After the 2023 UN Water Conference: Making water security a top priority for climate action

News 12.04.2023

While the UN Water Conference last month failed to produce any binding outcomes, the gathering – the first one in 50 years focusing on water – signalled the importance of saving our water supplies in the fight against climate change. 2005 Right Livelihood Laureate Maude Barlow, a pioneer in the fight for the human right to water, participated in the historic event. In our conversation with Barlow, she shared the conference’s successes, as well as its shortcomings, and ultimately, what needs to be done to overcome the water crisis. 

The conference Secretary-General, Li Junhua, said he saw a “determined global community” that came together to “make a difference not only for the future of water but for the future of the world” as the meeting ended after three days. 

According to Barlow, one of the conference’s greatest achievements was that it happened at all. For too long, water’s role in the climate crisis has been ignored. 

“Water climbed out from under climate as being a subset of it and took its rightful place as a major contributor to the climate crisis,” Barlow said. “Its restoration and protection is a major part of the solution.”

“Shamefully inadequate” progress

A key result of the conference is the Water Action Agenda, a collection of over 700 voluntary commitments by participating actors to ensure the transformation to a water-secure world. The goal of the Water Action Agenda is to expand beyond a “business as usual” approach. However, Barlow, and others, are critical

Barlow said a dedicated UN agency is needed to safeguard the planet’s water and follow up on countries’ actions, as there is no one to oversee whether actors follow through on their currently voluntary commitments.

Another way to strengthen water security would be the adoption of a binding treaty. According to Barlow, such a treaty would compel governments and other actors to report the progress on their commitments to solving the water crisis, similar to the Paris Agreement.

“I hope we did kick start a process toward a binding treaty as its absence was glaring,” Barlow said, calling it “the elephant in the room. Everyone saw this need.”

She is not alone in her criticism of the conference. Over 100 water experts and civil society groups from five continents published a letter to the UN Secretary-General with an “urgent call for greater accountability, rigour, and ambition,” describing its progress on the water-related Sustainable Development Goals as “shamefully inadequate.”

Nevertheless, Barlow remains optimistic. She attended the conference as a representative of The Blue Communities Project, an international movement to ensure water justice for all.

“Our water justice movement met regularly all week… presenting our water manifesto to the plenary was a breakthrough,” she noted. “Our vision, values and political position on water governance were clearly heard and integrated.”

Unfortunately, this was not the experience for all organisations and activists engaged in water justice. 

Almost 10,000 people attended the conference. However, due to problems with visas and financial barriers, it appears that most of the attendees were from the Global North and the private sector.

Mana Omar, a member of Fridays for Future Africa, the global climate strike movement started by 2019 Laureate Greta Thunberg, shared her frustrations with the event’s lack of representation in an interview with The Guardian.    

“The water action agenda should include diverse experiences, but too many communities are missing,” Omar said. As a young person without affiliation to a big organisation, there was no opportunity for her to share the experiences of her community in Kenya.

Major political players were absent

While activists from around the world were working tirelessly to have their voices heard at the conference, senior politicians and major media outlets priorities’ were elsewhere.

“[There were] no senior politicians from Canada, the US or Europe, or really anywhere,” said Barlow. 

Likewise, Barlow noted that there was a lack of coverage by the media, calling the treatment of the conference a “non story.”

With the urgency of the global access to water growing, why didn’t the conference get the needed political backing to achieve real results? 

Looking ahead

The outcomes of the conference will feed into other UN processes such as three upcoming summits, including the climate conference and COP’s. 

While the Water Action Agenda has the potential to be successful, it hinges on whether the committed actors follow through on their promises. 

However, Barlow is confident that the conference was a step in the right direction.

“[I]n all the official announcements and pledges, water is referred to as a common good,” she said. “Up until recently, we still were having the debate about whether water is a need that can be alleviated by charity or a right, which makes it an issue of justice.” 

Barlow added that at this conference, “no one argued against water and sanitation being human rights.” 

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