Climate and Nature

UN 2023 Water Conference: 3 ways to speed progress for water by 2030

The UN Water Conference took place in New York this week.

The UN Water Conference took place in New York this week. Image: REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Rob Hope
Director of the Water Security Initiative at the School of Geography and the Environment and Director of the Water Programme. , Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • The UN Water Conference took place in New York this week.
  • The agenda was broad but key mindsets can make a swift difference.
  • To make progress on water, organizations should ensure existing funding is maximized, the bold projects in progress are invested in further (and best practices shared), and empty climate rhetoric challenged.

The second ever global water conference was held this week in New York, decades after the first gathering in Argentina in 1977. It begs the questions: why so long? And what can this event hope to deliver?

The increased attention on water insecurity emerging from the climate (COP) discussions has brought water back to the fore. As carbon is a mitigation story, water is the adaptation story. Floods, droughts, cyclones and heatwaves have increasingly dominated global and local news leading to high level political and economic concerns. With vulnerable women and girls often at the most at risk from climate extremes and water insecurity, calls for social justice are yet to be adequately met.

UN Water Conference

The first global water conference laid the foundation for a decade of global action on drinking water supply and sanitation which has informed the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015, MDGs) and the current Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030, SDGs). But despite billions of dollars of investment and major gains in increasing drinking water access, population growth means there have been limited relative improvements. Today, there are an estimated 2 billion people without safely managed drinking water. Water inequalities abound almost everywhere and there is no simple Global North vs Global South separation.

The March meetings aspire to define a global Agenda for Action. Some 2,000 organisations registered to prepare an astonishing myriad ideas and initiatives supported by an expected tsunami of reports in the coming weeks. However, the agenda is unwieldy, political space is narrow, and many global agencies responsible for past and future action will be under intense scrutiny.

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What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

What changes could make a difference before 2030?

First, before more finance is offered, better use of existing funds should be required. For example, development banks and major donors are often generous in short-term loans to build drinking water infrastructure with little accountability for long term services. In rural areas, handpumps and piped schemes can fail in a couple of years and remain broken for weeks or months, or forever. Users will then be less likely to pay, they will be no better off, and financial returns to investment will be marginal. No new infrastructure should be funded without long term service guarantees. Everyone gets a better return if financial risks and social returns are more clearly aligned.


Second, invest and learn from governments with bold plans to protect rivers and aquifers. For example, in northern Kenya, the city of Lodwar survives in one of the driest parts of the planet with long term dependency on groundwater. Based on work by the University of Nairobi, an environmental management plan has been co-created with government to design enforceable steps to protect critical recharge points from pollution and unplanned urbanisation. In Bangladesh, Dhaka has an ambitious river restoration plan, including a river water quality monitoring system to identify and respond to high levels of industrial and domestic pollution. This will inform the sequence and prioritisation of a $8 billion USD of infrastructure investments over the next decade.

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Finally, be wary of the hype and hope. Rhetoric on climate, finance and rights will echo in every room. This should be critically questioned with objective evidence of what meaningful change can be achieved, and for whom. The world waits to see the emergence of a bold plan for a water secure world with those most in need first in line.

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