The focus of the Conference was the Water Action Agenda, composed of voluntary commitments from UN Member States and stakeholders.
Many pointed to a “gap in the UN architecture” as unlike climate change, biodiversity, or desertification, water does not have a process of its own.
Some called for “a strong institutional home [for water] in the UN,” while others expressed concerns that a formal process might expose sensitivities around transboundary watercourses, sovereignty, and boundary disputes.
The UN 2023 Water Conference concluded with approximately 700 voluntary commitments and pledges from governments and stakeholders, an announcement that a UN Special Envoy for Water would be established, and renewed political momentum to drive progress towards SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation).
Formally known as the Midterm Comprehensive Review of the Implementation of the Objectives of the 2018-2028 International Decade for Action, the UN 2023 Water Conference, convened in New York, US, from 22-24 March. It was held 46 years after the last major UN water conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina.
The Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB) summary of the meeting notes that setting the scene for the event were the findings from the 2023 UN World Water Development Report, according to which “26% of the world’s population, approximately two billion people, do not have access to safe drinking water, and 3.6 billion lack access to safe sanitation services.” The triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution has driven large-scale displacement of populations, it writes, exacerbating the global water crisis.
The ENB reports that the focus of the Conference was the Water Action Agenda, composed of voluntary commitments from UN Member States and stakeholders. By addressing a broad set of themes, these pledges aim to foster partnerships and cooperation towards “urgent, immediate, and accelerated action.”
The ENB analysis of the meeting reveals that in the lead-up to the Conference, “governments decided there would be no political declaration.” While this approach helped skirt boundary disputes and “vested interests,” some were concerned that “voluntary commitments are not legally-binding.” Yet, “there was a sense that this meeting succeeded in bringing greater visibility and momentum for the water and sanitation sectors.”
Government pledges include:
- Australia announced commitments, including increasing Aboriginal entitlements to water and investing USD 150 million in water infrastructure for safe and reliable access for such communities.
- Denmark noted its commitment to provide more than USD 400 million to enhance transboundary water management and development in Africa.
- Ecuador shared a USD 65 million national plan for irrigation and the establishment of 21 water conservation areas.
- India announced investments, including USD 50 billion to provide safe and adequate drinking water to all rural Indian households before 2030.
- The US reported it will invest up to USD 49 billion for climate-resilient water and sanitation infrastructure and services, and allocate USD 700 million to support 22 countries under its Global Water Strategy.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) committed to invest USD 11 billion in the water sector in Asia and the Pacific and USD 100 billion to water globally by 2030. The private sector and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also delivered pledges.
Looking ahead, many pointed to a “gap in the UN architecture” as unlike climate change, biodiversity, or desertification, water does not have a process of its own. Some called for “a strong institutional home [for water] in the UN,” while others expressed concerns that a formal process might expose sensitivities around transboundary watercourses, sovereignty, and boundary disputes. Many welcomed the announcement that a UN Special Envoy for Water would be established as a way to catalyze multilateral progress.
Hosted by the Governments of the Netherlands and Tajikistan, the Conference consisted of plenary sessions and five interactive, solution-driven dialogues on: water for health; water for sustainable development; water for climate; water for cooperation; and the Water Action Decade. Over 6,500 participants attended the three-day event, and more than 200 side events took place.
SDG 6 is one of five Goals to undergo in-depth review at the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) in July 2023. The SDG Summit in September will assess overall progress on the Goals at the mid-point of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. [ENB Coverage of UN 2023 Water Conference]