Water in COP 28: An Interview with AGWA’s Ingrid Timboe

The senior specialist for water within the COP 28 team talks to The Water Diplomat

9 Oct 2023 by The Water Diplomat


Tobias Schmitz: I wanted to have a discussion with you about the role of water in the upcoming COP 28. I believe that the host country, the United Arab Emirates, has identified three priority areas to discuss cooperation on water, i.e., restoring freshwater ecosystems, enhancing urban water resilience and boosting water resilient food systems. But before we go into that, perhaps we should start by describing your title and your role within the COP 28 process?

Ingrid Timboe: I am a senior specialist for water within the COP 28 team. I am seconded to the Presidency Programmes & Partnerships team which focuses on creating impact partnerships on themes such as energy, finance, tech & entrepreneurship, youth & education, government, food security & water, nature-based solutions & biodiversity, inclusion, gender, constituency, and fragility.

Tobias Schmitz: How is COP 28 being organized and how does water fit into this agenda? 

Ingrid Timboe: So the way that they are organising it is that the UAE have a Presidency Programme that is centered around some key thematic areas and of course - similar to the way that the U.K. did for COP 26 – there will be a Water Pavilion which covers the non-State Actor side of things. Since COP 26, the Water Pavilion is a fact and we are located in the Blue Zone, and then at COP 27 Egypt really advanced the agenda further by giving water its own thematic day within the Presidency Programme. Egypt also managed to get water into the cover decision, the Sharm el Sheikh Implementation Plan.   This was the first time that water has ever been mentioned in a cover decision, because as we all know, it's not in the Paris Agreement directly. The importance is really around signalling: the exact language itself is a little bit less important, but it it is sending the signal that water is a really important topic when it comes to addressing climate change.

So now with COP 28, what the UAE Presidency has done is that they are trying to have a little bit more integration in their programming. So instead of having specific days on one thematic topic, they are having days that cover multiple, interrelated items. There are no stand-alone themes other than health and finance – and even those have some related topics - but everything else in the programme is looking at synergies between different thematic topics that the UAE feels are relevant to the conversation. Thankfully, they have taken water forward as one of those. And so for example there is a dedicated day on food, agriculture and water systems, which I personally think is great. I know that there are a lot of people in our global water community who may be disappointed that we are not getting ‘our’ day, you know.

Tobias Schmitz: Well agriculture accounts for some 80% of global water use.

Ingrid Timboe: Yes, this is exactly so, I'm with you, I think it [water] needs to be integrated and especially within Food and Agriculture system given that they are the largest user of water. In the policy spheres, these two are incredibly siloed. And so I think it's really important too actually that we're bringing them together for the first time. I could talk a little bit more about what the programming that we're doing: we are building on the UN Food Systems Summit which took place in 2021, where water was not in the text. And then we had the UN 2023 Water Conference earlier this year. When you look at the water action agenda that came out of that, on the analysis that they've done so far, only 13% of the Water Action Agenda deals with food and agriculture systems and. So there's still this gap in terms of addressing these together in a holistic and integrated manner. So what we're trying to do is foster some integration, some connectivity between food and water.

So maybe we can start there and talk about that: there is a dedicated day in the Presidential Programme on Food, Agriculture and Water (on December 10th) and so we will be doing the first ever ministerial event, bringing together water and food ministers at COP 28 to talk about building water resilient food systems. This includes a call to action encouraging all countries to take integrated approaches to managing their food and water systems specifically in the context of their national climate planning, i.e. the Nationally Determined Contributions and National Adaptation Plans. We currently have a three - year time horizon until 2025 as countries will be required to update their NDC’s and NAP’s.

Tobias Schmitz: So, there will be a dedicated day for food, water and agriculture. What about the other two water related themes of COP 28, i.e. restoring freshwater ecosystems and enhancing urban water resilience?

Ingrid Timboe: Yes, on the 10th there will also be a high-level ministerial event on the protection and restoration of freshwater ecosystems. This takes forward the Freshwater Challenge which was launched at the 2023 UN Water Conference in New York in March. It was originally launched by 6 countries: Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Ecuador, Mexico, and Zambia. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund are steering this process, which aims to leverage the support needed to conserve the intact freshwater ecosystems and bring 300,000 km of rivers and 350 million hectares of wetlands under restoration by 2030.  This is an initiative that comes out of COP 15 for the Convention on Biological Diversity. The current aim of this initiative is ultimately to get 30 countries to sign up for the challenge. There will be a Ministerial Roundtable at COP 28 and again, what we're really pushing on, because this is a climate summit, is the integration of these commitments into national climate plans.

Tobias Schmitz:  And then of course there is the topic of urban resilience. 

Ingrid Timboe: There are a lot of actors in the urban water space, but they're generally covering many different components. You’ve got the private sector, utilities and operators, you have people who are working more on policy and governance, people who are working on enabling finance, people who are working on stakeholder engagement. Then there is water and sanitation more broadly – there are so many different actors in this space. We feel like there is not a lot of coherence here, and it also is poorly accounted for within the UNFCCC ecosystem.

So, what we're trying to do with this one is take a multi-level approach: we wanted to champion something, building on initiatives that were launched earlier this year at the UN Water Conference. So, we are championing the Urban Water Catalyst Initiative (UWCI), which is looking at improving the technical and financial performance of urban water and sanitation utilities in mid-sized cities. We've got, like, the World Bank and the IFC and others that are working with like large cities on enabling finance for water resilient utilities or climate resilient utilities, but at the middle-sized city scale, nothing really exists yet. So the UWCI is led by the German and Dutch Governments, which are putting together a fund to provide both financial and technical assistance. They're going to launch their pilot phase, so they will have picked their first seven to 10 utilities and that will be unveiled at COP.

This is just focused on utilities, which is a really important entry point, but we felt like there's more that we can say about this. One of the other challenges that was identified - and this is a broader trend round the climate conferences in general – is that they are Party-led processes, which means that they are led by State Parties to the Convention. But when it comes to implementation, this requires multi-level action, which involves things like getting the finance down to the local level, getting local action scaled up, and meeting in the middle. So we will have a multi-level action day on the 6th of December bringing together various parties, and this group will operate as part of the Marrakesh Partnership for Global Climate Action.

Tobias Schmitz: I imagine for many water-related organisations, they would be posing themselves the question how best to contribute to these three big thematic areas, as well as to the Water Pavilion How best would you like to work to together with everybody to ensure an efficient and effective outcome for water in COP 28?.

Ingrid Timboe: So in terms of the draft programming, many of the initiatives we have discussed will be put on the COP 28 website this week and I would encourage everyone to engage with them. What I would want is that water is represented in conversations on Health Day. I want water to be represented on Relief, Recovery and Peace Day. I want water on Energy Day. I mean, I'm greedy and I want water on every day and so how can we integrate water into the other programmes, and similarly, integrate the other programmes into ours. So we are also working on events related to water in finance, water and energy, transboundary water issues, relief recovery and peace, water related hazards and conflict affected zones. These will not be stand-alone water events. But I honestly actually prefer that: I would like the title of the event to have nothing to do with water and yet when people attend, they realise that water is deeply implicated.

Tobias Schmitz: You mentioned that you are working together with the Netherlands and Tajikistan, so how does that work in terms of taking the Water Action Agenda  forward, in view of your role in the COP 28 Presidency Programmes Team and looking also at their respective roles?

Ingrid Timboe: We have a trilateral partnership between the COP Presidency, the Netherlands, and Tadjikistan and part of the purpose of that is to provide continuity on the 2023 conference itself. And part of the thinking around that was to ensure that some of the kind of overall messaging and initiatives from the water conference are also included in the messaging that we're preparing for COP. But beyond that, I mean operationally how it works is that we meet with their teams every week. They helped to co-develop some of the Ministerial events, assisting in getting champion countries specifically for each of those and generally bringing forward those agenda. They also review all our documents andwe receive feedback from them. For instance, the Netherlands is really strong on the urban resilience component and so they've been really providing a lot of support, especially because of all the work they did around cities for the water conference.

Tobias Schmitz: What about Tajikistan and the issue of glaciers, or the cryosphere? This is a key issue for Tajikistan.

Ingrid Timboe: There is not a huge emphasis on cryosphere this year, but it did actually just get brought up this week. I was actually going to talk to them a little bit more about seeing if there's anything specific that we need to do on that. They have been helping us a lot on the water and food thematic area.

Tobias Schmitz: One thing we haven't really talked about is the Water Pavilion.

Ingrid Timboe: Well, the great thing is that will be another water pavilion this year. This is confirmed and that is really good. We are obviously also coordinating with them. And whereas in Egypt at COP 27 it was the government of Egypt which took the reins for the Water Pavilion, this time the coordination is more of a multi-stakeholder process as it was in Glasgow. And it is convenient that AGWA already sits on the Steering Committee for the Water Pavilion. People were really energized coming out of New York, and we are really trying to again for the folks that are working in the climate space, to push their initiatives forward to COP 28 through the Water Pavilion.