World Water Day: Climate disasters remind us that water access is far from being a given, for both North and South

While states are meeting this week at the UN headquarters in New York to discuss the challenges related to water, civil society organizations are raising the alarm about the unprecedented level of humanitarian needs in terms of access to water, hygiene and sanitation (WASH).

On the occasion of World Water Day, Timothée LE GUELLEC, WASH Advisor at Première Urgence Internationale, reminds what are the main actions on which the international community must act.

Water tower destroyed after the earthquake of February 2023, Hama – © Première Urgence Internationale

The states will meet for three days in New York for the UN Water Conference, what can we expect from this meeting?

Timothée LE GUELLEC (T.L.G.) – The last conference of this type dates back to 1977, so it is historic and above all decisive. Let us remember that 25% of the world’s population still does not have access to drinking water and that one person in three does not have access to toilets[1].

Today, climate disasters are multiplying and remind us that water access is not a given in the North or the South. This climate crisis is closely linked to water: it adds complexity to fragile contexts where water is sometimes a source of conflict, sometimes used as a weapon of war.

In these same areas, epidemics are emerging, some of which were forgotten. In 2022, more than 14 countries have seen cholera epidemics emerge or re-emerge. An average of 100,000 people die each year from the disease[2].

The issue of water is a challenge for everyone today, and even more for nearly a quarter of the population living in so-called fragile zones where Premiere Urgence Internationale intervenes.

Some contexts combine several crisis factors that make the humanitarian response all the more complex because of the need for both short and long-term actions on water and sanitation…

T.L.G.: The recent earthquake in Türkyie and Syria is an example. Syria combines a multitude of crises linked to a complex conflict that has entered its 13th year, an economy in free fall, the impact of climate change with two years of consecutive droughts, and trans-border water management that is far from simple.

Finally, cholera also reappeared in 2022 in this region, and the consequences of the earthquake only made the situation worse. Several water networks have been destroyed or heavily damaged, and this has a direct impact on access to clean water for consumption.

In this type of context, Premiere Urgence Internationale favours a global response with several areas of expertise, including the implementation of water access programmes. This is done in order to meet the most basic needs such as drinking, food, shelter, but also health care and to limit the risks for the population in the face of the epidemic scourge.

In the water sector, our Syrian team of around 70 engineers and technicians is responding to the emergency, trucking water to key points and installing prefabricated toilets.

At the same time, they assess the extent of material damage and undertake rehabilitation work: water purification units, water towers and networks, sewage networks, water treatment plants and irrigation networks.

Beyond the rehabilitation phase, we also develop resilience and disaster risk reduction programmes. This includes training and awareness raising through new technologies.

In the governorate of Hama, for example, Première Urgence Internationale rehabilitated two wastewater treatment plants this year, which treat the water of millions of people, knowing that the water is then reused for irrigation. The malfunction of these systems is one of the main causes of the spread of cholera.

Premiere Urgence Internationale therefore works with Syrian populations on multiple issues related to water access, as it is the case in most of our interventions around the world.


Wastewater treatment plant in Salamīyah, Hama – © Première Urgence Internationale

What message would you like to address to decision-makers at the Water Conference?

Premiere Urgence Internationale joins 33 other humanitarian organizations in urging governments to adopt our roadmap proposal and commit to concrete measures.

The roadmap includes the following:

  • Focusing in priority on people living in fragile, conflict and violent environments,
  • Increasing support to humanitarian responses for water, sanitation and hygiene and strengthening the coordination of humanitarian actors in this sector,
  • Build sustainable and resilient WASH services that can withstand crises,
  • Actively promote the effective implementation of International Humanitarian Law obligations,
  • Support the request to the UN Secretary-General to promptly appoint a UN Special Envoy for Water

You can read the complete roadmap here.


[1] OMS/UNICEF, 2021


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