UNESCO taking a bottom-up approach to water management

Global water use is projected to grow by 1% per year over the next 30 years, driven by demographic growth and rising living standards. The challenge will be to meet ‘these growing needs without exhausting, polluting, or confiscating water resources’, stated UNESCO’s Director General, Audrey Azoulay at the Ninth World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal in March. ‘Humanity's security is at stake’, she warned, ‘especially in this period of accelerating climate change’.

Girl child an dwater

For UNESCO, meeting these growing needs in a sustainable manner will entail adopting a bottom-up approach which blends education about water from the earliest age to the involvement of local communities and young local water experts.

Water stress a widespread problem

Approximately 400 million people in sub-Saharan Africa currently lack access to clean drinking water, according to the 2022 edition of the World Water Development Report, which was produced by UNESCO’s World Water Assessment Programme on behalf of UN-Water and launched by the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, in Dakar last March.

One in three Africans faces water scarcity and, according to the 2018 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, water stress will affect an estimated 600 million Africans by 2025.

However, water stress is not confined to Africa or the Arab States. It is also being felt in parts of the Mediterranean basin, Asia, Europe and the Americas. This has led more countries to look beneath their feet for the solution to their growing water needs. The Asia and Pacific region currently tops the charts for the rate of groundwater extraction, followed by Europe and North America and the Arab region. Latin America, which remains water-rich, is lagging behind, as are the Caribbean and Africa.

The theme of this year’s World Water Forum – Water Security for Peace and Development – reflects a situation whereby global water needs are rising rapidly, even as global freshwater availability is becoming more unreliable on account of human population growth, climate change and poor resource management.

Education is key to improving water management and governance

Abou Amani is convinced that the solution to this conundrum lies in making everyone responsible for water, irrespective of their age. For the Director of UNESCO’s Water Division, who is also Secretary of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme, one of the key tools for improving water management and governance is education, beginning at primary school.

water management should be everyone’s concern. We need to educate people at all levels because it is not just about technical know-how but also about changing mentalities. This change in attitudes towards water must occur at all levels and should start from the earliest age.
Abou Amani Director, Division of Water Sciences and Secretary, Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme (IHP) of UNESCO
IHP Secretary educating children on water

Abou Amani explains to a group of schoolchildren why it is so important to take good care of water, at the UNESCO pavilion during the World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal, in March 2022

Abou Amani explains to a group of schoolchildren why it is so important to take good care of water, at the UNESCO pavilion during the World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal, in March 2022

Local communities are part of the solution

That is why UNESCO is not only supporting the introduction of water education in schools but also plans use its designated sites to involve local communities in this project. UNESCO co-ordinates a network of 90 biosphere reserves in 33 African countries, where the community is committed to engaging on a more sustainable development path.

One project has been working with local communities in the Chimanimani Biosphere Reserve in Zimbabwe in the aftermath of the devastation caused by Cyclone Idai in 2019 to identify risks to their water security from flooding, cyclones and other water-related disasters and design adaptation pathways in tune with local needs.

Dr Axel Laurel Tcheheumeni Djanni, a young water expert from Cameroon and lecturer at the Cheick Anta Diop University of Senegal, agrees with using education to increase the participation of communities in water governance and management. He also thinks that groundwater education should be added to the curricular of schools and taught in communities.

I was once with some elders in the community’, he says, ‘who thought that whatever is thrown on land does not affect water underground, as the soil filters it. But this is not true. We had to demonstrate this fact using an aquifer we had made with a fish tank. Groundwater care is not something that is very well known here in Senegal and even across the world. That is why the topic of this year’s World Water Development Report on Groundwater – making the invisible visible – has such resonance.
Dr Axel Laurel Tcheheumeni Djanni Young water expert and lecturer at the Cheick Anta Diop University of Senegal

The report states that ‘educating the young and ensuring that their voices are heard are for vital the future success of groundwater management globally’. It goes on to say that ‘well-resourced groundwater science and education programmes are needed to train managers and governance and policy must create the enabling environment for management’.

For Dr Tcheheumeni, adopting a bottom-up approach to water management and governance will go a long way towards solving the growing water crisis, especially in Africa. Such a system, he says, will allow communities to suggest steps for tackling the water issues in their communities which are tailored to the needs of their people and their geographical location. The young water expert believes that, even with this bottom-up approach, education should be used to empower indigenous people and that this education should be gender-balanced and tailored to the realities and linguistic needs of the communities.


Axel Tcheheumeni discusses groundwater management with the media at the UNESCO pavilion during the World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal, in March 2022.

Axel Tcheheumeni discusses groundwater management with the media at the UNESCO pavilion during the World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal, in March 2022.

The voices of local young water experts must be heard

‘What was missing from the World Water Forum this year were the voices of local young water experts’ observes Dr Tcheheumeni. ‘We were a bit sidelined in this event. Lots of young water experts from Senegal and across the region were not actually able to make their voices heard. The intergenerational aspect of water governance should always be considered. The advantage of having young voices heard more is that they are the future water managers and have the flexibility to use data available from the past and to add to that of the present and future, to better manage this shared resource that is water’.

For him, giving a voice to young people does not end with giving a voice to international youth networks but also means extending the same privileges to young people from indigenous groups and communities, especially in Africa.

UNESCO sees it as a priority to train more water professionals in Africa, in order for the continent to be able to ensure its own water security.  That is why the Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme is in the process of developing a water education indicator to make it easier for countries to assess and monitor the critical mass of their water professionals.

The rapid pace of global climate change is inciting the world’s leaders to seek lasting solutions to protect a resource which nurtures all life and underpins agriculture and industry. In the coming months, UNESCO will be conveying the need for a bottom-up approach to water management to major United Nations conferences, beginning with the Groundwater Summit in December this year, then at the UN Water Conference in March 2023, which will be undertaking a mid-term review of progress in implementing the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development.