By Dr. Hassan Aboelnga, Researcher and International Expert in Water Security and Sustainable Development, Dr. Olcay Ünver, professor at Arizona State University and former ViceChair of UN-Water, and Dr. Johannes Cullmann, ViceChair of UN-Water

Worldwide, decision makers face critical choices for achieving SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation). In response to accelerating water and climate pressures, we must ensure that water is at the forefront of the climate agenda.

Over the last 50 years, the global population has doubled, and climate change has affected the water cycle through changes in precipitation patterns and snow cover as well as glacier melt. The frequency of floods and droughts has intensified, and global freshwater availability has decreased by about twice the annual flow volume of the Amazon River, contributing to a dramatic widening of the demand-supply gap.

The climate crisis is a water crisis. This means that the world urgently needs to make a paradigm shift – to ensure our actions on water are fully integrated with our actions on climate resilience.

Today, the world is off track on almost all water-related targets of the SDGs, including the climate goal, and the role of water in the UNFCCC annual Conference of the Parties (COP) process is still only indirect.

Water, for a long time, was only implicitly present in the COP process. The Water and Climate Leaders – a panel of eminent high-level representatives – put forward a message to COP 27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022, calling for accelerated water and climate integration to reduce losses from water-related disasters as well as to increase resilience against impacts of climate change. They also proposed an action plan that offers six data driven solutions to integrate the water and climate agendas.

Encouragingly, the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan explicitly mentions water for the first time, acknowledging “the critical role of protecting, conserving and restoring water and water-related ecosystems in delivering climate adaptation benefits and co-benefits, while ensuring social and environmental safeguards.”

Improved synergies between water and climate adaptation can improve resilience in the face of water, climate, and economic challenges and help access critical financing to rapidly increase water-focused climate adaptation. This is essential if we want to avoid dangerous consequences for human security and economy and to transform the potential for transboundary conflict into potential for cooperation.

Welcome though the COP 27 statement is, the climate mitigation benefits of water are yet to be recognized by the COP process. Currently, the role of water in it remains indirect, through joint management of land and water for sustainable resources management, and water and agriculture links.

Water-based climate mitigation measures can influence the water cycle, and it is crucial to prioritize such measures in the mitigation options in the climate commitments of countries, also known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

The President of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), Csaba Kőrösi, has warned of the economic cost of water inaction and called for an integrated water-climate approach, which, he said, would “integrate not only policies but also decision-making processes, databases and benchmarks.”

The forthcoming UN 2023 Water Conference, from 22-24 March 2023, is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unite the world around water and put it at the forefront of sustainable development and climate action.

In preparation for this event – the first of its kind since 1977 – UNGA President Kőrösi held two days of meetings in October 2022 with stakeholders and Member State representatives, which led to the conclusion that the world needs “game changers” to accelerate change and integrate water with relevant issues necessary for addressing climate change, poverty, hunger, health, and energy, among others.

Game changers are transformative methods, initiatives, and agreements in the way we think, do business, govern, and implement policies. They are catalysts to becoming more resilient to water, climate, food, and energy crises, as well as to economic, ecological, social, and political changes. 

Voluntary commitments, pledges, and actions, across all our sectors, industries, and interests will form the Water Action Agenda dedicated to accelerating progress in the second half of the Water Action Decade 2018-2028 and the second half of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The world is looking for leadership towards a more stable and sustainable world. It is high time for a paradigm change to align the water and climate agendas and make the UN 2023 Water Conference the game-changing milestone that it deserves to be after 46 years.