How UNESCO’s multifaceted approach in East Africa promotes  the many values of water

Understanding and protecting the many values of water is one of the most pressing challenges in sustainable water management. In East Africa, projects by the UN agency for education, science and culture, UNESCO, demonstrate how diverse needs require a multifaceted approach.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is an agency within the UN that promotes international cooperation in education, the sciences, and culture. Their work is global, spanning 193 member states. In East Africa, the organisation’s water management initiatives offer real-life examples of the Valuing Water Initiative’s guiding principles, tailored to local economic, social, and environmental challenges.

Why water?

Water is central to the work of the UN – and of UNESCO. In 2015, the UN launched its sustainable development goals – 17 goals established as a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”. The sixth goal is to “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. It’s a timely sentiment. 

The UNESCO 2021 Nations World Water Development Report highlighted just how fragile our water systems are: more than 3 billion people lack access to hand hygiene facilities, 80% of all industrial wastewater is released into the environment, and around half of all malnutrition is caused by a lack of water, sanitation and hygiene.

How is UNESCO working to combat some of these ongoing challenges in East Africa, a region made up of nations with diverse needs and water challenges?

Natural defences can protect against flooding in Rwanda

UNESCO is supporting a number of water management projects across Rwanda. One example is the ‘Nature-based flood adaptation measures project’, in the city of Kigali. The project is being implemented in the area by The Rwanda Young Water Professionals, an organisation that brings together water professionals and students to advance water management initiatives.

The project aims to use nature-based solutions to control floods that affect the region. Flooding contributes to poverty through damage to homes, businesses, and crops. Natural flood defences include reforestation, permeable paving, and creating river buffer zoning to reduce development in vulnerable areas. This initiative echoes the five principles which guide the work of the Valuing Water Initiative (VWI): key among them is the need to protect water sources including rivers, watersheds and associated ecosystems.

In Kenya, education is the key to long term good management

Another key principle guiding the Valuing Water Initiative is the importance of education in empowering future generations, enabling broader participation and driving sustainable practices in water management.

UNESCO has developed education projects which help communities secure sustainable water sources for themselves. In Kenya, the Water Security for Turkana (WATSECT) project has three overarching goals:

  • Provide access to safe, reliable water facilities
  • Establish experts and community leaders trained in water management
  • Installation of eco-friendly systems for lighting and water pumping

The second aspect of the project has been vital: not only can newly trained and community experts ensure the ongoing, efficient running of pumping systems, they can aso train others and inform their communities on the value of water.

Innovation for conservation

Using cutting edge science and technology will be essential to mitigate the impacts of climate change and human exploitation of water systems. VWI’s fifth principle identifies the need to “ensure adequate investment in institutions, infrastructure, information and innovation”.

UNESCO have also acknowledged this need. With support and funding from the Japanese government, the Strengthening Disaster Prevention Approaches in Eastern Africa (STEDPEA) project aims to protect vulnerable communities from the effects of natural disasters through technology. This means flooding from  cyclones, or drought like that in the Greater Horn of Africa which has had huge, negative impacts on life and the economy.

The STEDPEA goals are to combine citizen science with AI with the goal of reducing disaster risk. The project will develop pilot mobile apps that enable information sharing on disasters or disaster risk, that communities can use to connect and mobilise during and after disasters. The data collected can also be used by experts to build models of risk, and by policy makers to inform decisions about infrastructure and protection investment.

Collaboration is essential in facing complex challenges

Working across a region as vast and varied as East Africa presents a number of challenges – different communities value water differently, different water management issues occur in different regions. By working collaboratively across East African nations, and with wider UN member states, UNESCO has been able to establish a number of ongoing projects that could protect water systems while respecting the multifaceted needs of the relevant nations and their citizens.

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