Desert (image by Marion via Pixabay)

The UN is holding its first water conference in nearly 50 years, addressing the alarming global water crisis. With 2 billion people lacking safe drinking water and 1.6 billion projected to face the same by 2030, the conference aims to produce a ‘water action agenda’ focusing on vulnerable communities and transboundary cooperation. Climate change is exacerbating water scarcity, flooding, and drought, threatening half of the world’s population. Although no legally binding treaty is expected, delegates are calling for prioritizing water in existing treaties and the UN system, as well as seeking more funds for projects like desalination and wastewater treatment.

The United Nations 2023 Water Conference, co-hosted by the Netherlands and Tajikistan, is a groundbreaking event, marking the first such conference in 46 years. Held at UN Headquarters in New York from 22-24 March, the conference seeks to accelerate progress towards universal access to safe water and sanitation by 2030. The event focuses on five key areas: Water for Health, Water for Sustainable Development, Water for Climate, Resilience and Environment, Water for Cooperation, and Water Action Decade.

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The global water crisis

At the halfway point of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the world is grappling with a water crisis that leaves billions without safe drinking water and proper sanitation. The crisis has many facets, including water depletion, pollution, and mismanagement. Climate change further intensifies water stress, with floods increasing by 134% and droughts by 29% since 2000.

As climate change continues to worsen water scarcity, flooding, and drought, the UN Water Conference is focusing on innovative technologies and solutions to address these challenges. One such initiative is ‘Mission 500’, a water conservation movement from rural Maharashtra, India, that aims to create, conserve, and maintain water bodies in local communities. The movement’s model, the “Community Based Decentralized Water Management System”, empowers people to raise groundwater levels and has been implemented in drought- and flood-prone regions around the world.

Transboundary cooperation and equity

With approximately two-thirds of water resources in Arab states flowing from outside their national borders, transboundary water governance and cooperation are crucial for addressing water insecurity in vulnerable communities and conflict-affected settings. The conference aims to foster collaboration across countries and regions to develop solutions for a sustainable future, emphasising the importance of equity in water access and resource management.

Financing and Innovation

In addition to addressing the global “Water Financing Gap”, the conference calls for new business models and funding mechanisms to support water management projects. The Global Commission on Economics of Water advocates for a collective approach and bold actions towards a sustainable water future. Innovative solutions are showcased, such as source-to-sea collaboration and the integration of science-based, sustainable methods in Member States’ water management policies.

At the opening of the conference, Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon opened the ‘Source to Sea’ tunnel, a 15m-long tent that exhibits the relationship between countries, worldwide water problems, and potential solutions. The tunnel represents the commitment of the Netherlands and Tajikistan to addressing the global water crisis and fostering transboundary cooperation. The outcomes of the event, including the Water Action Agenda, will be instrumental in tracking progress and guiding future actions towards achieving the SDGs, particularly Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation[2]. The success of the UN 2023 Water Conference will depend on the collective efforts of governments, organisations, and individuals to prioritise water management and sustainable development in the face of an increasingly parched planet.