Water’s global agenda: where do we go from here?

The much-anticipated 2023 United Nations Water Conference was an historic event. But did it deliver what the sector had hoped for or needed? By Kala Vairavamoorthy. 

Held in New York on 22-24 March, the United Nations (UN) Water Conference was a milestone for the water sector. It was the first opportunity in a generation to bring the global water community together to focus on the water and sanitation crisis. Importantly, it also provided IWA with a great opportunity to attend, engage and increase our visibility as part of our work to help accelerate solutions. 

The UN has long been working to mobilise international efforts around water. The last UN Water Conference took place in Argentina in 1977. This was followed by the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade of 1981-1990, and then by the International Conference on Water and the Environment and the Earth Summit in 1992.  

Water has since featured strongly in the Millennium Development Goals, with greater prominence for sanitation added in the ensuing 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Unfortunately, it remains clear that more rapid progress is needed if the world is to meet the aims of the 2030 Agenda.  

To help accelerate action, the UN General Assembly declared 2018-2028 the International Decade for Action on ‘Water for Sustainable Development’. This was launched on World Water Day – 22 March – in 2018, with one of its key objectives being to ‘energise implementation of existing programmes and projects’. The Decade will end on World Water Day in 2028. 

New York, March 2023 

Known formally as the 2023 Conference for the Midterm Comprehensive Review of Implementation of the UN Decade for Action on Water and Sanitation (2018-2028), the much-anticipated conference brought together 7000 delegates from governments, NGOs, academia, multilateral agencies and the private sector from all over the world.  

Hosting plenaries and side events, the conference was the occasion for major statements in the UN’s main body – the General Assembly – covering a range of topics linking water and sanitation to health, food, nutrition, energy, and climate change. As its formal name suggests, the conference was meant to serve as a review of progress on achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Decade of Action. 

Among all of this, IWA was very active and secured an excellent presence. We ran and participated in side events, including that of the Danish government on partnerships, which continued the theme of the Summit at last year’s Congress. Our Young Water Professionals community enjoyed great visibility through the active participation provided by the IWA-Grundfos ‘Youth Action for SDG 6’ initiative. Also, three of our Board members attended the event. This all contributed to our brand being seen at the highest levels. 

The urgency around water 

The conference had to hand the latest global overviews of progress on water. It saw the launch of the latest UN World Water Development Report, with this edition subtitled ‘Partnerships and cooperation for water’. Also released was the ‘United Nations 2023 Water Conference Mid-term Review of the Water Action Decade: key messages from the United Nations Regional Commissions’. 

Assessing the global water picture, the World Water Development Report warned of the imminent risk of an international water crisis. Shortages are expected to worsen in the coming decades, especially in cities, unless cooperation improves, including around transboundary river basins and aquifers. Projections suggest that the global urban population facing water scarcity could rise from 930 million in 2016 to 1.7–2.4 billion people in 2050. It provided equally concerning updates on the human and economic costs of flood and drought, with growing environmental concern around the latter given that the world has already lost around 85% of its natural wetlands. 

The report provided the latest update on shortcomings regarding access. Globally, two billion people (26% of the population) still do not have access to safe drinking water and 3.6 billion (46%) lack access to safely managed sanitation. The great scale of the lack of access to water and sanitation in health care facilities is also highlighted. 

More positively, and reflecting the potential of the innovation seen in some of the least developed countries, the report also highlights the opportunities to strengthen South-South partnerships – and, indeed, South-North partnerships – between universities, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists to accelerate progress in water and sanitation delivery. 

In assessing progress on achieving SDG 6 targets by their 2030 deadline, the other UN report, the Mid-term Review, found that all regions of the world are facing serious challenges that are hindering progress. Despite concerted efforts, factors such as population growth, rapid urbanisation, climate change, COVID-19 and water scarcity were found to be stymying momentum to deliver safely managed water and sanitation services. 

Policy recommendations from the review include: a call to realise the full potential of the sanitation economy as outlined in the Africa Sanitation Guidelines; the establishment of a trust fund for the African Ministers’ Council on Water; and a platform for transboundary water to facilitate cooperation. Reflecting IWA’s own outlook, further recommendations include activities to engage young people with the aim of accelerating action on water, along with initiatives to foster women’s leadership and participation in decision-making. 

Both reports lay bare many needs, and there was a consensus in New York that the challenge of the global water crisis will only be met if international cooperation can be achieved. 

What did this mid-term review achieve? 

This all underlines that we are at a critical point in the drive to tackle the global water and sanitation crisis. But what, then, can we take away from this momentous and historic event in the international calendar?  

The variety of topics covered, and the diversity of the water actors present, was impressive. This great backdrop created an environment where ideas could be exchanged and lessons learned. This is just what is required to stimulate innovation and fast-track action.  

There was a great wealth of knowledge and ideas coming from the water sector, with water professionals demonstrating confidence that they have the tools to rise to the challenge of the global water crisis. Also apparently a success was the extent to which the event brought together representation from both the public and the private sectors, given that the energies and perspectives of each are needed if we are to seize the opportunities ahead.  

We saw, too, that the first UN freshwater conference in nearly 50 years resulted in around 700 commitments to water-related action that, together, form a voluntary Water Action Agenda. This is intended to accelerate progress in the second half of the Water Action Decade and the final years as we approach the 2030 SDG deadline. It is meant to be an active agenda, with further commitments added over the coming years. 

Other positive outcomes included calls for the collective mobilisation of international finance and investment in water, and support for the appointment of a UN Special Envoy on Water.  

Key discussions during the course of the conference spanned: the reinforcement of access to water as a fundamental human right; the reduction of pressures on hydrological systems; innovative, sustainable, water-wise systems for food production; and the implementation of a new global water information system to guide water plans and priorities by 2030. The tone focused on an integrated approach to water, ecosystems and climate, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen communities through resilient infrastructure and water and wastewater treatment plans.  

Attention was given to the need for better data collection – an area in which water’s digital revolution can surely play a part. Also covered were enhanced governance systems, capacity development opportunities, and funding gaps in the water sector. Discussions also included ambitions to protect the global population with early warning systems to alert people of natural disasters. 

Was this enough? 

Despite these positives, I have to conclude that the UN Water Conference did not deliver to its potential. 

Unlike other UN world conferences, which often take place across two weeks of activities, this conference took place over just three days. And far from being the much-anticipated second UN Water Conference, focusing on the full extent of the world’s water challenges, it fell short of expectations and was very limited in its ambitions.  

To live up to such a billing, this meeting should have truly engaged with a comprehensive review of the world’s water problems in both developed and developing countries, aimed at finding solutions to resolving the world’s water crisis in a timely, cost-effective, and socially and environmentally acceptable manner. 

The conference also failed to address the threats faced by the communities most impacted by the global water crisis. Of the approximately 7000 delegates who attended the conference, the private sector representatives from the global north were far better represented than those from the global south, many of whom were excluded because of visa constraints and financial barriers. The voice of the poorest, who are most impacted by the global water crisis, went largely unheard. Without grassroots knowledge and support, well intentioned plans to deliver safe water and sanitation can easily go awry. While it was good to see the private sector present to the extent it was, the event in its design did not make the most of the opportunity this presented. With the public and private sector gathered, there could have been useful dialogue and a critical look at the potential roles and contributions of different actors in supporting progress. 

Given that the conference was highlighting a global health and security crisis, it was disappointing that only a dozen or so world leaders attended, laying doubt as to the political will to tackle water and sanitation in a timely and meaningful way.  

Unfortunately, and somewhat absurdly, the event did not appear to make the most of the voluntary input to the ‘Water Action Agenda’. The process seemed to lack coherence and active curation. With no clear insight into how the agenda will be implemented and who will lead it, it lacks teeth and is far from the formal agreement on water hoped for by many. Of the voluntary commitments made, a sizable percentage were from NGOs, with just 26% from governments, 11% from multilateral organisations and 10% from the private sector. This leaves huge gaps in the Water Action Agenda.  

Also, although the appointment of a UN Special Envoy on Water was recommended, the conference ended without a champion and no direct call for a new system of engagement for all key sector agencies. I am far from a lone voice in raising such concerns. On 24 March, more than 100 water experts from research institutions and civil society groups across five continents wrote to the UN Secretary-General criticising the lack of “accountability, rigour and ambition” at the conference, concerned that the lack of scientific rigour and binding agreements would fail to deliver the resilient and sustainable water future urgently needed.  

How can IWA help? 

Among all of this, we can see growing global acceptance of the concepts and values that IWA works to progress. Here, in particular, I am thinking of the much-needed transition to a new approach to water management built on productive and circular use. It is an approach that demands an integrated and systems-based outlook. 

Using water multiple times over can be optimised by matching different grades of water to different uses, rather than always looking to import fresh water. An integrated perspective makes this possible. Similarly, waste is viewed as a resource in this approach, with opportunities including the potential for this waste-as-a-resource to sustain the sanitation value chain. 

In all of this, decentralised solutions come into their own, and we know that the ever-expanding range of digital technologies will be a huge enabler. IWA has been well ahead of the curve on shaping this type of imaginative thinking. The transition needs an unprecedented level of leadership and innovation if it is to proceed at pace. IWA is ideally placed to step up to play its part. 

That said, there are challenges ahead, including steering a path of meeting the urgent basic needs around water and sanitation, and, at the same time, reconciling this with the need for low- and no-carbon development to help with progress on the climate change mitigation requirements of the Paris agreements. 

There are huge water infrastructure needs – with the least developed countries potentially pursuing very different approaches from those seen in developed countries. The question is whether constraints or conditions requiring low-carbon approaches will slow or derail efforts to secure progress on water and sanitation, slowing the development agenda. 

It is important to note that IWA’s Board has a clear ambition for the association to play a more central role in shaping these discussions and the water roadmap through the incredible expertise of our members. We are one of few organisations that can bring together such a diverse array of expertise, including academics, practitioners, utility leaders, and entrepreneurs and innovators. We are internationally diverse, with a growing membership in South America, Africa and South Asia. This growth in our geographical reach over the past five years has given us confidence that we understand the needs of these areas – areas where a great deal of investment is required. We also have great channels for communication and collaboration, such as Connect Plus, our publications and events. But, most importantly, we are driven, agile and able to respond to the world’s great water challenges. 

At the closing ceremony of the UN Water Conference, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said: “The commitments at this conference will propel humanity towards the water-secure future every person on the planet needs.” I wholeheartedly agree with this intention, but we are not there yet. Despite my disappointment at the event’s lack of teeth and inability to secure game changing action, I take solace from the determination and commitment of the water professionals that I meet and their ability to shape an equitable water future. • 

Kala Vairavamoorthy is CEO of the International Water Association