Unpacked: Reflections from our UN Water Conference delegation

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

From March 22–24, the United Nations hosted the 2023 Water Conference at UN Headquarters in New York City, the first UN Water Conference in nearly 50 years. Thousands of participants travelled from across the globe to discuss progress and make new commitments towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – Ensure access to water and sanitation for all. Having received special accreditation from the UN General Assembly, the Water Institute supported the participation of four University of Waterloo Ph.D. students to participate in the conference. The following are their reflections on key outcomes of the conference:

Group photo

University of Waterloo Ph.D. students Navya .V. Nair, Kevin B. White, Isabel Jorgensen, and Harshina Brijlall attend the UN Water Conference at UN Headquarters in New York, March 22–24.

The growing recognition of the importance of groundwater

Kevin B. White | Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

As a representative of the University of Waterloo’s hydrogeology program, my primary interest at the conference was attending the sessions that focused on groundwater from a variety of regional and institutional perspectives:

‘Sustainability in Good Governance of Groundwater Resources’, ‘The Hidden Wealth of Nations: Groundwater in Times of Climate Change’, ‘Groundwater: An Invisible Cross-Sectoral Fundament for Implementation of the Water Action Agenda’, ‘Overcoming Challenges and Realizing the Potential of Groundwater in Sub-Saharan Africa through Cooperative Approaches’

Groundwater has historically been underrepresented, undervalued, misunderstood, or outright ignored in global discussions of water policy. But these sessions highlighted the integral role it plays in achieving many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 6 Clean Water and Sanitation, as well as those related to food and hunger, sustainability and responsible consumption, and climate change. I was also happy to hear groundwater mentioned in many of the other sessions at the conference by water practitioners outside of the groundwater field, likely owing in part to the success of last year’s UN World Water Day theme of ‘Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible’.

“Groundwater is the freshwater bank, and we’re robbing it.” – Saroj Kumar Jha, Global Director, Water Global Practice, World Bank

One of the key challenges that was repeatedly raised in the groundwater sessions is the lack of global monitoring data hampering decision-making – many countries don’t know exactly how much groundwater they have despite their ongoing extraction and consumption, and data on groundwater quality are even more limited. This lack of data can lead to conflict since many large aquifers are transboundary and are being exploited by multiple countries simultaneously, but it also provides opportunities for international dialogue and cooperation. To address these data gaps, a call was put out for stronger global institutional support of groundwater – “we can’t manage what we can’t see or measure”.

One of the most promising responses at the conference was the launch of a Global Water Analysis Laboratory (GloWAL) Network by the International Atomic Energy Agency to support water analysis and monitoring globally, particularly in developing countries that have had limited access to financial support for laboratory services.

Kevin and Harshina (far left) sit behind Saroj Kumar Jha (Global Director of Water Global Practice at the World Bank) during the session ‘The Hidden Wealth of Nations: Groundwater in Times of Climate Change’.

Gendered dimensions on water: The current status of SDG 6.2 to achieve adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all

Harshina Brijlall | Department of Biology

Witnessing women in leadership positions speak at this historic UN conference was inspiring. As a biology student from the Faculty of Science, I was interested in attending dialogues on biodiversity and source water protection (SWP) topics. Although I had the opportunity to participate in panels, plenaries and events discussing biodiversity and SWP, I found myself inspired by the many women leading programs and organizations addressing the relationship between SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation) and SDG 5 (gender equality) during the following events:

"Empowering Communities through Access to Clean Water and Sanitation: Solutions for Health, Gender Equality, and Climate Resilience," "Cross-sectoral partnerships to accelerate progress towards inclusive sanitation," "Accelerating Women's Inclusion in Water," "Accelerating Women's Inclusion in Water," "Achieving SDG 6 through (1) a gender lens on climate change & youth and (2) global goals for menstrual health & hygiene."

Sustainable Development Goal 6.2 aims to ensure safe water, adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for women, girls and those in vulnerable situations by 2030. Women and girls in many areas globally lack privacy when relieving themselves and rely on open defecation, which endangers them.

"Women and girls suffer in silence. Girls don't have freedom over their bodies. Children are raising children." - Nice Nailantei Lengete, Global Ambassador to End Violence Against Women and Girls in Kenya

The Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water (GLAAS) reported that women and girls play a prominent role in water carriage and usage globally. The lack of menstrual hygiene products combined with societal menstruation taboos results in many young menstruators missing school and work.

During the Commission on the Status of Women on March 6, 2023, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed, "Gender equality is growing more distant. On the current track, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women puts it [gender equality] 300 years away."

So how can we ensure universal access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) by 2030 if gender equality is 300 years away?

Tracking and reporting the gendered dimensions of water, empowering women in water leadership and policymaking roles, forming multi-stakeholder platforms to exchange ideas and promoting investments in gender equality in the water sector were all highlighted as actionable items during many panels that I attended. 

Witnessing women in leadership positions speak at this historic UN conference was inspiring. Although the conversations around the relationship of WASH with women, girls, and vulnerable groups were difficult and filled with grief, anger and frustration at the current progress of SDG 6.2, an underlying current of hope was present.

 The interactive dialogues, events, and plenaries all included and highlighted how water is a health catalyzer and the importance of anchoring diversity and ensuring access to WASH for all. In the conference's closing ceremony, over 648 commitments were announced for the Water Action Agenda, which is promising for the progress of SDG 6.2.

Great Hall

Photos: (L) Day 1 of the UN Conference, (R) Closing Ceremony of the UN Water Conference.

The importance of Indigenous perspectives for new paths forward

Isabel Jorgensen | School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability

In my reflection on the UN Water Conference, I would like to comment on the Indigenous perspectives that were offered. The UN Water Conference was a historic moment amidst a world water crisis that highlighted the diversity of the challenges, solutions, and people involved. I joined the conference on the second day following an energizing World Water Day conference on the Waterloo campus and beelined to the session discussing the path to COP28. As someone who researches policy processes, this session was interesting to me not only because it laid out an agenda but because of the way speakers talk about problems and goals. After much discussion by other speakers about resilience and global “stocktakes”, the Indigenous Peoples Forum representative was the first to comment that water must be recognized as a human right and that failing to protect water has systemic impacts, paraphrased ‘when you protect our water, you protect our grass and then indigenous people are not pushed to deforest or move to cities’. They also commented that “water is alive, and everybody needs to understand that”. This was my very first session of the conference, and similar sentiments were not heard by me again until my very last session of the conference.

The last session I attended was on the Rights to Nature, and its speakers were primarily Indigenous. The session was in a tiny conference room with about 30 seats in total, yet there were probably around 60 people in the room standing or sitting on the floor for 2 hours. We got to hear about firsthand clashes with the government in Ecuador and heard about the sense of heritage that comes from nature that predates the modern country of Ecuador. In this session, nature was acknowledged as a living being endowed with the same right to life as us. However, this perspective was not the only difference between Indigenous people and settlers that was discussed. One speaker highlighted the difference in mobility for Indigenous people related to both identity and heritage but also property rights and capital. This was a really important comment to me and resonated with what the speaker had said in the first session about how environmental destruction can present perverse incentives to people who are so dependent on the environment. This is also a pattern of human-nature interactions that I research, and so to hear it being discussed as a lived experience affirmed its importance to understanding the true impacts of anthropogenic degradation. During the Q&A round, an audience member received a round of applause when they asked the room why this session was not in the big room and the first session of the first day. Nobody wanted to answer her, but I certainly left the session wondering the same thing.

UN headquarters

Bringing freshwater ecosystems back to life through the Freshwater Challenge

Navya .V. Nair | School of Environment, Enterprise and Development

UN World Water Conference in 2023 was a significant event that brought stakeholders worldwide together to discuss water issues. This initiative aimed to create a Water Action Agenda akin to the Paris Climate Agreement and to give water the attention it deserves.

Being a UW Sustainability Management Ph.D. Candidate with a research focus on water quality related to fisheries and wetlands, I attended side events, plenaries, and interactive dialogues which focused on these topics. One side event which was of great importance to me was “From UNEA to the General Assembly: Sustainable Lake Management - a catalyst to accelerate global commitment to the Water Action Agenda”. The Government of Indonesia organized this side event, which UNEP moderated. By facilitating research, capacity-building, and sharing of knowledge, information, and good practices among Member States and other stakeholders, it aims to build momentum toward sustainable lake management. UNEP launched its report Measuring Progress: Water-related ecosystems and the SDGs shortly before the conference.

A white paper on 'Embedding Lakes into the Global Sustainability Agenda' was presented at this side event. WWQA (World Water Quality Alliance) has convened a task force to write it, led by UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. It draws on a survey of practitioners of lake restoration from 63 countries. They were asked about the challenges they face in restoring lakes and what additional measures are needed. The White Paper identified key solutions for restoring lakes. The solutions include mobilizing policymakers, investments, and public support for change, as well as supporting communities in protecting and restoring ecosystems. For the UN Water Conference 2023, four key actions were presented: building monitoring capacity, integrating sustainable lake management into national policy, fostering green finance partnerships, and raising global awareness.

Glimpses of the water action

Glimpses from the session 'From UNEA to the General Assembly: Sustainable Lake Management to accelerate global commitment' where Indonesian efforts and WWQA's white paper are being discussed.

This session addressed issues such as water pollution, degraded land, poverty, and other aspects of watershed management. This was done through the protection, conservation, restoration, and sustainable use of lakes, wetlands, and other inland freshwater ecosystems. Furthermore, it highlighted the diverse values derived from those efforts in terms of food, health, energy, biodiversity, climate change mitigation and adaptation, disaster risk reduction, livelihoods, and other economic and social benefits. Inge Retnowati, Director of Inland Waters and Mangrove Rehabilitation (Ministry of Environment and Forestry), Indonesia shared their positive experiences of many nature-based solutions and wetland restoration efforts for water security. Multistakeholder water conservation programs in Indonesia aim to raise awareness among local communities about water-conscious behaviour and the importance of monitoring water consumption. My key takeaway from the session was “Every drop of water saved makes a difference”. The Freshwater Challenge, announced at the UN Water Conference, aims to restore 300,000km of rivers and 350 million hectares of wetlands by 2030, an area greater than India. UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said, "Our societies and economies rely on healthy rivers, lakes, and wetlands, but these resources are routinely overlooked and undervalued. Despite pledges to restore a billion hectares of land, the Freshwater Challenge is an important first step towards bringing freshwater ecosystems more attention."

Navya Nair

In conclusion, the 2023 UN World Water Conference was a vital event that brought together stakeholders from across the world to address one of the most pressing issues facing humanity. The conference highlighted the urgent need for global cooperation, innovative technologies, and greater collaboration to address the water crisis. I was excited to see many youths who are very passionate about taking action to achieve their goals. Youth participation is crucial because young people are the ones who will inherit the world and the water management challenges it poses. Hopefully, the outcomes of the conference will lead to concrete actions that can help to alleviate the suffering caused by water scarcity and ensure a sustainable future for all.

Navya with Inge Retnowati, Director of Inland Waters and Mangrove Rehabilitation (Ministry of Environment and Forestry), Indonesia.