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Water as Human Right in the HKH and Beyond

Water is always a central concern for us here at ICIMOD, and I’d like to share with you three recent opportunities we had to focus on its importance: through a first of its kind training in Afghanistan on mapping and monitoring glaciers, through the celebration of World Water Day on 22 March, and through the Human Right to Water Declaration signed in Rome by Pope Francis and water experts from around the world. I was pleased to represent ICIMOD as a signatory to that statement.

David James Molden

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The declaration focused on the right to safe drinking water, which Pope Francis insists should be treated as a basic human right. The declaration states, “Throughout the world, the lack of access to safe water and the pollution of water sources seriously and increasingly affects quality of life, particularly women, the poorest, and the most vulnerable.” In the declaration, the signatories say, “We call for the implementation of an integral ecology, incorporating environmental, economic, social and cultural dimensions, for fostering a culture of encounter, which acknowledges the human right to water and sanitation. Science, culture, politics and technology all have a part to play in achieving societies of justice, solidarity and equality, committed to the care for our common home.”

In the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) where ICIMOD works, ten major rivers descend from the mountains to the plains of South Asia, a hydrological network of immense complexity and immense importance to well over one billion people. Developing this resource sustainably is fundamental to the kind of ecology envisioned by Pope Francis and fundamental to building healthy and more resilient lives.
Water starts in the HKH on mountain tops in the form of snow and glaciers that release billions of liters of water each year that flow downhill, providing material for livelihoods and ecosystem services to downstream communities throughout all of South Asia.

In Afghanistan, we recently hosted a training to help colleagues develop skills in using remote sensing and geographic information systems for mapping and monitoring glaciers. These skills will improve their capacity to understand the mountains as water towers and the impacts of climate change on these resources. As a result, they will be able to plan climate change adaptation strategies accordingly.

If we imagine a single drop of water that starts in the Himalaya and travels downstream through rivers and springs, we discover a story that’s complex and meaningful, and brings every one of us together in a relationship that asks us to think more carefully about how we use and conserve our water.

In the hills of the HKH, families rely heavily on springs to furnish water. They carry water from spring-fed taps, sometimes kilometers away, to their homes for cooking, bathing, and cleaning. Some families worship at the riverside: the water plays an important role in their cultural practices. Streams at this level are diverted in places for irrigation, the water flowing through hand-hewn channels to produce much-needed crops for the household and local markets. In some areas, hydropower dams hold water back to generate electricity, impeding the flow of rivers to produce vital energy that helps make lives less onerous and more productive.

These are among the many benefits people living upstream draw from Himalayan rivers and water. These same communities also bear an important responsibility to care for this water and to keep the water clean and safe for the people living downstream in the hills, plains and beyond. In the downstream plains, cities are larger and the need for clean water more intense. Poor water management upstream can diminish the quality of life of those downstream.
But this responsibility for water is not one way. Downstream communities also have a responsibility to the upstream communities to share benefits and resources with hill and mountain families to help strengthen their lives.

So, how do we manage this challenge in our mountain region? Well, it won’t be easy, but solutions are available. First we have to understand that water is used, and reused, and we need to provide opportunities to get the best out of each drop of water. Echoing the key message of this year’s World Water Day, we need to avoid at all costs the pollution of waterways. If our activities alter water quality, say, by city use, we need to treat polluted water at the source and manage our water in such a way that the pollution does not re-enter the environment. We need to continue educating stakeholders about the complex network and dynamics of our hydro-scape and relations between upstream and downstream users. And we need to continue innovating technologies that can improve mountain people’s access to water in a way that optimizes the use and quality of that water.

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