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Water stress and inequality – why foreign policy must be more inclusive

Water tap and soap

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as Global Goals, are indicative of not only what the international community should be aiming at to achieve peace and prosperity, but also “global partnership” that is required to accomplish the 17 goals enshrined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Among them, SDG 6 – clean water and sanitation – is perhaps one of the most critical goals that the United Nations (UN) has recognised as a priority through its initiatives such as the World Water Day campaign 2019 on Leaving No One Behind.

Very often, the marginalised and vulnerable communities are left out of the decision-making processes and mechanisms, as well as are unable to secure safe and sustainable access to clean water and dignified sanitation. Foreign policy should play a constructive role in ensuring that no one is left behind when these transitions take place, especially in conflict-affected areas.

Linking SDG 6 to foreign policy

A Foreign Policy Perspective on the SDGs, a paper published by adelphi, provides concrete interlinkages between water and foreign policy. Apart from transboundary water issues that feature among several countries’ foreign policy agenda, mainly in the form of cooperation, one needs to emphasise the impact of the lack of access to water and sanitation on socio-economic development, demographic dynamics, sustainability and peace. This paper highlights the significance of “water diplomacy” in supporting “sustainable and equitable water use”, especially in the context of reducing “the causes of migration”.

At the same time, through foreign policy, countries could collectively work towards “finding and implementing workable solutions.” The First World Summit on Leaving No One Behind (LNOB), held in Geneva, sought to bring together governance leaders, experts and funding agencies. In this context, integration of concerns such as water and sanitation into humanitarian aid, development cooperation, investment and other forms of financing or funding; as well as knowledge creation and sharing in these sectors, should become a priority in any country’s foreign policy agenda. 

Leaving No One Behind

The First Summit on LNOB focussed on human rights-based water governance, innovative technology and economic feasibility, drawing together diverse, representative and original ideas on providing water, sanitation and hygiene in settings that are remote, marginalised, inaccessible and underprivileged. Themes, including women, refugees and migrants, indigenous peoples, children and youth, and rural areas were discussed.

It is an acknowledged fact that “the contours of failure of access to clean water and dignified sanitation match the contours of discrimination faced by marginal communities,” as observed by Kate Gilmore, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights at the summit. Therefore, there is a need to develop policies that break the silo approach and integrate justice into different aspects of governance related to water and sanitation.

At the same time, one needs to go beyond portrayal of the above-mentioned groups as “victims” and operationalise their role in decision-making in a more meaningful manner. This was explored, analysed and described through various case studies from countries of Asia, Latin America, Africa and others.

This summit is an important step towards raising awareness about the importance of implementing the SDGs in a just and equitable manner. Most often, technology and innovation are not geared towards addressing these concerns. What’s more, traditional knowledge and technologies that fulfil the conditions of sustainability, economic feasibility and stakeholder participation must be valued.  

Can foreign policy be more inclusive?

SDG 6 is increasingly gaining traction in foreign policy and diplomatic discourses, as multilateralism is the key to achieving this goal. Without taking into consideration the geopolitics and geoeconomics of water, there is no solution to escalating water stress as well as inequity in the distribution of this resource.

For instance, virtual water – “the amount of water required to produce a product, from start to finish and is a mainly neglected and hidden component of production” – is at the core of international trade, and by extension, foreign policy, and despite the enormity of the problem, very little has been done to address it, leaving water-scarce countries (and communities) even more vulnerable.

And on the other hand, steps in the direction of making foreign policy more inclusive could pave the way for representation of various voices in the decision-making process, thereby ensuring that the most affected communities have a say in how their rights are secured.

Foreign policy has traditionally been a state-centric platform, with little or no room for non-state or private actors, which continues to be so in the majority of countries. In a highly interconnected world, the ‘local’ cannot be disconnected from the ‘international’. Therefore, the pool of necessary partners in foreign policy has enlarged significantly. SDGs provide an opportunity to not only integrate these goals into foreign policy, but also transform foreign policy into a much more inclusive process.


Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Political, Historical and International Studies hosted by the University of Lausanne, Switzerland; Co-Coordinator at the  Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka, India.

[The views expressed in this article are personal.]