Shaori Lake in Georgia. Photo: Vladimir Valishvili / UNDP

My grandma was a geologist. One of the old-school ones, roving wild mountains to explore natural resources. When I was young, she would take me on her exciting trips and teach me things that proved useful in my adult life. My grandma often said, “Never be disrespectful to water. It’s a great power and you want it on your side.” I knew it was a fairy-tale talk but somehow it stuck in my mind.

Georgian geologist Tatiana Tvalchrelidze. Source: Family archive

Years later, that fairy-tale geology world has vanished. Now no one climbs wild mountains in search of new natural treasures. Instead, we are desperately trying to preserve what is left to stop the disastrous losses from climate change and mismanagement by humans.

Great powers, like water, turned out to be fragile eco-systems so easy to damage and so hard to restore. Was my grandma’s warning right? Did we lose respect for this precious resource?

In Central Asia, we’ve lost the Aral Sea, a source of life and jobs for thousands of people living on its shores. Decades of giant but unsustainable irrigation projects and uncompromising water policies turned the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake into a desert.

Over the last 50 years, the Aral Sea has lost 60,000 km2 or 90 percent of its size, and 50 percent of its flora and fauna. The region now lacks safe drinking water, cancer and TB rates are 50 percent higher than in other areas, and toxic salts are spreading around as far as northern Europe and the Antarctic.

Sadly, the Aral Sea is not coming back. Its crisis is deeper and more irreversible than the one of Lake Prespa in the Balkans, where UNDP has mobilized international support and helped countries work together to heal a degrading eco-system and open new opportunities for people and economies. 

The dry seabed of the Aral Sea. Photo: Zhanat Aitkhozhin / UNDP

In the Aral Sea’s case, there has been a small restoration success in Kazakhstan but the focus for UNDP there and in Uzbekistan has shifted more towards helping to green the dry seabed with saxaul trees to breath some life back into the ghost sea region, improve the eco-system and assist local communities to start their lives anew.  

Meanwhile, in Azerbaijan and Georgia, we keep misusing the Kura/Mtkvari River, the largest transboundary water resource which feeds agriculture and sustains the eco-systems. Climate forecasts predict warmer and drier weather to spread and water resources to become increasingly scarce. What now are the blooming agriculture regions of these two countries might become the drylands with abandoned villages.

Fortunately, the Kura/Mtkvari water crisis is still an alarming possibility rather than certainty. UNDP is working with both governments and local communities to help adopt sustainable water management policies, promote sustainable farming and reduce excess withdrawals of ground and surface water.

The Aral Sea and Kura/Mtkvari River are two examples, though different by their nature and intensity, that draw a rather clear picture of what will or may happen when the water disappears.

Water scarcity already affects more than 40 percent of people in the world, an alarming figure that is projected to rise as temperatures do. But, climate change is not the only reason for the lack of clean water around the world. Mismanagement and ageing, neglected water systems can contribute as much to the problem, even in countries with abundant water resources.

Newly drawn borders can separate communities from their original water sources, leading to increasing conflicts of natural resources. Across our region, old water systems have fallen into disrepair, modern treatment centres don’t yet exist and there is a lack of necessary infrastructure to reach all citizens. 

A school cook gathers water from a nearby aryk in Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Jodi Hilton / UNDP
A man collects water from an artesian well in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Photo: H. Čalkić / UNDP
Children wash their hands at the school in Uzbekistan. Photo: Sherzod Alimov / UNDP

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, 42 percent of the population still lacked regular access to quality drinking water in 2018. Municipalities and water supply companies could barely sustain the services they offered in the former Yugoslavia when the entire system was subsidised by the national government.

The lack of clean water affects more than just personal consumption. At some local schools in rural areas of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, no running water meant no bathrooms and nowhere for kids to drink or wash their hands, contributing to major health issues and drops in attendance.

UNDP is working with governments and municipalities in all these countries to improve the quality and availability of water supplies.

What survives climate change might be lost for mere neglect, as we overlook just how important clean water is for the future of our world.

The lessons are clear and simple. We must use all our resources, knowledge and expertise to prevent water disasters from happening and preserve the priceless water supplies we already have. Because, if the worst comes to the worst, the best we can do is to reinvent life after a crisis.  

As my grandma would have said, let us respect water because we badly need to have this marvellous and fragile power on our side.

* * * 

When this blog was written, Sophie Tchitchinadze served as communications analyst in the UNDP Regional Hub.  

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