The first high-level UN conference on freshwater since 1977, the UN 2023 Water Conference opened and was hailed as a “watershed moment” for accelerating global action to achieve the Water Action Decade and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The opening of the meeting coincided with World Water Day, celebrated under the theme, “accelerating change!” While delegates acknowledged that 46 years was a long time between conferences, discussions indicated progress in global cooperation despite setbacks experienced due to challenges such as the impacts of climate change and the degradation of hydrological systems and water resources.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres opened the conference. He highlighted four key actions to accelerate the water agenda: closing the water management gap; massively investing in water and sanitation systems; focusing on water resilience; and addressing climate change.
Delegates elected Willem-Alexander, King of the Netherlands, and Emomali Rahmon, President of Tajikistan, as presidents of the conference.
Delegates in plenary engaged in a general debate featuring statements from several heads of states and many other officials. They focused on, inter alia, partnerships and investment in modernization of water systems; sharing of technological expertise; and advancing equal rights to water and sanitation. Several called for the creation of a UN Special Envoy for Water and for regular high-level UN meetings on water to allow for stocktaking and drive progress.
A number of countries announced water-related voluntary commitments to accelerate progress in the Water Action Decade and the 2030 Agenda. Commitments included:
- Botswana undertaking to improve water resource infrastructure for sustainable water supply, investment in smart water approaches and technology, promotion of reuse and protection of forests, wetlands, rivers and lakes
- Slovenia stating it would accelerate actions for gender equal water governance, management of water ecosystems and upgrading of flood forecasting
- The UK announced a new initiative focused on access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) systems for health, with GBP 18.5 million in funding
- The US announcing it will invest up to USD 49 billion for climate-resilient water and sanitation infrastructure and services, and allocate USD 700 million to support 22 countries under its Global Water Strategy
- Viet Nam pledging to develop policies for major river basins management by 2025 and indicating that by 2030 all households will have access to clean running water.
Two Interactive Dialogues were held in parallel to the plenary session.
The Water for Health dialogue dealt with access to WASH systems, including the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. Moderating the event, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell reported devastating impacts from lack of WASH services, including 700 young children dying daily from diarrheal disease.
Dialogue Co-Chair Zac Goldsmith, UK Minister for Overseas Territories, Commonwealth, Energy, Climate and Environment, announced a new initiative focused on access to WASH systems for health, with GBP 18.5 million in funding.
The session included discussions on equity and inclusivity, including leadership roles for women and girls, as well as menstrual health, and the needs of vulnerable groups such as migrants and people with disabilities. Other topics included the impact of climate change improved water quality, and the need for transformative approaches and public policies to achieve universal and equitable access to WASH for all.
The Water for Sustainable Development dialogue considered valuing water, the water-food-energy nexus, and sustainable economic and urban development.
The dialogue was co-chaired by Dubravka Šuica, European Commission Vice-President for Democracy and Demography, and Li Guoying, Minister of Water Resources, China.
Moderating the event, Myrna Cunningham, Indigenous Peoples Major Group on Sustainable Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, emphasized water’s relevance to all Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Panelists discussed sustainable water management policies and practices such as floating agriculture and social afforestation. Other topics included the need for: technology incubation centers to support solutions in the water-energy-food nexus; multi-stakeholder platforms for inclusive engagement in developing practical tools and instruments; the effects of transforming to a low-carbon society in exacerbating competition for natural resources; and the effects of the war in Ukraine on the resources available in other regions, as well as in the damage to water-relevant infrastructure.
The UN 2023 Water Conference opened with energy and optimism for a true watershed moment. Participants of the first high-level conference organized by the UN General Assembly on water since 1977 began with a clear diagnosis the water crisis. Delegates having tested the waters of the first day, expressed the need for more concrete pledges towards voluntary commitments for accelerated action.