Collective International Financing, Special Envoy on Water Needed to Achieve Goals of Water Action Decade, Speakers Stress at Conference’s Final Interactive Dialogue
Highlighting the importance of international cooperation in achieving the Water Action Decade objectives — including the sustainable management of water resources, data-sharing and development of joint projects — speakers in the fifth and final interactive dialogue of the United Nations 2023 Water Conference called for collectively mobilizing international finance and investment in water, as well as the appointment of a special envoy.
Co-chaired by Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies of Singapore, and Monica Medina, Assistant Secretary for Oceans, International Environment and Scientific Affairs, Department of State of the United States, the dialogue — “Water Action Decade: Accelerating the implementation of the objectives of the Decade, including through the United Nations Secretary-General’s Action Plan” — was moderated by Dongyu Qu, Director-General of Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
“We are falling behind in the task,” Mr. Shanmugaratnam stressed as he opened the dialogue. Floods, droughts, heatwaves and wildfires demonstrate the profound importance of water, which is interacting with global warming and the loss of biodiversity, thus making water both a victim and a cause of climate change. The international community must treat water as a global common good and protect it in the interest of all communities and nations, he said, also observing that atmospheric moisture flows account for the majority of precipitation that most nations depend on. Further, science, evidence and the knowledge of Indigenous communities need to be brought in the economics and governance of water. All solutions must start with valuing water for all its benefits. To this end, water must be priced closer to its true value, he said, emphasizing that pricing is critical to equity and inclusion. Highlighting the importance of mobilizing international finance and investing in water collectively, he supported the call for the appointment of a special envoy on water who can ensure that water remains a priority inside and outside the United Nations system.
Ms. Medina underscored that the world cannot continue with a “business-as-usual” attitude when it comes to water security. Now is the time to discuss how the international community sets the course for the rest of the Water Action Decade. She voiced support for reforming and streamlining the multinational development financing institutions to better integrate water and climate into their work, adding that finance ministers must recognize the value of water. Further, vulnerable and marginalized groups must be included in decision-making at all levels. She also added her support for appointing a Special Envoy on Water that would be a strong voice for water in a variety of venues that do not currently prioritize or even incorporate water issues into their thinking. Moreover, she highlighted the need to mainstream water across the United Nations and international organizations. Water connects all the Sustainable Development Goals and is how the international community feels and sees the effects of climate change. Water issues must be considered centrally as part of decision-making discussions in the United Nations and across all sectors of society, she underlined, declaring: “We must not lose sight of near and long-term opportunities […] that are in the horizon,” including how water will be reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals Summit in September.
A panel discussion was then held, featuring Tanja Fajon, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign and European Affairs of Slovenia; Basuki Hadimuljono, Minister for Public Works and Public Housing of Indonesia; Zulfiya Suleimenova, Minister for Environment and Natural Resources of Kazakhstan; and Usha Rao-Monari, Associate Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Ms. Fajon said achieving universal access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene calls for not just acceleration but transformation. Underscoring the need for a perceptual and cultural change, she said water must go from one of the most undervalued resources to a global public good. It should be a human right for all but not free of charge, she said, adding that water is more than just a resource for humans; it is the lifeblood of nature and a potential driver for transformational change in tackling the triple planetary crises. Water can also drive a change in the flawed economic system, she said, pointing to its role in inclusive growth. Only a water-secure world can be a world at peace, she said, expressing concern about the invisibility of water on the international agenda, as well as the fragmentation of water action. Water is hardly mentioned, even in parenthesis, in the Organization’s processes, she noted, expressing support for the appointment of a Special Envoy on Water. “He — or preferably she — would ensure visibility of water on the global political agenda, galvanize political will, strengthen coherence of action, mobilize additional funding and secure the follow-up of the outcomes of this conference”, she said.
Mr. Hadimuljono, noting the many causes of water stress, from pollution to climate change, said the Water Action Decade aims to counter those challenges. Recalling the 2016 General Assembly resolution “International Decade (2018–2028) for Action — Water for Sustainable Development”, he said it stressed the importance of integrated water-resources management, as well as the need for cooperation and partnership at all levels. Integrated water-resources management can be defined as a process that promotes the coordinated development and management of water-related resources in order to maximize economic and social welfare without compromising the sustainability of the ecosystem. It is based on the realization that water resources are an integral component of ecosystem and natural resources. It is a new paradigm which prioritizes cross-sectoral integration, he noted, adding that this requires cooperation from Governments, academia, business entities, communities and media. It is essential to create public demand for sustainable water, sanitation and public health, he said, adding that his Government has aligned its policies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals target of 90 per cent access to proper sanitation.
Ms. Suleimenova, describing water as “a blue gold”, said it is difficult to underestimate its importance. It is an intrinsic part of people’s lives, cultures and civilization and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is impossible without putting water at its core. As such, water is a provider of ecosystem services that allow for eradication of poverty and achievement of global food security, she said, underlining that, while water is basically an enabler of life, it is endangered. The pressure on water and water-related ecosystems is increasing, with climate change as “a risk multiplier”. Calling for bold actions both at national and transboundary levels to protect and preserve finite water resources and their ecosystems, she spotlighted the situation in Kazakhstan. As a large country with ecosystems spanning from steppes to glaciers with uneven distribution of water over its territory, Kazakhstan pays special attention to effective management of water resources at the national level while working with its neighbours to ensure the protection of water. “Water is not a resource; water is right,” she asserted. Providing an example of interdependence of water with many other development issues, she described Kazakhstan’s experience with the tragedy of the Aral Sea, which was once the fourth biggest Sea, but is now no longer there. The country has been making consistent efforts, and to a degree, the Sea has returned, and so have the people who see their future at the shore of the Aral Sea.
Ms. Rao-Monari, highlighting the 2030 Agenda adopted almost eight years ago, said that its spirit of universality, integration and global partnership still needs to permeate the way in which humanity’s most precious resource is approached. She stressed that a global partnership for water equals partnership for development and social equity. UNDP works with its partners to achieve structural transformation around three crucial objectives: water access, water quality and water security. Its goal is to achieve equitable access to clean and sustainable water for all, particularly for women and girls. Warning that the collective mismanagement of the resources has resulted in 2 billion people around the world without access to clear water and sanitation, she underlined that water has to be treated as a global common good. The interconnectedness of water to other areas — such as food, energy and climate — demonstrates water’s criticality to all the Sustainable Development Goals. Calling for a multi-sector, multi-stakeholder approach, she called on the international community to value price appropriately to ensure both equity and efficiency. Moreover, robust water data must form part of the decision-making tools for all, she said, underlining the need to work with local communities to better manage their ecosystems through nature-based solutions.
The interactive dialogue also included three discussants, including Mina Guli, Founder and CEO of the Thirst Foundation; Sivan Ya’ari, Founder and CEO of Innovation: Africa; and Torgny Holmgren, Executive Director of the Stockholm International Water Institute.
Ms. Guli, noting the many marathons she has run in Australia, Türkiye, India and Kenya, said that it exposed her to a wide range of water issues. People around the world are demanding more than numbers and pledges on pages, she said, calling for real action. While the Conference has forged new relationships and has raised interest in water to levels never seen before, “it's not enough”, she stressed. What the world needs is not a commitment to action today, but execution of that action tomorrow. Pledges and promises need to be translated into policies and practices, agendas need to become action and water needs to remain at the top of the global agenda. Expressing support for a special envoy for water, she said water needs a champion who can reach across sectors and political divides, mobilize investment and accelerate action. Calling for radically inclusive coalitions that represent not just those in the room but also Indigenous communities, women and girls, she said action on water is not just the right thing to do, but the only thing to do.
Ms. Ya’ari said her organization uses technology to bring clean water and electricity to rural villages across Africa. Working with 45 local contractors on that continent, her organization is able to monitor, live, every single solar water pumping system project. This is crucial for ensuring that there is no over-pumping, she said, sharing a number of concrete observations. The amount of water is not the challenge, she pointed out, but the ability to pump it. Drilling costs are too high, and as a result, many boreholes are shallow and unsustainable. To reach deep aquifers, organizations like hers have to undertake a costly deep drilling procedure. Subsidizing the cost of drilling will drastically increase the number of deep, sustainable boreholes, she said, also noting that there are very few or no tax incentives for her organization. Stressing that small-scale, stand-alone solar water projects are the most economical and sustainable solution to Africa’s water crisis, she also stressed the importance of data-sharing.
Mr. Holmgren highlighted the dire need of cross-sectoral solutions for a just transition of societies towards a water and climate secure future for all. Noting that actions must be rooted in local realities, he said that linking global goals with local actions is quite difficult and complex. Turning to the Water Action Agenda, he said that “the real challenge now is to breathe life into it”. To this end, there must be a set of consistent coordination mechanisms as well as solid leadership. This includes not only a global leadership of a Special Envoy on Water and Sanitation, but “leadership and accountability of each of us” to assume shared responsibility for advancing on the Water Action Agenda together. Cooperation across sector will be an imperative in years to come, he said, describing water as “a true connector” of actors, sectors, countries and all the Sustainable Development Goals. ·However, to be successful, the Water Action Agenda needs to be embraced by other communities, those of health, food, energy, oceans, climate and finance. Finance and improved governance will be key in this respect, he noted.
As the floor opened, speakers highlighted the need to improve water governance, increase investment in water infrastructure, enhance water data and monitoring, strengthen capacity development and promote innovation and technology transfer. To this end, they cited the Water Action Decade as a unique opportunity to mobilize efforts at all levels and promote the sustainable management of water resources for the benefit of all.
Kenya’s delegate said that her country has implemented a water development policy and strategies aimed at conserving water and preventing pollution. It is on track to implement Sustainable Development Goal 6, she said, calling for clear targets and indicators. Kenya has put in effective water governance structures and is providing incentives to private sector, she said.
Egypt’s delegate said that his country’s presidency of the twenty-seventh Conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) was able to bring water to the heart of climate action. Water and its relationship with climate change was acknowledged for the first time ever, he said, highlighting the Action for Water Adaptation and Resilience initiative, launched in collaboration with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). He also called for a follow-up mechanism to position the Water Action Agenda as a catalyst towards the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The representative of France, stressing the importance of coherent governance of water, expressed support for the appointment of a Special Envoy on Water. The envoy should be given a strong mandate, she said, adding that France will mobilize funding towards that, so that that person can begin work as soon as possible. She also pointed to the absence of a mechanism for regular exchanges on this matter between all Member States.
Ukraine’s delegate — describing water as a “fundamental part of human existence” — underscored that development is impossible without water which “unites us economically, socially, culturally and politically”. The Russian Federation violated water security in 2014 and the occupation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine has exacerbated issues with access to water resources. Rivers, lakes and seas have become a battlefield in the war, impacted by rockets, attacks and shelling. Despite this — even during the war — Ukraine continues to implement sustainable water resource-management, he stressed, drawing attention to its transboundary cooperation with neighbouring countries in the field of water resource management. Moreover, the country has introduced a sustainable agricultural practice to reduce carbon emissions.
The representative of Colombia, voicing concern over enormous delays with regards to drinking water and sanitation, said: “We need to speed things up.” Highlighting the difference between urban and rural life in in her country, she cautioned that small municipalities and Indigenous communities do not have services of water and sanitation. In this context, it is essential to encourage community organizations to serve these communities. It can be a service that is technologically adapted to these communities through the protection of river basins and collective management systems. On global support for local action, she underlined the importance of community management of water and wastewater in solving the issue of the lack of drinking water and sanitation. She further reported that in Colombia, there are still boys and girls dying from malnutrition.
Australia’s delegate emphasized that the international community must include the water stories of women, girls and Indigenous People to achieve clean water and sanitation for all. She described the Special Envoy on Water as a powerful tool to bring political awareness of the importance of water in the lives of all people and other goals such food and energy security. Water is essential to climate, development and environmental resilience challenges, she said, adding that Indigenous Peoples should be involved in water management.
In closing remarks, Mr. Shanmugaratnam reiterated the unanimous consensus on the need of the Special Envoy. He voiced support for the broader evolution of the multilateral financial institutions — such as the World Bank — and the global architecture of multilateral finance as they are critical for the mobilization of capital for water action. The international community should focus on the consolidation of data on water that is solely lacking and develop mechanisms within the United Nations system to collect, analyse and share such data. Moreover, to bring coherence to various institutional initiatives and mechanisms, it will be helpful for the Secretary-General to formulate a plan of action that ensures not only the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal 6, but also the centrality of water in the action plan.
Ms. Medina called for the inclusion of women, youth, Indigenous Peoples, disabled persons, business, non-governmental organizations and innovators to solve the issue of water. “We need everyone; every perspective is important and everyone has a contribution to make. Without everyone’s contribution, we won’t solve the problem,” she asserted, emphasizing that every single person on the planet depends on water to live. Echoing the words of the Japanese writer Ryunosuke Satoro, she said that “individually, we are one drop, but, together, we are an ocean”. “Let us be the ocean for our children,” she concluded.
Also speaking today were ministers, senior officials and representatives of Tajikistan, Germany, Namibia, Botswana, Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia, Netherlands, Romania, Solomon Islands, Canada and India. A representative of the European Union, also spoke.
Representatives of the World Meteorological Organization and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also spoke.
Also speaking were representatives of Xylem and the French Water Partnership.