Water supplies are severely limited and threatened by global warming, yet human populations and needs keep growing. Water rights are the core subject of many major conflicts, in virtually every region of the world — the Nile, Jordan, Mekong, Indus, Danube, Colorado. These are watersheds of disagreement, potentially leading to armed confrontations.
Such conflicts are for separate treatment; addressing the less political dimensions of water resources and how the global community responds is more than enough. What is to be done in the future is the central focus of the second World Water Conference held in New York which ended on March 24, 2023.
While the fountain of hope springs eternal, we will have to see if any of the promises match the actions.
Some background: Back to the 1970s and World Water Conference in Argentina
The 20th century was the time when holding international conferences under UN auspices focusing on a single topic was in vogue.
The UN Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat) took place in 1976 in Canada, followed in 1977 by the World Water Conference in 1977 in Mar del Plata, Argentina (disclosure: I attended it as a young diplomat in the U.S. delegation). The latter produced a “Declaration” and “Action Plan” which made commitments that went as far as was known and reasonably possible at the time.
Then in 1979, there was the first World Climate Conference organized by the WMO which led to the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and much more. Such international events had something minimal in common, namely to raise attention to a critical subject and express commitment to do something better.
Typically, such conferences produced an aspirational “Declaration” supported by an “Action Plan”. And while they were useful for all issues, as is said in Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, some conference follow-on results were much more significant than others.
Climate change and the recent COP 27 is the poster case of significant (and disappointing) takeaways, from a target to reduce planet levels of heat, the creation of a dedicated fund, and so forth.
This century the international community opted for a more holistic approach rather than focusing on single issues; and this led to the elaboration of a framework, a set of goals for 2030, namely the 2015 United Nations seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
One was SDG 6, “to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” As a follow-up for this SDG, in 2016 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution, “International Decade for Action – Water for Sustainable Development” (2018–2028) in support of the achievement of SDG 6 and other water-related targets.
Where we were in 1977 and 2022: Any progress?
It is fair to look back and consider whether the attention at international fora has led to substantial progress. One cannot attribute to the first World Water Conference what has happened over 45 years since it took place.
That said, assuredly, more money has been provided for water investments by national and international authorities, new technologies have emerged, and water conservation measures have gained some traction.
But telling also is how far we need to go, as reflected in the data provided in the latest Sustainable Development Goal report (2022) as to SDG 6, with some good and bad news:
- In 2020, 74 percent of the global population had access to safely managed drinking water services, up from 70 percent in 2015. Still, two billion people live without safely managed drinking water services, including 1.2 billion people lacking even a basic level of service, in 2020;
- Between 2015 and 2020, the population with safely managed sanitation increased from 47 percent to 54 percent and the population with access to handwashing facilities with soap and water in the home increased from 67 percent to 71 percent. Rates of progress for these basic services would need to quadruple for universal coverage to be reached by 2030;
- At the current rates of progress, 1.6 billion people will lack safely managed drinking water, 2.8 billion people will lack safely managed sanitation, and 1.9 billion people will lack basic hand hygiene facilities in 2030;
- Eight out of 10 people who lack even basic drinking water service live in rural areas, and about half of them live in the least developed countries (LDCs).
- Water use efficiency worldwide rose from $17.4 per cubic metre in 2015 to $19.4 per cubic metre in 2019, a modest 12 percent efficiency increase: This is significant because it indicates progress towards achieving Target 6.4 of SDG 6 which aims to “substantially increase” water-use efficiency across all sectors by 20301;
- Assessment of rivers, lakes and aquifers in 97 countries in 2020 shows that 60 percent of water bodies have good water quality. For at least 3 billion people, the quality of the water they rely upon is unknown owing to a lack of monitoring;
- From 2015 to 2020, the population practising open defecation decreased by a third, from 739 million people to 494 million. The world is on track to eliminate open defecation by 2030;
- Over the past 300 years, over 85 percent of the planet’s wetlands have been lost, mainly through drainage and land conversion, with many remaining wetland areas degraded. Since 1970, 81 percent of species dependent on inland wetlands have declined faster than those relying on other biomes, and an increasing number of these species are facing extinction;
- Across the world, water stress levels remained safe at 18.6 percent in 2019. However, Southern Asia and Central Asia registered high levels of water stress at over 75 percent, whereas Northern Africa registered a critical water stress level of over 100 percent. Since 2015, water stress levels have increased significantly in Western Asia and Northern Africa;
- Data from 2017 and 2020 suggest only 32 countries out of a total of 153 with transboundary water sources have 90 percent or more of those water sources covered by cross-border cooperative arrangements.
Further, according to UN-Water, “around 74% of all natural disasters between 2001 and 2018 were water-related and during the past 20 years, the total number of deaths caused only by floods and droughts exceeded 166,000, while floods and droughts affected over three billion people, and caused total economic damage of almost US$700 billion.”
The 2023 World Water Conference
The preparatory process and conference discussions at United Nations headquarters in New York held 22-24 March 2023 were built around five themes, namely:
- water for health;
- water for sustainable development;
- water for climate, resilience and environment;
- water for cooperation;
- UN Water Action Decade.
Two thousand participants attended, including government delegates, scientists, academics, and representatives from civil society groups, international technical and financial institutions, and the private sector.
At the closing, the Conference adopted the Water Action Agenda that collected almost 700 “commitments”. It contains expressions of high purpose, goal setting, specific actions to be taken, and calls for new resources. For example, the FAO Director-General spoke explicitly about the need for innovative drought financing mechanisms.
More broadly, United Nations General Assembly President Csaba Kőrösi referred to “$300 billion in pledges made to buoy the transformative Water Action Agenda, having the potential of unlocking at least $1 trillion of socioeconomic and eco-system gains.” (bolding added)
This is all promising, but what happens to those commitments – financial or otherwise – after the Conference, is the ultimate challenge and measure of success.
Reportedly, the online platform hosting the Water Action Agenda is to remain open for submissions and “available for all to view through the Conference website”, so expectations are that more “commitments” and pledges will be coming, at least for a while longer. At some point, however, it will be important to make public a list of all commitments made in order to assess whether we are making any real progress or not.
Other potentially important actions are contemplated and may give results. They include developing new, alternative food systems to reduce the unsustainable use of water in agriculture, launching a new global information system to guide plans and priorities to realize the SDGs and possibly appointing a Special Envoy for water ahead of the SDG Summit in September.
A new agenda topic needed: One Health and Water
What was absent in the past, and is only tangentially included in the present is the concept of One Health. A One Health High-Level Expert Panel (OHHLEP) comprised of WHO, FAO, UNEP, and WOAH and external experts formulated a now widely accepted definition, namely:
“One Health is an integrated, unifying approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimize the health of people, animals, and ecosystems. It recognizes the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants, and the wider environment (including ecosystems) are closely linked and interdependent.”
That there is at least a modicum of attention is reflected in two events, one in the run up by UNEP, the other by FAO as a presentation alongside the main debate.
Going forward, the integration of One Health and its linkage to water needs to be an integral part of water planning and action agenda in the future.
The indispensability of water
While we can live for long periods with minimal food, humans, animals, and most plants cannot long survive without water. As highlighted by the Conference themes, the importance of water is not just for drinking or washing but cuts across virtually all sectors.
We need new thinking such as the One Health approach, to make renewed efforts to identify and apply new technologies and innovations so that by 2030 we will have done much better in the time remaining than we did since 1977.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Creator: Daniel E Coe for UNEP SDG 6 Progress webinars