Experts warn that UN Water Conference does not build sufficiently on Mar del Plata

Is the UN 2023 Water Conference learning the lessons of history?

9 Mar 2023 by The Water Diplomat

United Nations Conference opens in Mar del Plata

A recent article by prominent water experts warns that the upcoming UN Water Conference does not build sufficiently on lessons from its highly successful predecessor, the UN Water Conference at Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 1977. The article , published in the International Journal of Water Resources Development and authored by world renowned experts, Professors Asit Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada, reviews the preparations and the lasting impact of Mar del Plata, Argentina in 1977, and warns that the upcoming UN Water Conference does not build sufficiently on lessons from its successful predecessor.     

In their article, the authors point out that in the past, such thematic UN conferences have been preceded by the appointment of a mandated Secretary General with a high profile and who is known for his or her interest in water issues. Leadership is an important factor, and in 1976 the Minister of Irrigation and Hydropower, Yahia Abdel Mageed, was appointed to carry out this task. His first step was the selection of team of experts who could advise on the contents of the conference and a draft plan of action.

The Mar del Plata conference set in motion national studies resulting in national reports ‘on the availability and use of water and comprehensive assessments of planning needs and management practices’. Countries were therefore encouraged to prepare papers for the conference on their water problems and potential solutions, preparing themselves technically for the upcoming conference. Secondly, the conference was to set in motion the first International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade, 1981-1990, laying the basis for joint international action to improve access to water and sanitation at a global scale.  

The UN 2023 Water Conference is the first high-level meeting on water since the 2015 adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include goal 6 on water and sanitation to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Since Mar del Plata, fundamental changes have taken place in the size of the global population, the size of the world economy,  the reduction of poverty, and the emergence of climate change as a threat to water security. This again requires future oriented planning both at the global and the national levels.

The authors warn that in the current planning, the world’s current and future water problems are not being analysed sufficiently holistically. In addition, rather than lasting two weeks, the conference is lasting two days, which is not enough to delve into the breadth and depth of water issues. Some key issues are not on the table, for example the lack of access to water for indigenous people in developed countries, the quality of global data for planning purposes, or the aim to make water utilities carbon neutral.