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Nature and water for people: UNESCO’s ecohydrology approach for a new water culture at the United Nations General Assembly

06 - Clean Water and Sanitation
15 - Life on Land

The lifeline linking people, nature and water was explored during the United Nation’s Nature for Life Hub on 24 September 2020. Organized during the United Nations General Assembly, the Hub reflects the essential systemic transformations we must see if we are to bend the curve on nature loss. UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay participated in the conversation to share some of the nature-based solutions offered by UNESCO to ensure access to water for all.

The hydrological cycle teaches us that water is finite. Water melts, evaporates, condensates and circulates – but it is not created. Human demand for water, however, is far from finite. As COVID-19 has spread across the globe, this paradox – of finite resources and growing demand – has been brought into sharp relief.

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General

Nature plays a fundamental role in ensuring that the world’s 7.6 billion people have enough water to drink, grow food and maintain sanitary conditions. Yet we are facing a global water crisis, with 1 out of 3 people living without safe drinking water. By 2050, up to 5.7 billion people could be facing some level of water scarcity, which will inevitably have an adverse impact on the enjoyment of human rights.

The 2018 World Water Development Report* demonstrated that working with nature improves the management of water resources, helps achieve water security for all, and supports the core aspects of sustainable development. Healthy natural ecosystems play an essential role to increase water quality and availability, and reduce risks associated with climate change, such as floods and droughts. Using Nature-based solutions (NBS), which use or mimic natural processes, for water management is effective and helps to reduce costs.

UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme has been applying nature-based ecohydrological solutions for over 20 years. Twenty-six demonstration sites in 19 countries around the world support their development, in close collaboration with the local communities to ensure their sustainability.

In Ethiopia, for instance, the Burkitu reservoir was restored using ecohydrological solutions. As a result, this reservoir, which had been polluted by intensive agriculture, is now an alternative source of drinking water for the city of Asella.

Ecohydrology can also be used to protect water-related heritage. In Ecuador, an ecohydrological approach to the ancestral water system of Los Paltas helped supply water to the city of Catacocha, located in UNESCO’s Bosques de Paz Biosphere Reserve. Local wetlands were restored, and small dykes were built to capture and retain rainwater. This project also led to the discovery of rock carvings, showing the close ties between humans and water.

Our interactions with water have shaped human history, enabling diverse cultures to evolve in phase with their environments.

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General

We have the solutions we need to restore the relationship between people and their environment, to maintain the lifeline. It is up to us to use them to create a new water culture and build the future we want.




*United Nations World Water Development Report 2018: Nature-based Solutions, published by UNESCO on behalf of the UN-Water family.