Interview: Lesha Witmer

The Water Diplomat talks to Lesha Witmer, advocacy lead for the Steering Committee of the Women for Water Partnership

8 May 2023 by The Water Diplomat

Lesha Witmer


Tobias Schmitz: Looking back at the UN 2023 Water Conference, we had a 3-day window to catch up on the last 46 years since the last official UN water conference in Mar del Plata. So, it was a huge opportunity but also a big challenge to get the most out of it.  From your perspective, how did you feel it was organised? Did we squeeze out of it what we could have?

Lesha Witmer: Actually, it is quite intriguing. Of course, we knew that three days was not going to be enough after 46 years.  We knew that no way you could really capture developments and concerns of fort-six years (or even 5 years – the last discussion on SDG6 in the HLPF) in three days. So, we knew that. But we also know that it had taken a lot of persuasion to even get a UN conference, since there are many diplomats who would have taken any excuse not to engage. So, the fact that we even got the resolution passed for the conference was already a sort of small miracle.

The second part, which is also interesting, is that states did not have to negotiate, and everything was voluntary. Many of us were very disappointed with this, but to be very honest the mere fact that they did not have to negotiate actually created a conversation. Diplomats would normally have held their cards close to their chest and avoided discussions and hard commitments. So, through this, suddenly many themes could aactually be discussed. From my perspective it was good to see much more attention for capacity development and education at different levels, the need for enhancing the workforce / more qualified jobs, more knowledge exchange (Incl. Citizen Science and Indigenous / traditional) and getting money “to the ground”. or were not met with very defensive reactions (transboundary cooperation e.g.) and looking at future exchanges at UN level.

Also, we had not only the official representatives of the countries in in New York, but there was a large contingent of technical people from the capitals, and the atmosphere in the end was a blessing. Having said that, of course now we need to make sure that some of the interesting stuff that was discussed gets some official recognition and follow up. So that's the big, big challenge for the next High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) in July 2023, there is also then the official SDG 6 evaluation, so in that respect it is good timing. The HLPF can actually open the gate for the next step. So, what we do in the next two months is crucial. We are lucky to have some chairs of key processes at the UN who are very supportive and are working very, very hard and who are in favour of the process. It is crucial that the people chairing / convening those meetings are in our corner and have been brave enough to put some issues out there for discussion.

Next year I don't know who will be there: there will be another President of the General Assembly, ECOSOC etcetera. So, we also have to take advantage of the fact that these people are in those seats at the moment and willing to support the process.  And then another remarkable thing, which people may not fully appreciate is that there were some 150 signatures in favour of the appointment of a Special Envoy for Water.  But most of the major countries were missing: China was not there, Russia was not there, the US was not there, India was not there, Türkiye was not there. So, this creates a situation because the UN is always trying to do things by consensus. And in the end, they just counted the numbers and said OK, one country, one vote, 151 out of 193. You know what? We're just going to do it. Which is very brave. So that tells you something about the leadership, who thought, what the heck, let’s just do it. So that was a very interesting move politically.

And then there is still the ‘minor’ issue of who gets to write the Terms of Reference for the Special Envoy and what is in it That is a very interesting discussion going forward. The mandate should incorporate to come up with ideas for a more structural, long-term approach.

Tobias Schmitz: Let me just try and tease that out with you a little bit more: I remember at the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar, the attempt was to change the way in which World Water Forums are run, i.e., by focusing the discussions on four main themes, decompartmentalising discussions and ending up with a focused list of agreements encapsulated in a Blue Deal. Now that did not work, and as you have said, it was replaced by a completely voluntary system without formal negotiations and people were free to put on the table whatever they wanted. So, the net result was a huge and very varied set of different commitments. The question now is, how do you bring all of that together and ccoordinate it in some way so that it becomes, less fragmented and more systemic.

Lesha Witmer: Indeed: but the political process in Dakar was very “weak” and not inclusive. We are dealing with different players at different levels and both small scale and large scale. In fact, I am not completely sure that some of it is not a repeat of what they already committed to before – which in itself is helpful in a way because it reminds people that something needs to be done, and governments especially governments need to ‘do lists’, and usually on the short term because there is an awareness of the next elections, new leadership, etc.

The Water action agenda as it stands now has two interesting functions: one is that it is a mix of levels, so it is a multi stakeholder agenda. Previously, if you saw these commitment drives it was government, government, government. And now it is a mixture, with the UN system, national governments, local governments, NGO's, and even some very small civil society organisations that caught on. And I think that the second interesting part of it is that it is not just focused on asking for money. The agenda was actually asking, what are you going to do? And whether you will do that vvoluntarily, or in kind with the help of somebody else. So, you don't have to put a financial number to it, which I think for some organisations was really a relief, right? Because their assets are their human resources on the ground. And therefore, they could actually say, OK, this is what we could do, and they don’t have to bring a bag of money. As for the monitoring, that is a still a big challenge for a lot of people. But I do know that there is some work being done behind the scenes to come up with some kind of a proposal on how to monitor all this in July. So, there is certainly some attention for this, but wether they will succeed, I don't know yet.

And you know, my main first instinct was to say: dear people. dear co-chairs, facilitate the monitoring.  Start reminding people now, today, and not in in half a year from now, that they did make a commitment and have to make and publish a plan – it is a pity that the proposal for national water roadmaps was not taken up more.

Tobias Schmitz: Well, I suppose that brings us to the preparations for the HLPF: what are the kinds of things that need to be done? What would you say to the readers of The Water Diplomat in terms of what organisations need to do to maximise what has been achieved in New York. You mentioned monitoring, you mentioned the fact that we have willing leadership, and there is a resolution on the special envoy, there are some positives to be worked on. Also, we have an open and multistakeholder stakeholder process. So now what? What can we do with all of this to get the most out of the HLPF.

Lesha Witmer:  Well, to go back to my earlier comments, it is important to agree on the mandate of the Special Envoy: Guttierez needs to be advised whom to appoint and with what mandate. The mandate of the special Envoy should actually be to develop a proposal or two or three alternatives for the future structure of water within the UN. So when are we meeting again? How are we getting continuity in the conversation? So give us some ideas on the Special Envoy, on how to proceed.

Where are we going from here? This is politically very tricky, because you are asking for a structure in the UN, which is a big ask. But on the other hand, if we don't do that, then you know, we keep scrambling and having a few people working hard to get something off the ground. So, one of the ideas that this floating around is to actually create a functional Commission under ECOSOC on water. That is actually very easy to do because the structure and the procedures are in place. Everybody knows what it is, especially the negotiators in New York, they know how it functions. They have people in their missions that are responsible for this type of work. The second element is that it's cheap and equitable, it would go into the general budget of the United Nations. We did a calculation two or three years ago, and it turned out that it would cost some 0.01% of the UN budget. So, it would hardly even feature in the financial reports.  

A big elephant in the room of course is the mandate of UN Water. Because UN Water is not an agency, it is not a programme, it is “just” a coordination mechanism for the UN agencies which have water in their mandates. So, everybody keeps saying OK, strengthen UN Water - and then I say OK, but that means that 32 UN agencies have to agree to relinquish part of their mandate to UN Water. That could be a long process, but if we want to create a stronger mechanism, we might need to do that.

Another thing that is important is the chair’s summary: we need to actually translate some of the conclusions in the chair’s summary into something that the HLPF can decide on. I don't know yet what that will be, but that is certainly something everybody's watching for. How are we going to do that and will we be on time to start messaging that there must be a resolution on the follow up in the General Assembly in September. You have to start talking about that latest in July.

Tobias Schmitz: Maybe I can also just sidestep a little bit l and ask you about the temperature with regard to women and water diplomacy. There is a women and water diplomacy network, in which there is peer to peer learning for female water diplomats especially from elders who have earned their stripes. How did you find the UN Water conference from the perspective of gender?

Lesha Witmer: Some very good questions, because the opinions are very diverse. I had some contacts with colleagues and some of them are not happy that less than 20 sessions were actually labelled as gender incorporating and focused. I would respond by saying that that does not mean that it is not being discussed. Because I was there, I know. For PR reasons, convenors did not advertise the “gender” component to get a better, diverse audience. And then went ahead and talked about it.   In terms of the leadership of the conference, there were three men and two women. The President of the General Assembly happens to be a male. The current president of ECOSOC happens to be a male. I thought it wasn't as bad as it has been in the past and the current leadership seems to be gender sensitive.  It is an issue that you cannot solve by saying that we have to gender mainstream. It means that for crucial jobs, when they go up for election, the issue must be pushed; this is an overall issue that takes time and willingness.

As to the women and water diplomacy drive: of course, I do like it. However, my concern is that “diplomacy” to my mind is defined too narrowly. There are loads of women being diplomats but not (formally) working for the government. Let’s expand that a bit?

I was actually pleasantly surprised by the number of women that were there as delegates, speakers (not only support staff). My personal estimate was that it was around 40%. Which is high.

Tobias Schmitz: Right. And that is a personal estimate, right?

Lesha Witmer: Yes, from my personal experience attending many different sessions and observing. I have actually asked for the official numbers from the UNDESA, which is not easy for them: the only thing they can give us is the number of males and females that registered. But of course, they don't know how many actually accessed the different sessions in the building and outside (they may want to learn from Stockholm WWW). So, yes, it’s an approximation. But beyond the slow procedures of the UN itself, the visa process for the U.S. ended up being a huge hurdle for a lot of people.