be fully resolved”, said Dr Stefanos Xenarios of Nazarbaev University, one of the authors of the report.

Cooperation between Central Asia and Canada on water management

During my 2 previous visits to the region, I had the pleasure of meeting many persons of good will, who are working on solutions. I want to tell you that Canada wants to do its part.

We have so much to share and learn from each other: transboundary water management experience; negotiation expertise; hydroelectricity cooperation; cooperation in transnational river basins; best practices in the conservation of water and in underground integration systems; creation of efficient irrigation systems; soil purification and desalinization; understanding and exporting water technology.

Canada has a strong water technology and services sector, which is export ready. We offer partnership for action, including for disaster risk reduction, hydroelectric projects and trans-boundary management. Canada wants to share lessons learned, inspire innovation and increase the availability of science and data. On all these issues, Canada is looking for a more structured dialogue.

In March 2019, the Government of Canada hosted a study tour of senior Central Asia experts in water and energy. Everyone agreed it was a very positive and mutually beneficial experience. However, it takes persistence to get results. This is why a follow-up Canadian delegation in the region or vice-versa, a second Central Asian Water delegation in Canada, is something we might consider, following the COVID‑19 crisis. However, having said this, a real contingent of women in the 2 delegations would be an essential asset.

In February 2021, my colleague, Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, held a first coordination meeting with your respective Ambassadors, initiating an important dialogue on regional coordination and ways Canada could support this process.

No solution without women

Globally, according to the WHO and UNICEF, women and girls are responsible for water collection in 8 out of 10 households with water off premises. Women collect water for household use, cooking, and family hygiene. The more scarce clean water becomes, the heavier the burden on women. Water crisis is largely a women crisis, as it deeply affects their health, security, and economic autonomy, undermines their chances of education, as well as contributes to further increase gender inequalities.

In Central Asia as well, women are the major users of this precious resource. Since many men from rural areas migrate to work abroad, women have also taken over more farming responsibilities. Still, according to the OSCE, women have little influence in the major decisions on how water is managed, be it at the local, national or trans-boundary levels.

In its 2015 Report “Women, Water and Security”Footnote 1, the OSCE quotes Zhyldyz Ysmanova, a gender expert at the Central Asian Alliance on Water, who shared her experiences from Kyrgyzstan, where more than half of the country’s 633 water associations have gender-balanced boards. To quote the report: “We observed that when women are board members of these associations they are more efficient because women are the main water users. (…) Overall, I can say that women are much more informed on water needs and they know exactly where the next pipe should be built to ease the burden on them. (…) Women have a better understanding of how a lack of water can affect the most vulnerable in the society.”

The involvement of women in water management issues also increases transparency and can reduce corruption.

The Word Bank came to these same conclusions, in its report just released in January 2021 and titled, “Promoting Women’s Participation in Water Resource Management in Central Asia”.Footnote 2

Given the importance of supporting the women of Central Asia and Afghanistan, Canada wants to do its share with very concrete projects, to both reduce the burden of women charged with the task of gathering water, and promote women’s engagement in water resource management.


To conclude, as Prime Minister Trudeau’s Special Envoy, I came, virtually, to this important workshop to affirm that Canada, a country blessed with a fifth of the world’s freshwater and with the longest coastline in the world by far, would like to learn from Central Asia and Afghanistan and be a partner in our search for peaceful, exemplary water governance. Canada is willing to develop a comprehensive engagement on water with the 5 Central Asian republics and Afghanistan. We must pull together our efforts to provide to the generations to come – our children, our grandchildren – a sustainable future. Canada intends to be part of the solution in a world where water management is the challenge of the century.

But at the end of the day, for all of our efforts to result in any real improvement, women have to be present. There is no hope without women. The burden of water rests unfairly on their shoulders. And so, the solution lies in women.

When women are allowed to partake fully in society, everyone benefits and everyone wins, including men. Husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, friends, colleagues, we all win. It must be an imperative for all nations to end the underrepresentation of women. The empowerment of women is a question of justice, but it is also the condition for success.

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