The world is failing to meet its goal of universal water security by 2030 but protecting water can create a ripple effect of benefits to ecosystems, the economy, human health, and sustainable development on the whole.
Water management needs to transition from approaching each watershed in isolation to recognizing that water flows across political boundaries, necessitating a global response across sectors.
The UN 2023 Water Conference offers a global opportunity to deliver on a collective Water Action Agenda with concrete, sustainable, and scalable water-related commitments.
By Cláudia Coleoni, Annette Huber-Lee, and Marisa Escobar
The world is off track to meet its goal of water security for all by 2030. The global conversation and mobilization around water have never been more crucial.
The 2021 UN Water progress report highlights that 2 billion people (26% of the world’s population) lacked safely managed drinking water services in 2020, 2.3 billion people lived in water-stressed countries, and only 24 countries reported cross-border management systems for their shared waters. Major gaps remain in water quality data reporting and monitoring for over 3 billion people, meaning that the health of our rivers, lakes, and groundwater is unknown.
Ensuring sustainable water management and access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to all is crucial to fulfil the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and secure an inclusive, climate-resilient future. Water is not only critical for human and planetary survival in its own right, but cuts across the social, environmental, and economic requirements of a healthy and thriving world.
Consider this. Economic losses related to water insecurity are already estimated to include USD 260 billion per year from inadequate water supply and sanitation, USD 120 billion from urban property flood damages, and USD 94 billion per year due to water insecurity of existing irrigators, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). On the other hand, achieving clean water and sanitation targets, as detailed in the 2030 Agenda’s SDG 6, can launch a ripple effect of benefits across the SDGs, such as poverty reduction, sustainable food production, improved health and well-being, gender equality, clean energy generation, provision of ecosystem services, and transboundary cooperation.
Consequently, protecting water can allow us to steer sustainable development on a wider scale by leveraging its impact on every area of our lives.
UN 2023 Water Conference: Delivering on a Water Action Agenda
Luckily, we face a rare occasion to convene a global discussion on water. Despite being a vital resource to support life on our planet, water, unlike climate, does not have its own convention. Water has been discussed globally through various international organizations, events, and forums, such as the World Water Forum, the Stockholm World Water Week, and the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), but in fragmented style. After 46 years since the last UN Conference on Water, held in Argentina, water will headline the global policy agenda again, uniting representatives of government, civil society, and the private sector. The UN 2023 Water Conference, taking place from 22-24 March at the UN headquarters in New York, US, will be a global opportunity to accelerate progress with a united front in the second half of the Water Action Decade (2018-2028) and the second half of the 2030 Agenda.
To make the most of this chance, we propose three water actions to further support the water-related goals of the 2030 Agenda.
Foster collaboration beyond the watershed
While water management tends to occur at the local, watershed, or regional level – for instance, decisions about water use and allocation – many water-related challenges transcend national and regional boundaries and require a global response.
The borderless nature of water is embodied in everyday economic activities, such as trade of agricultural commodities and the water used to produce them. Many of the world’s major rivers and aquifers cross multiple borders, making cooperation between countries essential for sustainable water management.
Our first water action calls for sustainable and collaborative water management that reaches beyond the watershed, with participation from communities affected. To foster cooperation, the global community will need to consider the economies bound to the watershed on any side of a given border.
As shown by Stockholm Environment Institute’s (SEI) work – such as the Water Beyond Boundaries initiative in Colombia’s Magdalena-Cauca River Basin and the Mekong River Basin in Southeast Asia, and Rwanda’s hydro-economic and climate change analysis – transboundary water management can not only address water scarcity, but boost the health and livelihoods of those the basin supports.
Maintain ecosystem health and implement the source-to-sea approach
The latest UN Water progress report emphasizes that one-fifth of the world’s river basins are experiencing rapid changes, from flooding and newly inundated land to the drying of lakes, wetlands, and seasonal water bodies. Human activities, such as dam construction and agriculture, have intensified the change of freshwater ecosystems and hydrological patterns. Furthermore, while the ocean is the outlet of all human activities, it is often left out of water management discussions.
Our second water action calls for early ecosystem consideration in water management and planning process as well as a source-to-sea approach that recognizes the links between land, freshwater, and the ocean. SEI has put early ecosystem consideration into practical action with projects such as helping authorities develop community-based ecosystem management for wetlands resilience in Thailand’s Songkhram River Basin. In California, US, SEI has been modeling complex water systems, including developing tools for aquatic habitat assessment that allow local authorities to protect threatened fish species. On the source-to-sea method, SEI’s Strategy for the Ocean and Biodiversity aims to improve the connections between land, coasts, and the ocean through systemic, holistic public water management.
Increase knowledge exchange and inclusive decision making
The typical method of addressing water challenges is Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). While IWRM has profoundly affected water planning practices in the last three decades for better and worse, it has not yet yielded sustainable water outcomes because of its top-down approach that compartmentalizes water management into silos. The results can inadvertently create conflict, exclude critical users, or ignore gaps in water management.
Our third water action calls for collaborative and inclusive engagement in water management to deliver more effective long-term outcomes. We need to enable policymakers to see not only watershed-wide water demand and supply, but also smaller-scale differences that illuminate inequalities, addressing issues of poverty, gender inequality, and inclusion of marginalized groups.
For example, SEI’s initiative on Gender Equality, Social Equity and Poverty seeks to understand the interconnections between gender, equity, poverty, and sustainability, with examples applied to water management in Bolivia, Colombia, and Cambodia. By approaching water management with an intersectional lens, SEI has helped lay the groundwork for greater gender equality and social inclusion in WASH interventions, facilitated cooperative planning processes, such as serious games in Colombia and the Robust Decision Support framework.
Join us in building a united Water Action Agenda
The global water crisis demands urgent action beyond the watershed. By guaranteeing the world access to clean water and sanitation, we support not only human health and ecosystems, but worldwide economies, food security, energy access and social equality. As an environmental and sustainable development research institute, SEI is committed to advancing the Water Action Agenda and conversations across sectors, geographies, and scales beyond the UN 2023 Water Conference.
This requires a united front. You can do your part. Join us in the global conversation around water and submit your voluntary commitment to the UN to ensure a sustainable water future for all.
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Cláudia Coleoni is Research Associate, SEI Latin America. Annette Huber-Lee is Senior Scientist, SEI US. Marisa Escobar is Water Program Director, SEI US.