UN Water Conference an opportunity for real action

April 5, 2023 | Aaron Atcheson, Meg Smith

At the end of March, the United Nations (UN) held the 2023 Water Conference, the first UN conference on water in almost 50 years. This conference comes at the midpoint of the Water Action Decade, 2018-2028, with the conference being a comprehensive mid-term review of the objectives of the Water Action Decade. Moreover, water and sanitation are important goals in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with the key objective of the 2023 Water Conference being to support the achievement of water-related goals and targets by 2030.

A focus of the 2023 UN Water Conference was the alarming fact that Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) – which aims to reach universal access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030 – is far off-track. According to the Vision Statement for the 2023 Water Conference, the world will not reach SDG 6 targets by 2030 at the current rate of progress. Indeed, progress in water and sanitation initiatives will need to be accelerated up to four times the current rate in order to meet the 2030 Agenda.

The key outcome of the Water Conference was the implementation of a new Water Action Agenda, which captured over 700 commitments from member-state governments, civil society organizations and private sector members. At the conclusion of the Conference, the Secretary-General highlighted key game changers, such as reducing the pressures on the hydrological system and developing new, alternative food systems to reduce unsustainable uses of water in food production and agriculture. Among the issues emphasized were the significant funding required to achieve water-related goals and targets, the importance of developing innovative financing and funding schemes, and the need for innovations and investments in the water economy.

The Government of Canada announced on March 22, 2023, World Water Day, its commitment to implementing a strengthened Freshwater Action Plan and establishing a Canada Water Agency to aid in achieving SDG 6 by 2030. The Canada Water Agency was first proposed in 2020, public consultations were reported on in June 2021, and funds were allocated in the 2022 federal budget. As of now, the agency has not yet been established and its mandate remains unfulfilled. Certain professionals in the water sector have made public pleas to move forward on this initiative but the timing has not yet been confirmed. However, commitments and actions from all stakeholders at local, national and international levels – such as educational and private sectors – are equally important in achieving water and sanitation related goals. In fact, one of the Water Conference’s three key organizing principles is “Cross-Sectoral,” which emphasizes mobilizing all sectors to improve the ways water resources are used and managed.

As such, the private sector is of great importance in the accomplishment of SDG 6 and other goals in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. One example of a private-sector commitment to enhance water and sanitation initiatives is a commitment from the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS), a multi-stakeholder partnership which is comprised of over 170 organizations. AWS is affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund, ALUS Canada, the International Water Association and various other civil society organizations that strive to promote sustainable water use. The AWS has created a water-focused sustainability standard, which is a widely recognized best practice guide for businesses who are major users of water to ensure “the use of water that is socially and culturally equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial.” The AWS creates a mechanism for businesses to systematically act on water-related challenges encompassed within the sub-targets of SDG 6 with a verification and certification system which aims to ensure credibility of actions, outcomes and claims. Implementers of the AWS Standard include world-leading businesses and their global supply chain partners, operating in diverse sectors including agriculture and fresh produce, food and beverage production, microelectronics hardware and data storage, and apparel and textiles production. AWS has committed to a scaled-adoption of the AWS standard, to implement the standard on upwards of 10,000 sites by 2030.

Commitments from organizations that engage the private sector are steps in the right direction in terms of water conservation. However, while alliances involving the private sector, such as the AWS, can support positive water-related goals and targets, these alliances often pursue goals aligned with the priorities of members, plus the efforts made by such an alliance can be limited and not necessarily focused on the more daunting problems related to water resources and conservation. Consequently, the role for government is critical to ensure that the focus stays on solving the most important problems regardless whether the solutions are led by government or the private sector. This latest UN conference on water and World Water Day 2023 should bring more attention to the challenges in this area, both those that are being addressed and those being ignored.


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