Hailed as a success by the United Nations, the 2023 UN Water Conference has come under fire for failing to introduce binding agreements and enforceable resolutions, as well as for lacking representation from the Global South, which faces disproportionate problems due to climate change. In this article, Sophie Zwick reports on the Conference, its goals, insufficiencies, and the necessary next steps.
Photo by Vova Kras on Pexels
There is no doubt that water is a crucial part of our day-to-day life and one of the most vital resources on our planet. In light of this, the UN held the United Nations Conference on the Midterm Comprehensive Review of the Implementation of the Objectives of the International Decade for Action 2018-2028, "Water for Sustainable Development", or, in short, "UN Water Conference" on the 22-24th of March 2023, again giving water the spotlight over 40 years after the UN Water Conference in 1977 in Argentina.
The New York-based conference comprised of six plenary meetings and five interactive dialogues to encourage stakeholders to submit voluntary commitments to the Water Action Agenda. Additionally, the over 2.600 attendees from government, civil society and the private sector also connected at side panels, events, and bilateral discussions.
While the UN is celebrating this conference as "[o]ur watershed moment: uniting the world for water" (UN, 2021) and a landmark starting point for water-related sustainable development, this essay will argue that the system of voluntary commitment might not be sufficient to archive a more sustainable international water governance system. To understand the weight of the results of this conference, it is, therefore, necessary to look at the ongoing and future water-related challenges we will face in this decade and the measures needed to address the urgency of the water crisis.
Governing global water crisis: Why do we need an International Governance Framework?
The UN Water conference was hosted by the Netherlands and Tajikistan, two of many states that bear witness to the complex relationship between climate change and water. While Tajikistan aims to increase accessibility to clean drinking water for its citizens (World Bank, 2022), the Netherlands is battling drought (Zhong, 2022).
With climate change only exacerbating water-related challenges, how strongly the effects of water scarcity will be felt depends not only on the geography of a state but also on its climate resilience capabilities. Substantial disparities can be seen between states with the infrastructure and financial capabilities to improve their resilience to water threats, while countries in the Global South face an increased risk of water scarcity (Fleur, 2016).
While accessibility to clean potable water is still an ongoing challenge in many countries, water resources are under threat due to unsustainable management, old or insufficient infrastructure and climate-related threats. The global water demand is estimated to "outstrip the supply of fresh water by 40%" by 2030 (Harvey, 2023). From 2001 to 2018, nearly 74% of natural disasters were water-related (UN Water, 2020).
Water touches on several of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. SDG 6, "Clean Water and Sanitation", aims to secure water and sanitation availability and sustainable management (UNDESA, 2023). In the five interactive dialogues at the conference, the UN highlights the interconnections between water and other SDG goals: Water for Health, Water for Sustainable Development, Water for Climate Resilience and Environment, Water for Cooperation, and Water Action Decade.
Water governance takes place on different levels of governance and incorporates a wide range of actors. Water availability and allocation often create tension between individual consumers, the water-intensive agricultural industry, and other industries that rely on water. The agricultural industry accounts for roughly 70% of water consumption (The Economist, 2023) but has also been criticised for over-pumping groundwater and polluting water through fertilisers. At the same time, a state's agriculture sector not only ensures food security but also is an economically relevant sector.
In addition, states often face transnational water resources that require multilateral or regional water-sharing mechanisms. Water-related tensions have increased significantly over the years and might even trigger wars between states (Water Conflict Chronology, n.d.). As a global resource, water is affected by climate change and several actors, just as climate change has become the subject of international governance efforts.
The UN Water Conference 2023: Reigning in the water decade?
The UN Water Conference aims to bring together different parties to "create opportunities for partnerships to support the implementation of voluntary commitments, including through exchange of knowledge, technology transfer and technical assistance as necessary" (UN, 2022). The UN, therefore, provides a platform for states and other actors to connect, discuss and set an agenda.
The main result of this conference is the Water Action Agenda, a collection of voluntary commitments submitted by states, private organisations, NGOs and other stakeholders. The UN's approach to encouraging action is built on the "hope that global ambition can be increased through a process of naming and shaming" (Falkner, 2016, p. 1107). As of now, roughly 750 voluntary submissions have been featured on the Water Agenda Website and will be reviewed in future follow-up events. Follow-up events will also discuss the best practice examples and aim to encourage actors to set higher goals.
UN celebrates the progress made at the event, but critics have voiced their disapproval. According to a petition signed by roughly 100 civil society representatives, more needs to be done in the accessibility and representation of members of the Global South at this conference (Malik & Hepworth, 2023). Out of roughly 7000 attendees, representatives and "experts and water insecure communities at the frontline of the water crisis from the Global South" (Lakhani & Milman, 2023) were less represented than the private sector and members from the Global North.
The open letter also suggests more binding agreements and expressed concern that individual voluntary reporting on commitments will only fragment rather than create more cohesive water governance. While voluntary commitments might encourage actors to take their first steps in acknowledging and understanding their role in tackling the global water issue, these measures are inadequate and too slow-paced. Binding agreements and more accountability from civil society are needed to avoid the projected threats of this crisis. In addition, a lack of an oversight body, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that the voluntary commitments made are not necessarily enough or proven to meet the goals the conference sets out (Malik & Hepworth, 2023).
What appeared to be "a watershed moment" in water governance now seems more like a conversation starter. In May, the President of the General Assembly published a summary of the conference, outlining the breadth and diversity of voluntary commitments while outlining proposals which require further discussion (UNPGA, 2023). While the UN claims that "$300 billion in pledges [have been made which potentially unlock] at least $1 trillion of socioeconomic and eco-system gains" (UN News, 2023), many proposals made during the conference are subject to further discussions. Proposals include creating an Operational Global Water Information System, an Early Warnings for All Initiative, A Global Water Education Network, a UN Water Special Envoy, and more regular intergovernmental meetings (UNPGA, 2023, pp. 2–6).
Water is linked to many global challenges each state faces on a national and international level. Several decades after the last UN Water Conference, representatives from governments, civil society and the private sector have again met to discuss their role in improving water accessibility, availability, and sustainable water resource use.
While the Water Action Agenda has received many voluntary commitment submissions and financial pledges, how stakeholders will meet their goals remains to be seen. Critics have called for stronger involvement from the UN by establishing a dedicated Water Envoy and a more binding international water agreement, better representation at conferences and a scientific review panel. The UN Calendars already highlight the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in July 2023. Among other topics, the results of the water agenda will be reported, and proposals will be further discussed (UNPGA, 2023, p. 20). It is crucial to highlight the urgency of effective and international water governance. More binding, transparent and evidence-based policies are needed to solve an issue that has for far too long been put in the back benches of international governance efforts.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
Falkner, R. (2016). The Paris Agreement and the new logic of international climate politics. International Affairs, 92(5), 1107–1125.
Fleur, N. S. (2016, February 13). Two-thirds of the world faces severe water shortages. The New York Times.
Harvey, F. (2023, March 17). Global fresh water demand will outstrip supply by 40% by 2030, say experts. The Guardian.
Lakhani, N., & Milman, O. (2023, March 25). First global water conference in 50 years yields hundreds of pledges, zero checks. The Guardian.
Malik, S., & Hepworth, N. (2023). Open letter of concern to UN Secretary General calling for greater accountability, rigour and ambition in the outcomes of UN Water 2023. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1XKmvULYw1491AQ1DnXPBnGPRYSPEX_O63bl_Pg8x0gg/edit?usp=embed_facebook
The Economist. (2023). UN Water conference 2023: Embracing the water–energy–food nexus.
United Nations. (2021). Vision statement UN 2023 Water Conference—"Our watershed moment: Uniting the world for water" (Version 1). United Nations.
United Nations. (2022). Water action agenda- Frequently asked questions (Version 1).
UN News. (2023, March 24). New agenda sets sail with bold action as UN Water Conference closes | UN News. https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/03/1135022
UN Water (Ed.). (2020). Water and climate change. UNESCO.
UNDESA. (2023). Goal 6 | Department of Economic and Social Affairs. https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal6
UNPGA. (2023). Summary of proceedings by the President of the General Assembly (pp. 1–28). Office of the President of the General Assembly, United Nations.
Water Conflict Chronology. (n.d.). Retrieved 5 May 2023.
World Bank. (2022, June 23). Tajikistan to improve access to safe drinking water, with World Bank support. World Bank.
Zhong, R. (2022, October 10). They're 'world champions' of banishing water. Now, the Dutch need to keep it. The New York Times.