The United Nations Water Conference: a perspective from Action Against Hunger

Where there is a will, there is a way (George Herbert, 1640). Article by Dr. Jean Lapegue and Camille Bureau

3 Jun 2023 by The Water Diplomat


The March 2023 Water Conference brought together 170 Member States under the aegis of the United Nations, around various ‘hot’ topics, such as the global governance of the sector, the crisis of access to water, water as common good of humanity, the highly insufficient funding of the sector, particularly in its humanitarian dimension (only 30% of United Nations Humanitarian Response Plans were funded in 2022) and the overall lack of data on the resource.

Because it is cross cutting, the water sector is poorly coordinated (it features in twenty targets spread across eleven of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda) as well as poorly governed, poorly represented, not very vocal, underfunded and undervalued. During the conference, the NGO Action Against Hunger was on site with its partners and allies, the French Water Partnership, the Water Coalition, the Butterfly Effect, the Global WASH Cluster, members of the WASH Roadmap and the World Water Council, and the political representatives of France and Switzerland in particular, to defend the specific role of humanitarian action in the sector.

Positive points

The conference in itself was an historic event, being the first such intergovernmental conference uniquely dedicated to water since 1977. The states and international organizations gathered in New York widely recognized the scale of the water crisis and expressed their concern in the face of water shortages, floods, loss of ecosystems and the impacts of the climate crisis affecting the four corners of the globe. The cries of alarm have multiplied from the participants, while 2 billion people still do not have access to drinking water and 3.6 billion people are deprived of adequate sanitation.

The positive points that emerged from the conference, from our point of view, are first of all the strong government representation, which illustrates the concerns of the states in the face of the multiple demographic, access, climatic, health and environmental issues. France also invited two ministers to this event (Mr. Christophe Béchu, Minister for Ecological Transition and Territorial Cohesion as well as Ms. Berengère Couillard, Secretary of State to the Minister, in charge of Ecology). France took advantage of the conference to sign the Call to Action of the WASH Roadmap , committing it to the dimension humanitarian aid as well as to improving the overall governance of the water sector.

The major subjects of the development of the water sector were on the agenda of the exchanges. The humanitarian angle, brought to the table by NGOs such as Action Against Hunger, has also made it possible to recall the stakes of the sector in its most acute dimension, illustrated by the violations of the Geneva conventions in conflict zones (in Ukraine today for example), but also in the "banality of evil", when approximately 2 million children under the age of 5 die each year from water-borne diseases or even when defecation in the open air is still practiced by nearly 800 millions of people around the world with the well-known objectives of dignity, security and public health.

United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. A. Guterres, has announced that there will be a “follow-up” to the conference, which can be seen as an encouraging sign ahead of the 2023 autumn UN Conference marking the midterm mandate of the 2030 agenda.

Finally, the massive participation of more than 6,500 participants, and the significant media coverage of the event are also to be welcomed, both locally and internationally.

Negative points

The March 2023 UN Water Conference did not really have a political roadmap (apart from being halfway through the water decade), nor was a joint declaration expected or a binding treaty envisaged. Its aim was to bring together the actors of a disparate and poorly coordinated sector, rather than to propose concrete actions.

The main deliverable of the conference was the Water Action Agenda Water Action Agenda, bringing together voluntary commitments from Member States and water stakeholders. To date, 825 such commitments have been recorded. However, these commitments, disparate, heterogeneous and non-binding, do not in any way constitute the collective, strategic and holistic response expected by civil society in the face of the global water crisis.

Moreover, the declarations produced have not been quantified or budgeted, while we know that the world will have to quadruple its ambitions and resources in favour of the sector to achieve universal water and sanitation coverage by 2030.

Finally, despite a forward-looking closing statement (and the upcoming UN summit in September), the appointment of the long-awaited Special Envoy for Water has not been formalized or even announced, much to the disappointment of NGOs. This measure demanded by 156 States (France has largely supported the creation of this position and announced that it will contribute to its financing from Germany from the year 2023) will, however, be given consideration by Mr. Antonio Guterres.

Follow-up points for NGOs

The presence of international NGOs, including Action Against Hunger, at the conference, will at least enable monitoring of the States' commitments to the Water Action Agenda (in particular, as far as France is concerned, on the themes of cross-border cooperation, demand official appointment of a special envoy for water by the Secretary General of the United Nations, the promotion of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) and the climate change agenda.

The follow-up point which seems most essential to the representatives of civil society, including Action contre la Faim, is to continue the dissemination of the Call to Action among humanitarian organizations and Member States, so as to continue to exert pressure on the Secretary General. of the United Nations for the appointment of the Special Envoy, imperatively expected in 2023 and ideally during the UN summit of September 19th and 20th on the mid-term review of the 2030 Agenda. This first brick in the construction of governance of the sector is an essential prerequisite for addressing the second tranche of the Sustainable Development Goals in a visible, coherent and strategic manner.