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UN conference marks watershed moment to tackle water crisis, ensure water-secure future

The UN 2023 Water Conference in New York culminated on Friday, March 24, 2023, with a breakthrough response to the global water crisis, with governments, businesses and civil society committing billions of dollars to advance the water agenda, a dealmaker for accelerating sustainable development overall.

UN Water Conference
Secretary-General António Guterres (right) and General Assembly President Csaba Kőrösi (2nd right) in the gallery of the assembly hall during the closing of the UN Water Conference

Some 10,000 participants gathered at UN Headquarters and online from Wednesday, March 22 to urgently scale up action to address the water crisis and ensure equitable access to water for all. Co-hosted by the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Republic of Tajikistan, the Conference brought together world leaders, civil society, business leaders, young people, scientists, academics, the UN System and others from across sectors – agriculture, energy, environment and water – around a common goal: to urgently tackle the water crisis and set the world back on track to achieving  Sustainable Development Goal 6 – On Clean Water and Sanitation.

“The commitments at this Conference will propel humanity towards the water-secure future every person on the planet needs,” noted UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the closing ceremony.

To achieve this, the Secretary-General highlighted key game-changers: from reinforcing water’s place as a fundamental human right and reducing the pressures on the hydrological system, to developing new, alternative food systems to reduce the unsustainable use of water in food production and agriculture and designing and implementing a new global water information system to guide plans and priorities by 2030.

The Secretary-General also advocated for integrating the approach on water, ecosystems and climate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen communities – from resilient infrastructure, water pipelines and wastewater treatment plans, to ensuring every person in the world is protected with early warning systems against natural disasters by 2027; and continued to press for climate justice and global action to limit global warming to a 1.5-degree rise. Lastly, he called for a dramatic acceleration in resources and investment into the ability of all countries to reach SDG 6.

UN 2023 Water Conference – A watershed moment for the SDGs

Access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene is the most basic human need for health and well-being, and a declared human right. But some 2 billion people around the world still lack access to safe drinking water and 40 per cent of the world’s population are affected by water scarcity. Agriculture demands alone account for some 70% of water usage. Adding to the pressure, more than 90 per cent of disasters are water-related, with climate change hitting hardest through water. And humanity’s demand for water keeps growing, with pressure on freshwater projected to increase by more than 40 per cent by 2050.

Against this background, conference deliberations ranged from the urgency of the water crisis, including its role in forced migration, climate change and conflicts to stressing its critical link to good health, poverty reduction and food security. Attention was also given to solutions, with deliberations spanning the need for better data collection, enhanced governance systems, capacity development opportunities and funding gaps in the water sector. With financing needs at between $182 to more than $600 billion annually, the importance of unlocking financing and innovative funding schemes, calling for new innovations and investments at scale in the water economy was also underscored.

Transformative Water Action Agenda

Responding to this, the Water Action Agenda, the key outcome of the Conference, captured over 700 commitments aimed at driving transformation from a global water crisis to a water-secure world. The agenda represents the global community’s bold resolve to address the water challenges through a more coordinated and results-driven approach (see select list of commitments below). Several other follow-up steps are also under consideration – including the appointment of a Special Envoy on Water.

The conference outcomes will also receive concrete follow-up in three key upcoming Summits: the SDG Summit during the UN General Assembly in September 2023, the Summit of the Future in 2024, the World Social Summit in 2025, and through the annual High- level political forum on sustainable development, Conference of Parties and other United Nations processes, as well as the Dushanbe Water Process.

“At the 2023 UN Water Conference a determined global community came together to make a difference not only for the future of water but for the future of the world,” said Mr. Li Junhua, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and Conference Secretary-General.

“I hope that the energy we experienced at this Conference will flow on to the SDG Summit in September when the world gathers together to advance the transformative actions that we need, to realize all SDGs, and secure a sustainable future for everyone, everywhere, on a healthy planet.”

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