24 Aug 2017 Story Ecosystems

The human right to water extends to ecosystems

Healthy ecosystems, rich biodiversity and appropriate legal frameworks are essential for helping us preserve precious freshwater in a sustainable way.

Access to water and sanitation have long been enshrined as human rights. But a new UN report on progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene shows that nearly 30 per cent of people still lack safe drinking water, while more than 60 per cent live without safely managed sanitation.

The provision of water for human use is complex; ultimately, however, water is a natural renewable resource and does not come from a tap or end at the toilet: the sources of our water become the recipients of our wastewater.

New efforts are being made to safeguard and protect these water sources. A recent UN report  highlights the role of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment in enabling fundamental human rights – such as the rights to life, health, food and water. It acknowledges that the loss of key ecosystem services, such as drinking water and biodiversity, undermine those rights, for example by reducing agricultural and fisheries outputs, negatively affecting health, or removing natural filters in the water cycle.


Bauxite pollution, Jamaica, 2005 © UN Water

Protecting and restoring freshwater ecosystems such as lakes, rivers, wetlands and aquifers form a key part of UN Environment’s work. But adequate access to water and its productive uses also requires sound legal frameworks and good governance. Threats to water quality are of particular concern for the health and functioning of freshwater ecosystems, making water quality monitoring a key part of UN Environment’s work.

“Monitoring the quality of your water is like going to the doctor to check your vital signs,” says Lis Mullin Bernhardt from UN Environment’s Freshwater Ecosystems Unit. “If a person is not feeling well, you’ll go to the doctor to explain your symptoms and the doctor might measure your heart rate, blood pressure and temperature in order to make a diagnosis about the cause of your illness so it can be treated.


Waste in water, Timor-Leste, 2008 © UN Water

“We’re seeing all sorts of symptoms of `unhealthy’ freshwater ecosystems all around us: it might be an increase in water-borne illnesses in the populations around a lake, or a decrease in bird counts, or an increase in algal blooms. The first thing a country needs to know in order to manage and restore that ecosystem and prevent pollution is what’s in the water: if it’s nitrogen or phosphorus, bacteria or chemicals – you can get a better sense of where it’s coming from and how to reduce that pollution.”

Protecting human rights with science

Through the Global Environment Monitoring System for freshwater (GEMS/Water), UN Environment supports countries in assessing water quality by providing capacity-building and publishing water quality data analyses in order to support scientific assessments and decision-making. Surface and ground water quality monitoring data are shared through the GEMStat information system, hosted by the Federal Institute of Hydrology in Koblenz, Germany.

GEMS/Water also conducts training on freshwater monitoring to empower countries to deliver authoritative and reliable data; and supports the Sustainable Development Goal for Water and Sanitation (SDG 6) with data management, quality assurance, indicator calculation and capacity development.


Water for domestic use being taken from Kenya's Lake Naivasha, 2017 © Elisabeth Mullin Bernhardt

Through the Global Wastewater Initiative , a multi-stakeholder platform, UN Environment and partners are working to raise awareness of the importance of pollution prevention and controls at source as key to reducing the discharge of untreated wastewater into water bodies.

UN Environment’s Freshwater Ecosystems Unit works to measure and value freshwater ecosystem services, as well as monitor and protect significant freshwater bodies in countries through its role in the water-related Sustainable Development Goals.

These and other UN Environment initiatives are underpinned by UN Environment’s five-year Freshwater Strategy, which guides the organization in its efforts to protect and restore freshwater ecosystems and their services. Priorities include promoting integrated water resources management, mitigating the impacts of water-related disasters and conflict, and addressing water pollution and water quality.

UN Environment will share information about its work at this year’s Stockholm World Water Week, the annual focal point for global water issues. The theme for the Week (28 August – 2 September) is “Water and waste: Reduce and reuse”. It will be an opportunity to brainstorm on practical solutions.

A polluted corner of Kenya's Lake Naivasha, 2017 © Elisabeth Mullin Bernhardt

For more information on the work UN Environment is doing on water quality, freshwater ecosystem health, wastewater and water pollution: www.unep.org/ecosystems/freshwater

Contact: Lis Mullin Bernhardt Elisabeth[dot]bernhardt[at]unep[dot]org