Hearing the Unheard for the UN Water Action Agenda

by Barbara Schreiner, Executive Director of Water Integrity Network and Alana Potter, Executive Director of End Water Poverty

1 Mar 2023 by The Water Diplomat

The UN 2023 Water Conference (UN Water 2023) will take place in March at the UN Headquarters in New York. It has been 46 years since a UN Water Conference was last held. The vision of the Conference is explicitly inclusive: “The Conference and its preparatory process will be organized based on the following three principles:

Inclusive: both in terms of (a) the Conference process (ensure vertical and horizontal

inclusiveness) and in terms of (b) the results (leaving no-one behind). This participatory, collaborative and inclusive approach helps to ensure strengthening capacity at all levels: individual, informal and institutional”. (see https://sdgs.un.org/sites/default/files/2021-11/Vision_Statement_UN2023_Water_Conference.pdf)

Yet  those systematically left behind are also left behind in the Conference.  The poorest of the poor, those at the most distant edges of the water discourse, those who trek long distances every day to collect water, those that the Conference will develop strategies to include, are largely excluded from participating in it.  

Their right to express, at the highest level, the daily human rights violations that they experience is being violated. This is problematic for the UN – the global champion of human rights. The human rights-based approach, which is central to the work of End Water Poverty and its more than 150 members in 80 countries, is based on the principles of universality, indivisibility, equality and non-discrimination, participation, and accountability. It is closely aligned with the concept of water integrity as espoused by the Water Integrity Network, which takes root in transparency, participation, accountability and anti-corruption. UN2023 is failing to live up to the principles of both participation and accountability. How can processes be accountable when the very people that they will affect are not at the table? How can this conference enable both ‘duty-bearers’ to meet their obligations, and ‘rights-holders’ to claim their rights when the rights holders cannot be present?

They are excluded by the cost of travelling to the USA, the difficulties in getting visas to enter the USA (even people with power and status struggle with this!), and the accreditation criteria and protocols of UN Water 2023 which exclude grassroots groups that are not legally registered in their country of origin. How then do the voices of the waterless get to be heard in the UN conference? By proxy? Through NGOs and government representatives? How do grassroots groups become part of the conversation at the national level, let alone the international level?

The multilateral system is premised on the idea that Member States have the interests of their citizens at heart. The increasing repression of civic space tracked annually by organisations like CIVICUS, from tokenistic public participation processes, to intimidating, threatening, and assassinating activists, to strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP), and the prevalence of draft legislation that restricts and limits civil society in many countries, suggest that this is not the case.  

The UN is now missing a significant opportunity to convene the voices of the waterless, the defenders of water, those who see water from a different end of the lens; to bring to the table those who object to the increasingly neo-liberal agenda of the global water sector, the emphasis on the role of the private sector, and the elusive potential of ‘blended finance’.

End Water Poverty, the Water Integrity Network and partners[1] are hosting an event in New York to create a space for groups unheard in local, regional, and global processes and systems to bring their lived experience to the fore through videos. Others, like the Government of the Netherlands, are engaging with CSOs and networks and supporting their participation. But this is not sufficient.

If the unheard are not at the conference, every effort should be made to make sure they are front and centre in the Water Action Agenda. The UN2023 Conference is a significant opportunity to define a “bold” Water Action Agenda that, in the UN Secretary General’s words, “must give our world’s lifeblood the commitment it deserves” and gives space for the voices of rights holders in safeguarding the human rights to water and sanitation. Water Action plans must contribute to SDG16 for just, peaceful and inclusive societies, if they are to meaningfully bring us forward on SDG6.

Human rights violations are a symptom of structural inequality, and access to safe, affordable, sustainable water and sanitation remains divided by race, class and gender. The Water Action Agenda must foreground the agency and voices of groups marginalized by poverty, gender, religion, ethnicity, citizenship (or lack of it), or any other reason. These communities must be deliberately and consciously sought out and listened to, by those at local, regional, national or international level who have the power to act. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation says “People are the ones organising and coping with water scarcity. They are on the frontlines of the water crisis [and] have the knowledge of how to sustainably manage water in their territories. They are ensuring that rights holders are at the forefront of the water agenda – without them, there is no water agenda...”

[1] End Water Poverty, OHCHR, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Safe Water and Sanitation; Water Integrity Network (WIN); ONGAWA Engineering for Human Development; Simavi; WASH United/ Make Rights Real; Coalition Eau; ANEW; Water Youth Network; United Youth for Peace, Education, Transparency and Development in Liberia (UYPETDL) Inc.; RWSN; KEWASNET; Water Witness International; Freshwater Action Network Mexico; Redes del Agua Latin America; ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability; Tahzing Dong, Bangladesh; United Cities and Local Government (UCLG) and ESCR-Net, with Member State support from Liberia and South Africa.