The UN Water Conference, which opened on Wednesday, is taking place as this vital natural resource is being depleted, polluted and mismanaged.
The three-day event – co-hosted by the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Tajikistan – falls at the halfway point for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include the promise of ensuring all people have access to safe water and sanitation by 2030.
‘Draining humanity’s lifeblood’
UN Secretary-General António Guterres underscored that water is a human right and critical to development that will shape a better global future.
“But water is in deep trouble”, he warned. “We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use, and evaporating it through global heating. We’ve broken the water cycle, destroyed ecosystems and contaminated groundwater.”
A global crisis
The UN chief noted that nearly three out of four natural disasters are linked to water, and a quarter of the planet lives without safely managed water services or clean drinking water.
Furthermore, 1.7 billion people lack basic sanitation, half a billion people practice open defecation, and millions of girls spend hours each day just to fetch water.
Leaders attending the conference are being challenged to find game-changing solutions to the global water crisis, characterized by ‘too much water’ – for example, storms and floods; ‘too little water’, such as droughts and groundwater scarcity, and ‘too dirty water’, such as polluted sources for drinking.
“This conference must represent a quantum leap in the capacity of Member States and the international community to recognize and act upon the vital importance of water to our world’s sustainability and as a tool to foster peace and international co-operation,” the Secretary-General said.
Close gaps, increase investments
Mr. Guterres called for action in four key areas, starting with closing what he called “the water management gap”.
He said governments must develop and implement plans that ensure equitable water access for all people while also promoting water conservation, and they must work together to jointly manage this precious resource.
His second point, on the need for massive investment in water and sanitation systems, highlighted the proposed SDG Stimulus Plan and reforms to the global financial architecture aimed at ramping up investment in sustainable development.
“International financial institutions should develop creative ways to extend financing and accelerate the re-allocation of Special Drawing Rights. And Multilateral Development Banks should continue expanding their portfolios on water and sanitation to support countries in desperate need,” he said.
His third point focused on resilience because “we cannot manage this 21st century emergency with infrastructure from another age.”
Mr. Guterres called for investment in disaster-resilient pipelines, water-delivery infrastructure, and wastewater treatment plants, and in new ways to recycle and conserve water.
The international community will also need climate and biodiversity-smart food systems that reduce methane emissions and water use, and a new global information system to forecast water needs in real time.
Investment also means ensuring every person worldwide is covered by early warning systems against climate or weather disasters, as well as exploring new public-private partnerships.
Address climate change
The Secretary-General also called for addressing climate change, his final point. “Climate action and a sustainable water future are two sides of the same coin,” he said.
He urged countries to “spare no effort” to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and deliver climate justice to developing countries.
Mr. Guterres recalled his proposal to the G20 most-industralised nations to establish a Climate Solidarity Pact in which all big emitters make extra efforts to cut emissions.
Wealthier countries would also mobilize financial and technical resources to support emerging economies.
‘A watershed moment’
In his remarks, UN General Assembly President Csaba Kőrösi noted that the international community is now at “a watershed moment”.
“We know that we cannot fulfil our promise of sustainability, economic stability and global wellbeing by speeding up conventional solutions,” he said. “We neither have enough time nor planet. There is simply not enough fresh water left anymore.”
‘A global common good’
Mr. Kőrösi said the international community must acknowledge that water is “a global common good and adjust policy, legislation, and financing accordingly,” urging countries “to work in favour of people and planet, not procrastination and profit.”
He called for integrated land-use, water and climate policies, which would make water “a lever of climate mitigation and adaptation”, which will also build resilience, for both people and nature, and address growing hunger worldwide.
“We can work together to empower states and stakeholders through the global water information system that is our life insurance for resolving the dilemma of water availability, demand and storage,” he said.
Mr. Kőrösi stressed that the conference was “not a venue to negotiate positions, advantages, and compromise”, and urged leaders “to deliberate solutions that are science based, sustainable, pragmatic and in solidarity.”
At the start of the conference, the President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, and King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, were elected presidents of the event.
Meet international expectations
President Rahmon said the conference was truly historic – both for promoting clear understanding of the serious challenges the water crisis poses and in exploring effective solutions to address it.
“In this regard, we need to make joint efforts to achieve specific results and follow up the agreement reached with a view to decently meeting the expectations of the international community,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.
He also spoke of how Tajikistan possesses abundant sources of drinking water, which are being threatened by climate change. Thousands of glaciers have completed melted in recent decades.
Preserve water resources
He proposed establishing specific national, regional and international programmes for the preservation and effective use of all water sources.
“Pursuing this initiative is indeed consistent with our commitments in the implementation of the global climate agenda and requires fruitful cooperation with all partners,” he said. “Accordingly, reliable modern mechanisms for water supply and effective management of water related issues should be developed and implemented.”
The President also proposed holding the next UN Water Conference in Tajikistan in 2028.
Strong stakeholder support
King Willem-Alexander said although his low-lying coastal country, which includes several islands in the Caribbean, and mountainous landlocked Tajikistan “may seem like an odd couple”, together they represent “virtually the whole world of water.”
He was encouraged that so many UN Member States are attending the conference, along with stakeholders from entities such as companies, towns, indigenous groups, women’s organizations and scientific institutes.
“I’m also happy to see that the younger generation is highly motivated and ready to help find solutions,” he added. “But as they themselves have said, we can’t leave all the problem solving up to them. It is our responsibility to do everything we can.”
Find common ground
The Dutch king offered a tip to participants, urging them to “seek out the company of those who are outside your fields.” For example, diplomats should meet with engineers, while a civil society representative should have coffee with someone working in finance.
“If you’re over 50, have a talk with someone younger. And if you live in Europe, turn your attention to Africa or Asia, or vice versa,” he advised.
“Follow the example of the Republic of Tajikistan and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. See collaboration in the murky waters of contrasts. Water is our common ground. There’s so much to discover and achieve.”
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