Water’s big moment in the Big Apple
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Water’s big moment in the Big Apple

Monday, 13 March 2023
What can we expect from the UN Water Week being convened in New York this week? We look at the ambitions of the week and ask industry thought leaders for their wish lists.

The Water Action Agenda 

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few months, you’ll be aware that this week is the UN World Water Week in New York.

With the label ‘The Water Action Agenda’, the focus this year is to accelerate and co-ordinate “progress” on water, similar to what the 1.5-degree Paris commitment did for climate.

This of course refers to the 2015 Paris Agreement agreed to catalyse global leaders to align action and chart a course for action to fight against the impacts of climate change.

Convened by the UN General Assembly, the UN Water Week event is intended to create an “unprecedented opportunity” for water to advance the global agenda.

It’s also seen that despite water issues first being discussed as far back as 1977 at the first UN conference on freshwater, huge challenges remain unresolved.

Furthermore, compared to 50 years ago, we now have more data and a “better understanding of global water challenges”, according to the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

A larger-than-Paris Moment for water

While the focus of the event is not to negotiate new commitments, it is to make sure countries deliver on promises already made – designed to be action-orientated, inclusive and cross-sectoral, SIWI said.

“We need a larger-than-Paris Moment for water, one that exceeds the impact of what the signing of the 2015 Paris Agreement achieved at the time for climate,” said The Pacific Institute. “We urge leaders across all sectors to create that moment later this month.”

There is a general feeling, from speaking to various industry peers, that the week will include an inner and outer circle. Ministers and policymakers will unite in the inner sanctum, with the business community – investors, technology providers and others – on the outer periphery. The combination of both is crucial to see progress.

Five interactive dialogues

There are two governments who will co-host the UN 2023 Water Conference: Netherlands and Tajikistan. During the week, the programme will address five themes:

  • Water for Health: Access to WASH, including the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation
  • Water for Sustainable Development: Valuing Water, Water-Energy-Food Nexus and Sustainable Economic and Urban Development
  • Water for Climate, Resilience and Environment: Source to Sea, Biodiversity, Climate, Resilience and DRR
  • Water for Cooperation: Transboundary and International Water Cooperation, Cross Sectoral Cooperation, including Scientific Cooperation, and Water Across the 2030 Agenda
  • Water Action Decade: Accelerating the implementation of the objectives of the Decade, including through the UN Secretary-General’s Action Plan.

Amidst the labyrinth of content to navigate this week, there is of course a plethora of virtual events. It’s estimated that the UN only accepted 10 per cent of the 1000+ submissions to host virtual sessions wanting to include official endorsement.

However, there will certainly be enough critical mass of water’s movers and shakers in New York, if aligned, to hopefully drive forward action.

As previously covered on Aquatech Online, unless action is quadrupled, Sustainable Development Goal 6 (access to water and sanitation for all by 2030) will be missed.

According to the 2022 report on the SDGs from the UN, at the current rates by 2030:

  • 1.6 billion people will lack safely managed drinking water
  • 2.8 billion people will lack safely managed sanitation
  • 1.9 billion people will lack basic hygiene facilities.

As a result, one of the aims of the week is to fast-track water action - without this, the world will inevitably miss many of the water-related goals.

A need for unconventional partnerships

My view is that while government-led initiatives offer the nationwide scale needed, it will be through unconventional partnerships that we’re going to get there.

For example, multinationals partnering with start-up companies to accelerate and deploy innovation. Or water utilities connecting more deeply with the local agricultural supply chain.

As the Pacific Institute refers to it, to advance the global agenda “will require the public sector, private sector, and civil society to join hands in new ways – through radical collaboration”.

We don’t have a technology problem in water; we have an adoption problem. The solutions exist to solve water scarcity, whether it’s bringing non-revenue water down to single digit figures, or generating unconventional water sources where scarcity is biting hard – for example, localised water reuse, desalination and dare I say it, even atmospheric water generation for remote communities.

What could come out from the NY Water Week?

Among the various MoUs, pledges and headline grabbing PR exercises from the week, it’s essential to see financial commitments to action.

The CEO of the Water Mandate’s Water Resilience Coalition is planning on announcing a “new pipeline of corporate investment opportunities for building water resilience through 2030”.

After the week, results will be monitored by the UN, with dialogue continuing at two further meetings on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development:

  • The High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, June
  • The SDG Summit, September.

We reached out to a variety of water sector thought leaders and experts for their one wish, or ideal outcome, to come out from the week.

Will Sarni, founder of Water Foundry and Water Foundry Ventures, believes pledges and voluntary commitments will not be enough.

He told Aquatech Online: “The ideal outcome is that the diverse stockholders from the public sector, NGOs, multinational water users, technology providers, technology start-ups and investors walk away from this gathering with the recognition we need to build innovative partnerships, "catalytic communities" to solve 21st century water challenges. 

“Pledges and commitments to date have not delivered the results needed to address water scarcity, poor water quality and inequity in access to safe drinking water. We will not meet the goals of SDG 6 so it is time to abandon our old ways of collaborating.”

Meanwhile, Dr David Lloyd Owen, managing director of consultancy, Envisager, said his one wish was that “an announcement that the SDG6 goals will not be met by 2030 and for concerted capacity-building measures worldwide to ensure countries can meet all of these goals by 2050”.