This is what needs to happen at the UN Water Conference, according to experts

The UN Water Conference could be a 'Paris moment' for water, world leaders and experts hope.

The UN Water Conference could be a 'Paris moment' for water, world leaders and experts hope. Image: REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Ross Chainey
Content Lead, UpLink, World Economic Forum
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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, Special Envoys from the host nations have said, a reference to the 2016 Paris climate agreement.
  • The conference aims to fast-track action on water security, highlight game-changing initiatives, and set commitments for governments and businesses around the world.
  • We asked members of UpLink's community of innovators, as well as policy makers, experts and investors what they hope is achieved at the high-level conference.

"Our global water system is in crisis," write two water experts in this Agenda article.

And they should know. As Special Envoys for water affairs for the governments of the Netherlands and Tajikistan, they are preparing to co-host what has widely been referred to as the biggest conference on water in a generation.

The UN Water Conference, which kicks off today in New York, takes place against a backdrop of widening water insecurity and a global freshwater ecosystem that is under intense pressure.

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 has skyrocketed. At current rates, according to the UN, in 2030 1.6 billon people will lack safely managed drinking water, 2.8 billion will lack sanitation and 1.9 billion people will be unable to access basic hand hygiene facilities.

A landmark report released last week, meanwhile, has found that global freshwater demand will outstrip supply by 40% by the end of the current decade.

This is why, it is hoped, the first UN Water Conference in 46 years could be a watershed moment for UN Sustainable Development Goal 6: ensuring the sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Ahead of the conference, we asked 6 experts, including one of the Special Envoys mentioned above, alongside the World Economic Forum's Head of Food and Water and members of UpLink's network of innovators and investors, what their hopes are for the conference, and what the concrete outcomes could – and should – be.

Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands

"Water is connected to almost every aspect of the environment, our economies, our cities and citizens, social aspects, equity aspects. To progress on the big gap that we have, billions of people lacking access to safe drinking water, to hygiene facilities and sanitation facilities, climate change hitting us first and foremost through water, with 90% of all these disasters being water-related, we need innovation. We need innovative concepts. We need amazing, inclusive partnerships of public and private, or citizen-led, to drive those innovations forward.

"We still have over 2 billion people in this world without access to safe drinking water. Close to 4 billion people are lacking access to sanitation facilities. And it is predominantly girls and women that suffer first and foremost. We have to change it. This is ridiculous. It is shameful for all of us in this world that we more or less accept this status quo."

Roshni Nadar Malhotra, Chairperson of HCLTech

"More than 95% of natural disasters in the world are actually water related. So we cannot actually address the climate crisis or issues around carbon or any of those other nature issues if we don't address water and specifically freshwater. So to me, that is very critical of top of mind.

"I also come from a country where water is a very important issue. I come from India and, you know, we've got severe droughts in places. We had severe floods in places. We've got extreme weather conditions in locations. And all of them have to be water related. And then the catalytic effect of that could be disruption in livelihoods, could be disruption in supply chains, could be disruptions in business, and actually can also lead to disruptions in economic growth. So I think that the freshwater challenge is definitely a priority and it needs much more attention than it currently has."

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Tania Strauss, Head, Food and Water, World Economic Forum

"I think that there are concrete outcomes on a number of fronts. One is really to recognise the role of water around the nexus of issues across climate, health, food and the economy. The second will be ownership at the country level. To really drive that from currently a sort of very sanctioned and segmented part of the economy to a wider set of financing commitments that will be coming from governments, private sector, philanthropy and other stakeholders to really invest in that sort of nexus of solutions.

"And then the third is, I think, a real commitment from the multilateral agencies and others that are working to shepherd these other agendas across this year to already say, do we need a second water conference? And the answer should be no.

Water is where people are coming together with a problem solving attitude. And I think the sort of messaging is we can do it together. Water is my solution. Water is your solution. Water is our solution.

Tania Strauss, Head, Food and Water, World Economic Forum

"What we should be doing is integrating the solutions of this mechanism into the coming food system summit stocktake in Rome, into the SDG stocktake in New York, into the COP28 meetings on climate and not just from a meetings perspective, but in a concrete sort of action-oriented and impact perspective.

"Water is where people are coming together with a problem solving attitude. And I think the sort of messaging is we can do it together. Water is my solution. Water is your solution. Water is our solution."

Snehal Verma, Co-founder and Director, NatureDots

"I hope that we're able to have more discussion at the conference or bring into the light water security from a water quality perspective, because we've been talking a lot about water, water scarcity, water availability, but we also have to look into what's the kind of water that is being available because it is like a ticking time bomb.

"We need a lot of patient capital and finance for solutions. Start-ups like NatureDots, who are working in this space are very different from conventional start-ups or conventional businesses and ideas. We are trying to tackle a big problem and no one solution can solve these problems, so you need an ecosystem of many solutions collaborating and co-creating."

Find out more about NatureDots on UpLink.

Helge Daebel, Partner, Emerald Technology Ventures

"Over the last years there was a lot of focus on carbon footprint, which is very relevant. But given that climate change is really upon us these days, The issues around water are simply magnifying or intensifying … We know that water is the basis for proper, healthy life. It's also the basis for the economy.

"If I have a goal or a wish for this conference, it would be great to to assign somewhat of a clear value to water, because with a value to water that would drive conservation, it would drive the efficiencies that we need."

Alexei Levene, Co-founder, Desolenator

"It's really critical that we see concrete steps that this is an action house, not just a talking shop where we can see real action coming out of this. The task has never been greater. We're seeing the impacts of water stress and the water crisis all over the world. So this is really the moment that we need to come together and create a step change in how we work together to address this crisis.

"Forget the past. Clear the decks. Let's think about the kind of future we want to design. We're not going to solve this in any incremental way, we have to think in a transformative way. We have to think about the kind of future we want for our civilisation and the role that we're going to play and not be consumed by risk. It's important to consider risk, but it's also more fundamental to think about how we can actually design the world that we want to live in. And I think that's if we can all come with that mentality, we can do something extraordinary."

Find out more about Desolenator on UpLink.

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