The UN has published its annual report on water to inform discussions at the UN 2023 Water Conference. The report titled, ‘United Nations World Water Development Report 2023: Partnerships and Cooperation for Water,’ describes the essential role of building partnerships and enhancing cooperation across all dimensions of sustainable development in accelerating progress towards SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation).

According to the report, global water use has been growing by around 1% per year over the last 40 years. Driven by population growth, socioeconomic development, and changing consumption patterns, it is expected to continue increasing at a similar rate through to 2050. Most of this increase is concentrated in middle- and lower-income countries, where water scarcity is becoming endemic. On average, the report finds, “10% of the global population lives in countries with high or critical water stress.”

The report warns that at current rates, progress on all the targets of SDG 6 is off-track. In some areas, it finds, the rate of implementation needs to at least quadruple, to meet the deadline set by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In summary:

  • In 2020, 26% of the world’s population did not have access to safely managed drinking water services (SDG target 6.1), and 46% lacked access to safely managed sanitation (SDG target 6.2).
  • Around 60% of the world’s water bodies had “good” ambient water quality (SDG target 6.3), though the poorest 20 countries are “grossly under-represented” in this estimate.
  • Globally, water-use efficiency (SDG target 6.4) increased by 9% from 2015 to 2018, with the greatest progress achieved in the industrial sector (15% rise), followed by the water supply and sanitation and agriculture sectors (8% rise).
  • The global rate of progress in implementation of integrated water resources management (IWRM) needs to double to approach SDG target 6.5.
  • The data needed to track changes in the extent of water-related ecosystems over time (SDG target 6.6) are not yet refined.
  • Official development assistance (ODA) to water in 2020 was estimated at USD 8.7 billion globally, an increase from USD 2.7 billion in 2002. However, international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes (SDG target 6.a) had not been reported.
  • While the number of countries with clearly defined procedures in law or policy for participation by users/communities (SDG target 6.b) increased between 2014 and 2019, it remains low overall.

The report explores a diversity of partnerships and collaboration, taking into account regional – and thematic – perspectives spanning the areas of agriculture, environment, human settlements, industry, health, and climate change. In support of the five “accelerators” of the SDG 6 Global Acceleration Framework, the report offers recommendations to policymakers on how to speed up change through education and capacity development, data and information, innovation, financing, and governance.

“There is an urgent need to establish strong international mechanisms to prevent the global water crisis from spiralling out of control,” said UN Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Audrey Azoulay at the report’s launch.

“Cooperation is the heart of sustainable development, and water is an immensely powerful connector,” underscored Johannes Cullmann, special scientific advisor to the president of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). “We should not negotiate water; we should deliberate on it,” he emphasized.

The report was published by the UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) on behalf of the UN-Water family, which includes, among other members, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UN-Habitat, the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and the WMO.

UN 2023 Water Conference is the first dedicated water conference since the 1977 UN Conference on Water in Mar del Plata, Argentina. The meeting is expected to provide a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to generate momentum to address the water crisis. [Publication: United Nations World Water Development Report 2023: Partnerships and Cooperation for Water] [Executive Summary] [Publication Landing Page] [Report Website] [UN News Story]