Takeaways from the UN 2023 Water Conference
From March 22-24, 2023, the first U.N. conference on water in the last 46 years took place in New York. With a doubling of the global population since the last conference in 1977, the need for access to clean water has skyrocketed, making this event all the more crucial.
Ensuring access to water and sanitation is one of the 17 interlinked sustainable development goals (SDG) to transform our world, set in 2015 by the United Nations as a call for action by all countries to end poverty.
However, despite the importance of water, the U.N.’s data on SDG 6 shows a bleak reality. According to the data released prior to the water conference, if current trends persist, by 2030, 1.6 billion people will still lack access to safely managed drinking water, 2.8 billion will not have access to safely managed sanitation facilities and 1.9 billion will be deprived of basic hand hygiene facilities.
Water is not only essential to health but also to food security and ecosystems, so it is closely connected to poverty reduction. It is essential to all industries and needs to be valued and treated as the vital resource it is. The United Nations Conference on Water is just the beginning of a global effort to ensure access to clean water for all.
U.N. 2023 Water Conference Takeaways
Five key themes were addressed during the conference: water for health, water for sustainable development, water for climate, resilience and environment, water for cooperation and Water Action Decade. Here are some of the most important takeaways:
- The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, emphasized the urgent need to modernize infrastructure and explore new public-private partnerships to manage the water crisis of the 21st century. He called for greater private sector investment in water and sanitation: regulating private sector participation would mean benefitting from data, management techniques and other resources previously unavailable. This was an idea echoed throughout the conference by most delegates.
- Water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is a salient issue in promoting gender equality. In many countries, girls and women handle the oftentimes dangerous responsibility of retrieving water for their families, sometimes at the expense of their education. Delegates have agreed to massively invest in water and sanitation systems.
- Water is a crucial issue for achieving sustainable development goals, as 90% of natural disasters are water-related, and none of the other goals can be achieved without addressing the water crisis. Guterres also confirmed that water-linked natural catastrophes can be a source of heightened geopolitical and international tension, as they cause forced migrations and displacement of communities. The World Bank’s Groundswell report shows that disasters linked to water could cause up to 216 million people to move within their countries by 2050. Some of these tensions could be mitigated by putting water at the forefront of the political agenda.
- Water is rarely contained by borders; however, solutions often are, as they exist in geographies that are very local. Transboundary water cooperation is essential to scale up technological solutions globally, such as updates to wastewater and storm management systems to better handle sudden surges in water levels.
- Finally, after a mention by most, if not all, delegates, the conference concluded with the appointment of a U.N. special envoy for water to keep the issue high on the political agenda and raise awareness of SDG 6 and investment opportunities in water.
Importantly, contributing internationally to improve a capacity for water security is not about aid. Rather, it is an investment that is going to pay off for donor countries as well. Clean water supports lives, creates jobs and drives inclusive economic growth, all while ensuring sustainable development. It should be seen as a fundamental platform for economic prosperity and development, rather than an environmental issue.
Overall, the U.N. 2023 Water Conference provided invaluable insight into the most pressing water-related issues facing our planet, such as water sanitation and hygiene, climate resilience and transboundary cooperation. It has also emphasized the need for public-private partnerships and innovative financing mechanisms to support the development of water infrastructure.
To achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6 by 2030, global leaders need to remain ambitious and continue to work together to ensure that all individuals have access to sustainably managed water and sanitation services. The appointment of a U.N. special envoy for water is a promising step in the right direction to ensure that no one is left behind.
– Hanna Bernard