Essay | Troubled waters at the 2023 UN Water Conference
It’s 9:30 in the morning in the United Nations Headquarters Building. I’m sitting on the sidelines in Conference Room A attending “Protecting and Restoring Critical Water Related Ecosystems in Mountains: the Role of Indigenous Peoples and Biocultural Territories.”
The International Institute for Environment and Development, the event’s organizer, decided to try something unique: They Zoom called members of the Quechua, an Indigenous group in Peru, who wanted to share their experiences with those sitting in the UN conference room. The Zoom call transformed the event: We could see the actual place, the people, and the rivers that were being affected by climate change and point source pollution.
We could hear the passion in their voices when they talked about protecting their very limited water supply– their lifeblood. As traditional potato farmers in the Andes Mountains, their livelihoods depend on the constant availability of water.
As the end of the event neared, they were only beginning to list out their specific needs. The minute the clock rang at 10:45 am, almost everyone hurriedly gathered their belongings and headed toward the exit. The Quechuan potato farmers were not even close to finishing describing how stakeholders, the very people in the room with institutional power, should fix the Andean water crisis and help improve their community.
I sat there in awe, flabbergasted that a community so dedicated to water issues could not even stay a minute longer to hear out an actual community that experiences the reality of water stress. Eventually, the event organizer had to tell the guest speakers that everyone was gone and the meeting was over. “Gracias por su tiempo y ojala que te ayudes durante esta conferencia” was all they could say repeatedly, as the last of the conference-goers trickled out.
Unfortunately, this scenario was emblematic of the conference as a whole. The UN Water Conference was a good start after decades of inaction, but it ultimately fell short of highlighting the communities at the frontlines of the water crisis and climate change.
Why is water so important?
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, climate change most apparently manifests itself in the water cycle, with events such as flooding, drought, tsunamis, sea level rise, and extreme storms. The variability of water availability in the coming years has direct implications for conflict and cooperation. Improper water management can lead to transboundary water conflicts between countries. For example, rivalry over upstream and downstream resources with the Indus River has been a source of conflict between India and Pakistan. Climate change only worsens this tension — the Indus Basin is already the world’s second-most stressed aquifer, and with climate change, groundwater recharge will only occur more infrequently, leaving water demand in the region unfulfilled.
The impacts of the water crises fall disproportionately on globally marginalized communities. Increased water pollution is exacerbating the crisis of clean drinking water in many places where water infrastructure is already behind or lacking. Those who live in impermanent settlements are more vulnerable to extreme flooding, as seen in Pakistan, and those without working water infrastructure, like much of the Navajo Nation, feel the effects of drought far worse than those who have reliable piping. Many of these disparities fall along socioeconomic and racial lines, with economically disadvantaged communities of color bearing the brunt of water-related issues.
Areas for improvement
Despite the gravity of climate change and the water crisis, the topic has been largely ignored at the UN level until now. This year’s water conference was the first water-specific conference to occur since 1977. The event consisted of an opening and closing ceremony, six plenary sessions, five stakeholder “interactive dialogues,” and hundreds of side events both at the UN Headquarters and at other external academic institutions.
The conference resulted in the Water Action Agenda, a collection of voluntary commitments made by attending member-states. Only about one-third of the 700 voluntary commitments had appropriate financial backing, planning, and cross-border cooperation necessary to fulfill the goals. Despite water and climate change being so inextricably linked, only 23% of the 700 commitments addressed climate change as a driving factor.
Unlike the 2015 Paris Agreement, which created a legally binding treaty, the UN Water Conference functioned solely on “voluntary commitments,” meaning that it is the individual government’s undertaking to finance, plan, and execute the commitments they made at the conference. These commitments are moreover not monitored by an overarching UN body.
Henk Ovink, the Netherland’s special envoy for international water affairs, stated that “the conference finds itself in an institutional void…while we are now very busy with the water conference, we are not very busy with water.” The onus of water management falls on individual member states and NGOs without much accountability for their actions or lack thereof.
In fact, according to The World Resources Institute, NGOs made up about 43% of the voluntary commitments, governments made up about 26%, and multilateral institutions made up only 11% of the commitments. Due to the transboundary nature of water conflicts, multilateral organizations such as the UN, European Union, and global development banks need to have more stake in ensuring a water-secure future.
During many of the plenary sessions, several countries asked for financial assistance from global north countries in order to launch comprehensive water action projects. The Kenyan water minister stated that countries of the global north and global south are not on equal footing when it comes to financing water management programs, and that the UN should “facilitate countries to open their wallets to help other countries.”
However, much of the international assistance comes in the form of loans, which puts pressure on countries that are already financially burdened by previous development loans and unstable economies. Loans also increase inequality between the providing and receiving countries, as countries that take the loans are at the behest of meeting the providing country’s conditions.
Who got a seat at the table
The representation of minority groups at the conference was lacking. Although many of the side event topics demonstrated the interests of various stakeholders, including Indigenous groups, women, people of color, the LGTBQ+ community and other underrepresented and intersecting minorities, the list of groups that organized the events told a different story. Most of the organizers were high level institutions, such as Ministries of Environment, development banks, and large international nonprofits. Most attendees were associated with the global north.
Although I appreciated that the side events acknowledged the diversity of experiences related to water stress, spanning multiple countries and various viewpoints, I felt that there were too many people acting as spokespeople for the actual affected communities rather than hearing from the community activists themselves. Many globally marginalized groups, such as Indigenous groups, women, or any intersecting category, have different ontological perspectives regarding natural resources and the environment. Excluding these groups invariably forefronted the viewpoints, ontologies, and opinions of those who had the privilege to attend the conference, while silencing the agency of (oftentimes) oppressed groups. The absence of activist movements was apparent as well, leaving the lack of tangible action and representation at the conference relatively unchecked.
The entire conference went by without a single event speaking out against the big corporations in attendance that directly contribute to water pollution. In contrast, however, an IBM side event boasted new technology that would help people investigate whether their water sources are contaminated with nitrates. I couldn’t help but remember that IBM historically has been blamed for contaminating groundwater at several of their manufacturing sites. Many stakeholders at the conference who were offering solutions are also a root cause of the problem, and I would have liked to see a bit more pushback towards these powerful actors, asking for some introspection on their own practices.
Despite high-level talk without follow-up, lack of marginalized voices and activist communities, and hypocrisy from powerful actors at the conference, there were some wins that would have been hard to accomplish without a large-scale meeting of member-states. Some commitments look promising in terms of tangible, wide-reaching policy that can touch many lives. For example, a joint commitment between the Niger Basin Authority and the German Federal Ministry of the Environment led to an agreement to finance almost $21.2 million and implement “regional climate change adaptation and climate change mitigation…in three selected transboundary sub-basins” spanning almost nine countries.
This project will increase transboundary cooperation between stakeholders in the Niger River Basin by enacting nature-based techniques to increase the supply of water in the Niger River and subsequently diminish competition and conflict for those that rely on this river for their livelihoods. Reaching an agreement at this scale would have been much harder if it had not been for these countries meeting at the UN Water Conference. In this instance, the conference encouraged thinking beyond country lines, recognizing that water is a shared resource with opportunities for transboundary cooperation.
Moreover, the conference coming back after 46 years of little public dialogue on water issues means that global leaders are beginning to recognize how important this finite resource is, especially under the backdrop of climate change. Given that the Mar del Plata Water Conference in 1977 did not even mention the disproportionate effects marginalized communities face with water availability, this year’s conference demonstrated that public awareness of diverse perspectives may be on the rise.
Using hybrid Zoom formats at future conferences may increase access to those who cannot attend if travel is a barrier to entry. Future water conferences must also result in action more binding than voluntary commitments, and perhaps create a regulatory body that holds countries to these commitments. Member-states must act at the level of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement in order to follow through on passionate speeches about the ubiquity and necessity of water.
Going forward, prioritizing the relationship between climate and water must be central to these discussions and cannot be siloed as separate “conservation” and “climate change” issues.
With more accountability, representation, and multi-perspective solutions, I believe that we can make progress on water issues. By consistently advocating for water, highlighting communities’ stories, and pushing actors to do more, we will secure everyone’s right to live safely on this planet. This is only the humble beginning.