Has the UN Water Conference lived up to the expectations as a watershed moment?
Last month, the international community came together in New York for the UN Water Conference. Hosted from 22 to 24 of March, the conference aimed to bring actions on water in line with achieving the sustainable development targets and international goals, providing opportunity for further commitments to be made. In total, more than 2000 attendees were recorded across the 3 day period.
More than anything, the effects of climate change have been felt most acutely through water. In the last 50 years, more than half of global crises have been water-related.
Exacerbated weather patterns, caused by rising temperatures linked to emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs), have resulted in further scarcity, over-abundance, or increased water pollution, with devastating consequences.
Just last year, mega-floods in Pakistan caused by unusually strong monsoon rain, affected 33 million people, including 8 million displaced and over 1730 casualties, as a third of the country ended up under water. Loss of industry, a growing health crisis, destroyed infrastructure and crops means that the country is expected to take between three to five years to fully recover — making it highly vulnerable to future natural disasters.
But while poorer countries are often more at risk from severe water-stress, developed countries are not exempt. Europe’s droughts and warm weather could, should they persist, put into question its food security, while communities in the western US have experienced increased water contamination caused by climate-change induced droughts and fires.
Water is life
Aside from the threat caused by large-scale disaster, maintaining water security is central to all aspects of human activity.
For example, despite growing efforts to explore lab-based options, food security remains heavily reliant on agriculture — a water intensive sector. As a cornerstone for population health, agriculture also comprises 4% of global GDP, and as much as 25% of national GDP in some developing countries. As such, in cases where water security is compromised, impacts are also felt at the economic level.
But water is also central to energy and industrial production, transport or basic health and hygiene, leading countries to be under increasing stress as a result of the breakdown in the water cycle; in some cases resulting in growing tensions over shared water resources, or even pressure from water-related conflict at the local level.
Acknowledged by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his statement at the conference’s opening ceremony, this was also reflected in the Conference’s focus on promoting multi-level cooperation. Emphasis on transboundary cooperation, for example, featured prominently, even resulting in a rare joint commitment to establish Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) in the Niger River Basin (NRB) by its different riparians.
This is especially significant as questions of sovereignty and limited amounts of trust between nations tend to be core challenges in the establishment of transboundary agreements, despite their effectiveness in promoting water security. In the case of the NRB, successful implementation of the joint commitment would improve regional adaptation and mitigation of climate change through better water governance.
While the conference was not expected to produce any agreement, it did result in the setting up of a new Water Action Agenda as its main outcome, currently comprising 734 project proposals and commitments, including the aforementioned NRB joint commitment.
However, for the most part, the conference has received a mixed reception, invoking disappointment over the initiative operating on a voluntary and non-binding basis, and criticism over the lack of coordinated action between the different commitments. The need for a formal global agreement for concerted governance was also recognised by the organisers following the close of the conference.
Disappointment is understandable considering the already fragmented nature of the water governance sector. Factors include divergence in the evolution of research and institutions on water, a lack of concrete inter-institutional links, but also, and perhaps most importantly, the dichotomy between international aspirations and the diversity of on-the-ground realities across countries. This has resulted in reduced effectiveness and efficiency in responses to water crises as actors navigate and engage in uncoordinated and contradictory approaches at all levels of governance.
Additionally, there is comparatively low governmental engagement with the contributions made under the Water Action Agenda. In total, governmental commitments account for 26%, with NGOs having submitted the majority — 43%. Governments’ cooperation is critical for enacting change — due to water falling under their legal, political and financial jurisdiction — and so low engagement could put into question the Water Action Agenda’s effectiveness.
It is worth mentioning, however, that establishing a binding agreement on water would not necessarily guarantee engagement across all governments. The UN already has several binding agreements touching on water governance, notably the 1992 UN Water Convention. In this case, China and India’s decision not to participate continues to cause tensions over the use of water with their neighbours — as seen in China’s relationship with Mekong riparians.
Governments tend to be cautious when engaging in binding agreements, due to the fact that protecting their sovereignty and prioritising internal security often compels them to put their own interests first.
Currently, the water governance landscape remains fragmented.
Despite the conference demonstrating a conscious effort to work towards a sustainable and secure water future by creating a platform at the international level, it also highlighted the UN’s weakness in enforcing concrete action.
Nevertheless, the conference still represents a step forward. What remains to be seen is whether this renewed impetus will result in actual timely action able to respond to the climate crisis.
For the moment, expectations have turned to the COP28 conference scheduled for November.