News.Mar 20, 2023

The United Nations 2023 Conference: Where do we go from here?

In the lead-up to the United Nations 2023 Water Conference, SIWI and World Water Week are already looking ahead at the next steps. Here are important take-aways from a webinar with thought leaders who discussed what needs to happen following the conference to deliver water action fast.

From 22-24 March, the first UN conference on freshwater in almost 50 years will take place. The UN 2023 Water Conference  marks a historic opportunity to accelerate water action and highlight the vital role of freshwater for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and solving global crises. Yet, despite the excitement around the conference,  the numerous challenges around freshwater cannot be solved during three conference days. In other words: UN 2023 will not end with a global treaty for water, and it should not be seen as an end- but a starting point. Therefore, what happens in the aftermath of the conference becomes key.  

As part of the UN conference’s sister event New York Water Week, SIWI and World Water Week gathered thought leaders in a webinar to look at the question “What’s Next for Water?” discussing their wishes and fears for UN 2023 and beyond.

What became clear from the start of the discussions was that the pressure on the Conference could not be higher. Referring to water related disasters such as droughts, and unseasonal heavy rainfalls, Sunita Narain Director General of the Centre for Science and the Environment  found clear words: “It is a living apocalypse.” In the future we will need to be “much more water wise and put water at the centre of what we do”. She criticized the UN for being late to the game and called for support to enabling mechanisms as well as recognizing the urgency of the issue of water and climate change.

UN 2023 Water Conference will not end with a global treaty for water, and it should not be seen as an end - but a starting point. Therefore, what happens in the aftermath of the conference becomes key.

Mark Fletcher, Global Water Business leader at Arup, noted that the urgency of the situation has not been grasped yet. At the same time, he pointed out progress: “People increasingly ask, ‘What difference can I make?’ At COP we have gone from having a public event, to having a whole Water Pavilion, to real practical action in Sharm El Sheikh,” referring to how the water community has joined forces to influence the yearly climate negotiations. “I hope that people commit to action,” Fletcher said.  

How the momentum around freshwater action can be maintained became the centrepiece of the discussions. Virginia Roaf, Senior Advisor Sanitation and Water for All  pointed out that while oftentimes many commitments are made, it is difficult to see what happens to them. She acknowledged the challenges of getting governments to commit but also acknowledged progress on multi-stakeholder platforms.  

World Water Week’s Acting Director Susanne Halling Duffy echoed that sentiment and highlighted the key role of World Water Week as an inclusive and diverse space to follow up on the UN 2023 Water Conference. “We want to keep the conversation going,” she said and emphasized that SIWI has also made a commitment to the Water Action Agenda offering World Water Week as an implementation platform. 

Halling Duffy described how the Week is designed to be inclusive and action-oriented.  This year online participation in World Water Week will also be free of charge. Thomas Rebermark, Director of SIWI’s Swedish Water House and International Policy team, supported her call and outlined: “SIWI has a strong convening role. We can be instrumental in bringing actors together at World Water Week but also in other international processes, like the Water Pavilion at  the climate COP meetings.”  

The final speaker, Annabelle Rayson, winner of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize urged for the conference to make steps on clean and accessible water for all, but also to focus on the vital role of nature-based solutions. She emphasized the key role of inclusivity which leads to more action and different perspectives: “To make the sweeping changes that we need, we need to make the steps together.” 

World Water Week

World Water Week is the leading conference on global water issues, held every year since 1991. The theme for 2023 is "Seeds of Change: Innovative Solutions for a Water-Wise World".

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World Water Week opening plenary. Image by Thomas Henrikson.