Marking World Water Day at the international level, the Hon. Shawn Richards addressed a multi-UN agency audience in Dakar, Senegal, urging the international community and specialised international water agencies to work with small island developing states (SIDS) to build up their capacity to develop reliable and sustainable groundwater capacity and techniques.
Minister Richards, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Infrastructure, had the honour of being the only government representative from the 38-strong sovereign SIDS countries to be invited to remotely address a high-level panel at the 9th World Water Forum, organised to mark the UN-WATER DAY, under the theme: Making the Invisible Visible: Groundwater, a response for resilience and sustainability
The conference was co-hosted by the UNESCO Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme (IHP) in cooperation with International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre (IGRAC)
The UN-inspired World Water Day is commemorated on 22 March annually, focusing attention on the importance of water. This year’s theme, ‘groundwater’, draws attention to the hidden water resource that has always been critically important but not fully recognized in sustainable development policymaking.
Under the title ‘Groundwater – Making the invisible visible’, this year’s campaign underlines the vital role of groundwater in water and sanitation systems, agriculture, industry, ecosystems and climate change adaptation. The overarching message of the UN-inspired campaign is that exploring, protecting and sustainably using groundwater will be central to surviving and adapting to climate change and meeting the needs of a growing population. The UN-WATER event included interventions by leading experts from UNESCO, Economic Community of West African States, the OECD, the French and Slovenian foreign ministries, the UN Economic Commission for Europe, and the GEF.
Minister Richards launched directly into the core of the water challenges in the region by stating that “Firstly, we, across the Caribbean, continue to face chronic shortages in freshwater. We still must resort to limiting availability of freshwater, by imposing rationing, as the whole region enters yet another dry season.
He noted that this phenomenon came alongside associated challenges of coastal erosion, rising sea levels inundation of deltas as well as flooding and loss of many marshes and wetlands. “Increased salinity is likely to become a problem in coastal aquifers and estuarine systems as a result of saltwater intrusion”.
UNESCO experts report that saltwater intrusion is related to over-pumping of groundwater resources, and this frequently calls for the need to introduce artificial recharge and wastewater treatments.
Referring to the March UN Intergovernmental Panel report on Climate Change, backed by 270 scientists from 67 countries, the Minister reminded the audience of its stark conclusion: rising sea levels posed an “existential threat” for some small islands.
The Minister stated: I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I were to say that this could result in small island nations facing an almost dystopian situation – one in which their sources of freshwater are depleted long before they run out of land because of rising sea levels!
Two recent factors, noted Minister Richards, have added to the heightened level of vulnerability of water supplies in the Caribbean region: the effects of COVID-19 on the paucity of clean water for sanitation, and the destructive nature of tropical hurricanes, such as the 2019 Hurricane DORIAN, inflicting further contamination on the groundwater supplies.
Addressing the measures adopted by the Government of St. Kitts and Nevis, Minister Richards noted that drought conditions have “caused many of our residents to develop a sharp awareness of the challenges to our water resources. My government’s investment of $1 million in system improvements to create new wells, re-commission old ones, and install pipelines to increase the supply of water to the communities – is only part of the solution”.
Underlining that practically all the SIDS consistently faced the same challenge in ensuring access to good quality groundwater, Minister Richards called on the international specialised agencies, including the UN family, NGOs and transboundary water research bodies, to recognise the urgent need to identify priorities for action at the highest political level, building on existing partnerships. “We increasingly look to our traditional expert partners, UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme (IHP), and other specialised UN agencies and non-UN organisations to provide technical guidance and leading-edge IT-driven solutions”.
He also urged UNESCO-IHP, and the other water-related multilateral organisations and NGOs, to support the Caribbean governments in integrating watershed and aquifer management, which incorporates the social dimension of water resources and promotes and develops international research in hydrological and freshwater sciences.
“A primary objective of these interventions is to support the Caribbean, Pacific and Indian Ocean SIDS to strengthen their scientific, technical and policy capacities to manage human health and environmental risks caused by emerging pollutants in water and waste-water by improving water quality and waste-water management and promoting safe reuse of waste-water, ultimately contributing to enhance water and food security”.
In his concluding statement, Minister Shawn Richards drew to the international community’s attention the need to review how small islands manage food production, groundwater supply and their fragile ecosystems. He believes that these critical elements tended to be viewed in somewhat isolation when addressing vulnerabilities. “All three are in fact complex, intertwined factors, and need to be addressed with interconnected policy instruments and not in a silo fashion”. This is an area where small islands across the world need UN-led expertise, covering water, food and agriculture production and protection of the biodiversity and ecosystems”
Minister Richards stated that the Government of St. Kitts and Nevis stands ready to act as a catalyst in developing a platform to enable this dialogue to materialize.
Commented Dr David P. Doyle, Ambassador of St. Kitts & Nevis to UNESCO, who facilitated Minister Richards’ intervention: “Genuinely proud to have secured an opportunity for the Minister responsible for water to address this UN water event. St. Kitts and Nevis seeks every occasion at international fora to enable the ministers to articulate the specific groundwater challenges, faced not only in the Federation but also in the small islands worldwide. I commend the St. Kitts & Nevis National Commission for UNESCO and the Water Resources Department, for their assistance”