Over 6,500 people gathered in New York last week for the first global water conference since 1977, which promised to be a watershed moment for the sustainable development community as the world united for “Water Action”. António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said last week: “Without water, there can be no sustainable development.” But 46 years after the Mar del Plata conference, progress on water-related goals and targets remains alarmingly off-track. This is jeopardising the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and means that the outcomes of this conference needed to be historically significant. Dutch special envoy to the United Nations Henk Ovink said: “This conference is the beginning of a rippling effect across the world.”
A conference generating hundreds of pledges with no accountability
A major result of the conference was that UN Member States and stakeholders made more than 700 pledges to the Water Action Agenda. As a leading authority on water governance, GWP is committed to actively advancing the global water agenda. Along with its network, GWP submitted or partnered with other organisations to submit over 35 commitments, including the IWRM HelpDesk pledge to provide 150 institutions with policy and technical advice on integrated water resources management (IWRM).
But are pledges enough? Many participants agreed that more was needed from this conference beyond voluntary commitments, such as a formal global agreement on the level of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. This sentiment was felt by many across the sector, and more than 100 water experts sent an open letter to the UN Secretary-General on the last day of the conference highlighting the lack of “accountability, rigour and ambition”. Many questions are unanswered, including: how can we ensure pledges are turned into action?
Highlighting the importance of multistakeholder partnerships at the UN 2023 Water Conference
GWP and its network co-hosted and participated in more than 30 events over the three days of the conference to demonstrate the impact of their multistakeholder partnership model on improving the global management of water resources.
At the United Nations Development Programme side event “Accelerating Sustainable Development Through Water Innovations and Solutions”, Jaehyang So, Chair of GWP’s Technical Committee, said that “achieving water security requires being able to navigate comprehensive and useful knowledge using the latest digital economy tools”. One of these tools is GWP’s IWRM Action Hub – “an innovative, curated and inclusive platform for the global water community”, said Jaehyang So, where you can learn, explore, and connect on designing and implementing IWRM action towards a water secure world.
Another of our key side events was the “Launch of the International High-Level Panel Report on Water Investments in Africa: Pathways for Mobilisation of $30 billion Annually by 2030”. Here, many of Africa’s ministers and heads of state demonstrated their support for the launch of the High-Level Panel Report, Africa’s Rising Investment Tide. Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture at the African Union Commission H.E. Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko said the report provides a clear road map to mobilise US$30 billion, close the water insecurity gap, and deliver on SDG 6. Six current and former African heads of state, including H.E. Hakainde Hichilema, President of the Republic of Zambia, and H.E. Dr Hussein Ali Mwinyi, President of Zanzibar, were presented the Presidential Global Changemakers Award by H.E. Mokgweetsi Masisi, President of Botswana and Chair during the launch of the High-Level Panel Report.
The official side event “Launch of the International High-Level Panel Report on Water Investments in Africa: Pathways for Mobilisation of $30 billion Annually by 2030” at the UN 2023 Water Conference, where H.E. Jakaya Kikwete, former President of Tanzania was presented with his award by H.E. Mokgweetsi Masisi, President of Botswana. © GWP
The event made headlines in the news, increasing awareness of the water investment gap and efforts to close it.
To further raise awareness of the need for water investments in Africa, the campaign “Mind the Gap - Invest in Water” was announced two days later at the GWP Southern Africa-led side event “Launch of the International High-Level Panel Campaign on Water Investments for Africa and Global ChangeMaker Awards”. At the event, Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture at the African Union Commission H.E. Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko stressed that the pathway is clear so now it’s time to walk the talk. GWP Technical Committee Chair Jae So also announced the 2023 Water ChangeMaker Awards – a global innovation challenge to identify and showcase promising innovations with potential for investment to support a water secure world. Korean K-Water is one of the key partners in the Water ChangeMaker Awards that will open for submissions in June. K-Water's Vice President and Chief Global Officer, Dr Wooseok Lee, also presented at the event.
From the left: GWP's Technical Committee Chair, Jae So, GWP's Chair, Pablo Bereciartua, K-Water's Vice President and Chief Global Officer, Dr Wooseok Lee. © GWP
On World Water Day, GWP launched The MSP Sourcebook: A Guide for Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships in Water Management, which contains guidance on multistakeholder partnerships (MSPs) specifically oriented to the unique challenges faced in the water sector. This was launched at our flagship side event, “Rewriting the Rules for Partnering: New Models for Water Action”. H.E. Jakaya Kikwete, former President of Tanzania, said at this event: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. In Africa we believe in partnerships.”
Cholpon Aitakhunova, International Secretariat for Water, speaks about ingredient 5 in the MSP Sourcebook - effective communication. © GWP
The theme around the importance of partnerships continued across many of GWP’s events. At the “Source to Sea Collaboration” side event co-led by GWP Mediterranean, Ruth Mathews from the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) said that “bringing stakeholders together is essential if we want to achieve SDG 6”, which was emphasised again by Dimitris Faloutsos, the Regional Deputy Coordinator for GWP Mediterranean, as shown in the quote below.
GWP China’s side event, “Achieving a Balance Between Protection and Development – Water for Rural Prosperity”, was opened by Minister Li Guoying from China’s Ministry of Water Resources. GWP’s Network Specialist for China and South Asia, Laurent-Charles Tremblay-Lévesque, explained that the global water storage gap requires an integrated and systemic approach and that a new integrated paradigm for water storage is needed. The event concluded that water is an essential factor for prosperity and development in rural China.
What is next for water?
As the conference came to a close, there remained a sense of determination to achieve tangible actions that will show the universal commitment to achieving water security and provide a road map towards a water secure future. The Secretary-General pledged UN support “every step of the way” as Member States take action through the second half of the Water Action Decade, substantiated by an agreement to establish a UN Special Envoy for Water ahead of the SDG Summit in September. Will this be enough?
In his closing remarks, the UN Secretary-General said to everyone who joined the conference: “Together, your ambitious vision and dedication to action and transformation is propelling us towards a sustainable, equitable, and inclusive water secure future for people and planet alike.”
Riding on the momentum created at the conference, GWP will focus on delivering on its many water action commitments and on supporting efforts made by the global water community to address the multi-pronged water crisis in the aftermath of this conference in the lead-up to 2030.