The first UN Water Conference in almost five decades is taking place in New York on 22-24 March, co-hosted by the Netherlands and Tajikistan.
Nature and Biodiversity

What is the UN 2023 Water Conference and why is it so important? Two experts explain

Deep dive

The first UN Water Conference in almost five decades is taking place in New York on 22-24 March, co-hosted by the Netherlands and Tajikistan. Image: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

Henk Ovink
Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, Kingdom of the Netherlands, Netherlands Government
Sulton Rahimzoda
Special Envoy of the President of the Republic of Tajikistan to the Water and Climate Coalition Leaders, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the International Fund for saving the Aral Sea
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  • The first UN Water Conference in almost five decades is taking place in New York on 22-24 March, co-hosted by the Netherlands and Tajikistan.
  • It could be a ‘Paris moment’ for water, writes the countries’ Special Envoys for Water.
  • Around 3.6 billion people struggle to get enough water to meet their needs for at least one month every year, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
  • The Global Commission on the Economics of Water, launched at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in 2022, will report on game-changing ways to value and manage water as a common good.

Our global water system is in crisis. Despite safe water and sanitation being a human right, billions of people lack access to these essentials for life, according to the United Nations.

This month’s UN 2023 Water Conference – the first in almost 50 years – could be a watershed moment for UN Sustainable Development Goal 6: ensuring the sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

These are the critical foundations on which many of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) depend, especially health, food, gender equity, education, livelihoods, industry, climate and the environment.

We hope it could result in a “Paris moment” for water – with outcomes as critical for water as the Paris Agreement has been for climate action.

Meeting drinking water, sanitation and hygiene targets. UN water conference 2023
A snapshot of the water crisis. Image: UN

What is the UN Water Conference and what are its themes?

Since the first UN Water Conference was held in Argentina in 1977, the Earth’s population has doubled to 8 billion people and demand for water is skyrocketing. The UN 2023 Water Conference is, as the UN says, the most important water event in a generation.

It also marks the halfway point through the International Decade for Action “Water for Sustainable Development”, adopted by the UN General Assembly on World Water Day – 22 March 2018 – to help put a greater focus on water.

Agenda

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Officially titled the "The United Nations Conference on the Midterm Comprehensive Review of the Implementation of the Objectives of the International Decade for Action 'Water for Sustainable Development', (2018-2028)," the Conference aims to raise awareness of the global water crisis and decide on action to achieve internationally agreed water-related goals.

Co-hosted by the governments of the Netherlands and Tajikistan, it will be held in New York on 22-24 March and support game-changing solutions for the multifaceted crises of “too much water”, such as storms and floods; “too little water”, such as droughts and water scarcity; and “too dirty water”, such as polluted water.

1. Water for Health: Access to 'WASH' (Global Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene) including the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation

2. Water for Sustainable Development: Valuing water, the water-energy-food nexus and sustainable economic and urban development.

3. Water for Climate, Resilience and Environment: Source to sea, biodiversity, climate, resilience and disaster risk reduction.

4. Water for Cooperation: Transboundary and international water cooperation, cross sectoral cooperation and water across the 2030 Agenda.

5. Water Action Decade: Accelerating the implementation of the objectives of the Decade for Action, including through the UN Secretary-General’s Action Plan.

Why should we pay attention to the UN 2023 Water Conference?

We can’t live without water, but it’s a finite resource whose supply we’ve been taking for granted – and times have changed.

Since the late 1970s, when the last Water Conference took place, the world has been focused on the business of rapid growth and development. Water was available, and its quality and supply was predictable, allowing us to raise families, build cities and factories, prevent the spread of disease, boost farm yields and bring more land under cultivation.

But a growing global population – predicted by the UN to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 – coupled with economic development and changing consumption patterns means the demands on our water resources are far greater than 50 years ago.

Natural resources crises, including for water and food, come within the top 10 biggest risks facing humanity in the coming decade, in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023. It cites one UN estimate that places the gap between water demand and supply at 40% by 2030, with a “dramatic and unequal increase in demand between countries”.

Population estimates, 1950-2022, and projections with 95 per cent prediction intervals, 2022-2050, by region. UN water conference 2023
Population growth estimates by region. Image: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs

As we continue to over-deplete, mismanage and abuse this vital resource, water is becoming more scarce, more polluted and contested at an unprecedented rate and scale. And as global warming continues to take effect, ordinary weather is becoming a thing of the past, exacerbating our water crisis, with some regions more affected than others. Wind and rainfall conditions have become more extreme and harder to predict. This is affecting water availability and supply.

The World Meteorological Organization estimates that 3.6 billion people struggle to get enough water to meet their needs for at least one month every year, and it forecasts that 5 billion people – more than half of humanity – will be facing the same plight by 2050.

But this is not just about getting enough to drink, wash with or to water crops. Extreme weather events sometimes bring too much water all at once. Floods, hurricanes and other water-related events take lives and destroy homes, livelihoods and infrastructure. UN-Water, which coordinates efforts by UN agencies on this issue, says that almost three-quarters of all natural disasters were water-related between 2001 and 2018.

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It’s clear that we need to rethink our approach to how we can best allocate and value water, and that’s what this Conference will be about. How can we share the cost of preventing or mitigating droughts and floods exacerbated by global warming?

We need some clear thinking about how to improve the governance of water supplies to ensure everyone has access to water to drink and wash – how can we ensure our regulation of distribution is effective, fair, just and has democratic oversight? How can we share the cost of preventing disasters?

This Conference will provide a roadmap for countries, sectors and river basins. It will seek better outcomes for all, on all water-related challenges, in order to accelerate the delivery of the UN SDGs.

Global water withdrawals throughout the previous century. UN Water Conference 2023
How water use has grown over the past century. Image: UN-Water

What is the goal of the Water Conference?

One of the main outcomes will be a Water Action Agenda filled with game-changing commitments from governments, civil society and the private sector that will truly accelerate our progress towards water-related goals and targets.

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said: “The UN 2023 Water Conference in March must result in a bold Water Action Agenda that gives our world's lifeblood the commitment it deserves.”

In the same way as “1.5°C” enshrines the global community’s commitment to fight climate change, the Water Action Agenda aims to manifest the political ambition to address global water challenges and fundamentally change the way we understand, value and manage water.

This is not about more talk, but about a well-defined plan for action – a way to gather the commitments of all stakeholders on Agenda 2030, and SDG 6 in particular. It is designed to be a means rather than an end in itself. We want to use existing structures as much as possible, both in terms of implementation, monitoring and reporting.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about closing the gap between global water demand and supply?

Last year, the Global Commission on the Economics of Water was created, convened by the Netherlands and the OECD, and launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Its purpose is to make a “significant and ambitious contribution” to water use.

Ahead of the Conference, the Commission will release a report that will look at new policies, approaches and collaboration that go beyond traditional economic thinking to radically change how we understand, value and manage water as a common good.

It should provide fresh, sorely needed ideas and perspectives about how to achieve better water governance. It will show how we can invest in better data to improve our responses to water-related disasters; how we can increase access to water and sanitation to reach those left behind; and how we must invest more in solutions to tackle climate change, hunger and biodiversity loss.

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Key areas to watch at the UN 2023 Water Conference

The private sector has enormous potential to advance SDG 6, so watch out for an announcement on how businesses plan to increase their impact in this area.

We’re also expecting to see some announcements on how water authorities can work together to increase their impact, particularly through collaboration between the North and South to improve water management.

Also expect to see some news from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement on strengthening cooperation on meteorological data and policy-making for improved disaster-risk reduction and national implementation.

The World Economic Forum's UpLink social innovation platform and technology conglomerate HCL partnered in 2022 to accelerate the innovation agenda for water.

Top innovators from UpLink and HCL’s Aquapreneur Innovation Initiative will attend the Conference in New York to showcase their diverse solutions and connect with experts and investors.

How to follow the meeting

Ahead of the Conference, the UN will publish its 2023 World Water Development Report (WWDR) on 21 March.

Over the course of the Conference itself, there will be an opening and a closing ceremony, six plenary meetings and five interactive dialogues touching on the five themes. There will also be four special events.

You can watch sessions live on the UN's Web TV platform.

The week after the conference, on 28 March, the Forum will host a livestreamed high-level panel session entitled Beyond the UN 2023 Water Conference: Leaders on What's Next. [Information to come].

Public and private stakeholders will come together virtually to discuss the main outcomes of the UN 2023 Water Conference and the actions required to ensure a water-positive future for people and planet.

Videos to watch before the UN Water 2023 Conference

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Podcasts on the water crisis

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