In 1977, delegates from 118 countries and territories, together with intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations, gathered in Mar del Plata in Argentina to discuss "how to avoid a water crisis at the end of the century". Water was once again centre stage 22-24 March in New York at the 2023 UN Water Conference, where more than 2,000 participants came together to discuss how to generate action and partnerships to make water an engine for sustainable development and increase global cooperation and inclusive, efficient and effective multilateralism to combat global water challenges.
Water is vital to peace, social cohesion, food security, livelihoods, health, energy, climate resilience and more, impacting most aspects of our lives. Water stress, often due to growing competition and high demand for water resources in combination with weak governance, is increasing worldwide. It has been more than 40 years since the last UN Water Conference in Mar del Plata, and we are living in a world where the climate crisis poses an increasingly large threat to global stability and sustainability. By accelerating progress and increasing ambition, water can be a central driver to achieve the SDGs and additional global agendas like the Paris Agreement.
What has changed since Mar del Plata?
In addition to government representatives, intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations, academic institutions, the scientific community, the private sector and philanthropic organisations were in attendance in New York to ensure solutions are context-specific and meet the needs of the most affected and vulnerable communities. This longer list of participants, which includes youth, indigenous people and women, signals the willingness of the UN to open up its processes to a broader and more diverse set of voices and perspectives.
How did we get here?
Back in 1977, in line with the green revolution that was taking place at that time, water was still understood in the context of agricultural and food production. The key problem to address in that very first UN Water Conference was how to improve food and crop yields, and delegates settled for, among other things, boosting technical cooperation among developing countries and investing in institutional and financial arrangements for international cooperation in the water sector. Climate action was not even on the agenda yet.
Fast forward to 1992, water entered the landmark Agenda 21, which was adopted at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio and recognised "the role of water as a social, economic and life-sustaining good", and to further "be reflected in demand management mechanisms and implemented through water conservation and reuse, resource assessment and financial instruments".
Around the same time, discussions around the need to recognise water as a human right also started, culminating in a 2010 UN General Assembly resolution formally recognising the right to water and sanitation and acknowledging them as essential prerequisites for the realisation of other human rights.
Where does the water agenda stand today?
Meanwhile, it has also become clear that whichever water-related problem we are trying to address—be it ensuring that enough water is available to sustain a growing population, preserving healthy environments and people or using water resources for clean energy production—we will need to come to grips with climate change. The science is clear: the global climate change crisis is increasing variability in the water cycle, thus reducing the predictability of water availability and demand, exacerbating water scarcity and threatening sustainable development. These impacts will vary highly across regions, and will disproportionately affect poor and vulnerable communities. When compounded by contributing factors, such as population growth, land-use change, reduced soil health, accelerated groundwater extraction, widespread ecological degradation and biodiversity loss, these impacts can have severe implications in terms of human security.
Approximately 90% of climate impacts are related to water. In other words, there cannot be climate action without water action. And this acknowledgement is probably the biggest factor that differentiated this year’s UN Water Conference from its predecessors. It can be a "once in a generation opportunity" to galvanise action to address the interlinked challenges of climate change and water to achieve sustainable development. But how?
6 priorities going forward:
- Encourage cooperation around transboundary water resources while taking into account the impacts of climate change through tools like water and climate diplomacy to leverage foreign policy to address not only water- and climate-related risks, but also their impacts on peace and stability;
- Amplify the voices of those already most affected and ensure involvement of civil society, youth and vulnerable groups goes beyond representation in formal processes and includes consultation, decision-making and governance;
- Support locally-informed integrated analysis to understand how climate risks compound existing, and create new, challenges to human security through water. Analysis should consider gender-disaggregated available data and projections and the lived experiences of those at the forefront of these challenges;
- Build on community ingenuity and expertise by prioritising action around local analysis of water- and climate-related challenges and solutions and mobilise collective action and collaboration though centralising and sharing data and research methods;
- Unite water policies with global food systems policies to ensure comprehensive climate action, enable food security and increase resilience to water insecurity among vulnerable communities;
- Align and scale up investments in water security and climate action through integrated finance mechanisms. These mechanisms should focus on and address the needs of fragile and crisis-affected countries, in order to ensure water and climate investments have peace dividends.
New York has shown just how much the water community has grown since Mar del Plata in 1977, incorporating important voices of indigenous people, youth and civil society, and being able to connect the linkages to climate action. However, more progress is still needed in terms of continuing to foster even more inclusion—and not just tokenistic inclusion. More experts and communities at the frontlines of the water crisis who are already coming up with solutions need greater representation and meaningful participation. There need to be greater organisational efforts to ensure financial barriers and visa issues do not hinder opportunities to identify policies and financing mechanisms that are able to incorporate and build upon existing solutions from those most impacted.
Going forward, we need even more integration of water and climate action. In 2022, Egypt furthered progress by dedicating a thematic day to water during COP27. This year, it will be key that the actions and pledges made in New York as part of the Water Action Agenda are reflected in the global stocktake that will place at COP28 in the UAE. In order to course correct and get back on track, water will need to be a central driver to get us there.