Access to clean water and sanitation remains a significant challenge in many parts of the world, particularly in low-income countries and marginalised communities
The United Nations 2023 Water Conference will take place in New York on 22-24 March; it will be only the second UN Conference dedicated to water, following the conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 1977.
The first-ever global water conference resulted in the Mar del Plata Action Plan. It outlined several recommendations for improving water management and access, including developing integrated water resources management (IWRM) frameworks, increased investments in water infrastructure, and recognising water as a fundamental human right.
As we approach the 46th anniversary of the conference, it is worth reflecting on the progress that has been made and the challenges that remain.
Before the first meeting, water management was mainly seen as a local or regional issue, with little attention devoted to international cooperation or global implications. The conference highlighted water resource interdependence and called for more coordinated water management.
The International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade from 1981 to 1990, the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro (Agenda 21, Chapter 18) and International Conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin elevated water’s importance.
Under the Dublin Principles, a policy agenda was dictated, and water was established as an “economic good”. Many countries have developed national water policies and management plans, with significant investment in water infrastructure and technologies.
International agreements like the 1992 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, the 2000 Millennium Development Goals, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the Paris Agreement on climate change have all set targets for improving water management and increasing access to clean water and sanitation.
However, despite these efforts, the world faces complex water challenges threatening human health, food security and the environment.
The world’s population has doubled to eight billion since the last UN Water Conference in 1977; consequently, the demand for water has soared. Access to clean water and sanitation remains a significant challenge in many parts of the world, particularly in low-income countries and marginalised communities. Today, over 2.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and 4.2 billion lack access to basic sanitation facilities and hygiene.
Many countries prioritise water supply over water management, resulting in over-extraction, pollution, and unsustainable use of water resources. Moreover, water scarcity, pollution, and climate change exacerbate the water crisis, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions. Conflicts over water resources have sometimes led to violence and displacement, for example, in Tigray, Ethiopia.
The SDGs include a specific goal on water and sanitation (Goal 6), and the Paris Agreement recognises the interlinkages between water and climate change with increased hydro-meteorological incidences. Water is the connector, central to achieving all SDGs and is at the core of mitigation and adaptation; still, we didn’t see a stimulus around it.
While speaking at the seminar Alan Nicol, International Water Management Institute (IWMI), said, “We now live in a more dangerous, unpredictable world. Since 1977, atmospheric carbon has increased by more than 30 percent, disrupting water systems.”
Gourisankar Ghosh, Former Executive Director of Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, Switzerland, said, “the universalised discourses on water reflected a techno-centric, top-down approach, not including people participation or decentralised approaches.”
Lyla Mehta, Institute of Development Studies (IDS), contends economics and engineering have historically dominated water management, but these disciplines have perpetuated inequalities and centralised planning while ignoring sociocultural, political, and sustainability concerns.
While discussing the disproportionate impact of water-related issues on women and marginalised communities, she brings out essential perspectives on gender, intersectionality, and the social crisis of inclusion.
“Water is invisible, and so is the woman who is ‘naturally’ responsible for fetching water for their family,” she said.
Alan and Lyla in their recent opinion emphasise, unlike meetings/conferences hosted by the international conventions/world committee on climate change and food security, the upcoming water conference is hosted by two countries (the Netherlands and Tajikistan).
“With no key drivers or players, water lacks a champion in the UN system.”
The peculiarity of global water governance is it lacks formal conventions/ annual meetings in the water sector, which means there is no reference mechanism to point to in trade agreements or financial decision-making.
In the realm of policy, 46 years is an era. Much progress has been made, and the landscape has profoundly transformed. Despite this, there may be a growing recognition that significant targets and expectations have not been realised in some regions and that, with mounting climate-related pressures and other variables, success may prove even more elusive in the decades to come.
Meanwhile, unsustainable water use practices continue in many parts of the world, with water being wasted, polluted, or used inefficiently.
Shared action, equality, and decentralised approach for collaboration must replace old anticipations about institutions, governance, and people. People’s participation, bottom-up approaches and local led adaptations will be more sustainable and relevant.
It will also require a recognition of the role of water in broader development goals, such as improving health, food security, and climate change adaptation.
Women are responsible for water collection in the world’s most impoverished communities. They have experience with the procedure and its potential difficulties. Yet, women’s viewpoints are frequently overlooked throughout the planning stages of reform initiatives. The mainstreaming of gender equality in drinking water and sanitation and water management is fundamentally required.
A feminist perspective on the water calls for an intersectional approach that considers how gender, race, class, and geography intersect to shape access to water and that seeks to challenge the underlying power structures that perpetuate inequality and oppression.
As we look to the future, it is clear that addressing these challenges will require a renewed commitment to the principles and priorities identified at the UN Water Conference.
The New York Water Conference 2023 is a chance to pause for a moment and seriously consider an important topic.
Neha is a doctoral candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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