Written by Harshina Brijlall

Since ancient times, water has had the face of a woman as a universal model —a source of life feeding humanity. It's not by chance that goddesses have represented water, traditionally, so we cannot lose symbols like that.

Renata Bueno Miranda, representative from the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, Brazil.

There was an emphasis on women’s rights, children, minorities, and Indigenous peoples as protectors and essential users of water during the discussions on the water-resilient food systems at COP 28 in UAE. Water unites us, and therefore, solutions for the management and conservation of water must include all perspectives.  

The launch of the ‘Partnership on Water-Resilient Food Systems’ was a historic outcome of COP 28.  Over 150 countries endorsed the COP28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action. This declaration included recognizing the impacts of climate change on agriculture and food systems with the intention of collaboratively pursuing solutions to:  

  • Scale up adaptation and resilience strategies. 

  • Support vulnerable peoples by promoting food security. 

  • Strengthen water management of water in agriculture and food systems.  


Climate change intensifies land disturbances such as heatwaves, fires, droughts, landslides, and hurricanes which all influence water cycles and impact food security. At COP 28, many countries and states declared their support for building water-resilient food systems and “squeezing the flow of nitrogen” (HW Donne Slangen, The Netherlands FAO Deputy Director General). Excess nutrients, such as nitrogen, within freshwater systems can contribute to harmful algal blooms which impacts drinking water security. Reuse in water and wastewater systems was highlighted as a critical solution to tackle the water and food crisis. However, the lack of coordination of global food policies and practices and the excessive use of groundwater poses challenges to water security.  

Challenges discussed by several state leaders and researchers at COP28 water-focused events, included: 

  • Unlocking finance for water security. 

  • Mitigation strategies for protecting water in biodiversity. 

  • Communication between policymakers and scientists. 

Born in South Africa and raised in Northern Saskatchewan, I have witnessed the different challenges as my family faced drought, extreme precipitation events, boil water advisories, and forest fires impacting drinking water quality. This has led to my interest in studying harmful algal blooms, freshwater ecology, and source water protection at the University of Waterloo. COP28 marks the continuing efforts across global states to bring water issues to the forefront of climate discussions. The efficacy of the commitments made at COP28 will only be as strong as the accountability that ties each country and state to take action. Unfortunately, there often is a communication gap between science, policy, and the economic sectors which can lead to inaction and mismanagement of freshwater. In addition to nutrient management, COP 28 discussed the intersection between clean energy and the water cycle as many energy plants require water for cooling and even hydropower generation; therefore, it is crucial that water be included in discussions when addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Although leaders discussed the importance of developing strategies for new crops, practices promoting soil health, and conservation, many of these suggestions are impossible without national adaptation policies and commitments from the private sector.   

We need to place nature, including freshwater ecosystems, at the heart of our collective climate action.

Suzanne Ngo Eyok, Conservation International, Ministerial Roundtable on Protection and Restoration of Freshwater Ecosystems.


Another groundbreaking initiative discussed at COP28 was The Freshwater Challenges which aims to restore 300,000 kilometres of degraded rivers and 350 million hectares of degraded wetlands by 2030. This challenge was launched during the UN Water Conference in March 2023 and more states signed on to support the challenge at COP 28. A core part of the success of this challenge, as noted by Dr. Phil Duncan, is the inclusion of Indigenous voices as key contributors to driving climate change adaptation and resilience. Duncan shared “There is a great need for Western science and Indigenous science to coexist.”  

Forty-five countries have currently joined The Freshwater Challenge, including Canada. During the proceedings, Canada presented many commitments including, developing and updating a comprehensive national strategy and action plan on freshwater conservation. This plan is being formulated in collaboration with provincial and territorial Indigenous representatives and keystone stakeholders. Canada will also present “The Nature Accountability Act” in parliament in 2024. The Act will set out measures for government and industry to be accountable to biodiversity and life sustaining natural areas. In addition, Canada has newly established The Canada Water Agency , an arms-length federal agency, which will play an important role with a mandate to improve freshwater management and collaboration across Canada.  

Another critical voice at COP 28 water focused sessions came from the youth who called on leaders to act on keeping the 1.5 °C global warming target alive. Many youth and Indigenous leaders shared projects and perspectives on their commitments to water security and presented the Global Youth Statement: A Declaration for Climate Justice (GYS).  The statement calls on leaders to act and synthesizes climate policies demands from youth and vulnerable peoples. It is my hope that political global leaders listen to the demands from youth and act. 

The conversations on freshwater security and conservation challenges will continue in the 10th World Water Forum from 18-25 May 2024 in Bali where I look forward to tracking the progress on the collaborative efforts between science and policy to protect water for the benefit of all.