UN Water Conference Highlights a Stubborn Shortage of Global Action

Facing projections of dire freshwater shortages around the globe, the United Nations has wrapped up its first conference on the issue in nearly eight decades. A central theme emerged amid the voluminous statistics and proposals presented: Why are so many countries ignoring a threat to the global population and, inevitably, their own well-being?

“My whole mission these last eight years has been to make the world understand the true value, capacity and magic of water,” said Henk Ovink, who has served as the special envoy for international water affairs for the Netherlands since 2015.

The Netherlands, a waterlogged country known for its inventive solutions to inundation, and the Republic of Tajikistan, a landlocked country in Central Asia struggling to obtain access to clean drinking water, jointly hosted the United Nations Water Conference from March 22 to 24. Initially, Ovink’s plan was to secure a global pact that would allow countries to opt into a negotiated agreement to adopt policies that value water. 

Many governments, however, did not want to commit to an international agreement they would need to abide by. Instead, the U.N. member states agreed to create a Water Action Agenda that would allow countries and other organizations to voluntarily commit to individual plans of action instead of an all-encompassing agreement. 

The point of the agenda is to catapult the world toward meeting the U.N.’s sixth goal for sustainable development: making water and sanitation a human right by 2030. Experts agree that the world is not on track to make that happen. 

So far, 734 commitments have been made by governments, businesses, nongovernmental organizations and others as part of the agenda, amounting to an overall one-time investment of roughly $300 billion. According to the World Resources Institute, around one-third of the commitments have the potential to have a genuine impact. Described by some as “game-changing” if fully met, the commitments could give more people access to clean drinking water, help communities build resilience to droughts and floods and reduce the risk of water-driven conflicts. 

Against a background of thwarted pledges to arrest climate change after such international forums, some optimism was nonetheless apparent at the international gathering. “The commitments at this conference will propel humanity towards the water-secure future every person on the planet needs,” said the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres

Charles Iceland, interim global director on water at the World Resources Institute, offered a more cautious assessment. “These commitments are a good start, but I think they’re only a start,” he said.

The promise of a one-time $300 billion in funding falls short of the needs calculated in the inaugural report by the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, an organization founded last year that is led by the Netherlands and supported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. To achieve universal access to clean drinking water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030, the commission’s experts estimate a need for an additional investment of $200 to $400 billion per year in low- and middle-income countries. 

Still, Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and an author of that report, called the initial $300 billion commitment “quite encouraging.” 

He notes that undervaluing water is a major factor in preventing the world from reaching the goal of clean water and hygiene for all. “There’s no excuse for not securing the 50 to 100 liters of safe freshwater for every human being,” he said, referring to the estimated minimum daily requirement for human needs. “That’s a very small part of the freshwater cycle, even in the most water-scarce regions.”

The commission’s report urges the world to stop undervaluing freshwater. While it is difficult to assign a specific price to it, it explains, the failure of current economic systems to factor in its value leads to unsustainably excessive use of finite resources. The commission emphasizes that such mismanagement has pushed the global water cycle out of balance for the first time in human history. 

Forever Linked: Water and Climate Change

The crisis in the global water cycle is intensely interconnected with climate change. Freshwater is being removed from the ground and polluted. And as sea levels rise, saltwater intrudes more deeply into groundwater aquifers, which makes clean drinking water hard to find along coastal regions and further decreases the world’s supply. 

Precipitation, the source of all freshwater, is changing as a result of human activities that create greenhouse gas emissions. Changes in land use—deforestation, depletion of wetlands, land degradation and galloping infrastructure development—are helping to determine not only where rain falls but also how much can be stored within the natural environment. 

“Almost two-thirds of the freshwater on Earth is green water—the portion of rainfall that infiltrates into the soil and then goes through plants,” Rockström said. “We underestimate this hidden water and do not have policies, investments or water resource management plans for it.”

The failure to preserve freshwater ecosystems has led to the prospect of a 40 percent shortfall in freshwater supplies by 2030, with severe shortages in water-constrained regions, according to the economics of water report. This is likely to have a lasting impact in coping with climate change. “Water really determines how climate change increases and how we can adapt to its impact,” Ovink said. “Ninety percent of all climate disasters are water-related.”

Along with the voluntary commitments made during the conference, the U.N. announced that it would consider the appointment of a permanent special envoy on water who would serve as a point of authority on an issue that touches almost every aspect of life on the planet. Now, Ovink said, “we will mainstream water into every other U.N. agenda, and that means there will not be another summit process where water is left out.”

With water poised to become a mainstay of the U.N. agenda, the question remains of how to ensure the world will learn to value it. “Some $300 billion of business value is at risk due to water scarcity, pollution and climate change. It is vital the corporate sector invest now to protect this natural asset,” said Sanda Ojiambo, the CEO and executive director of the United Nations Global Compact, a group that coordinates voluntary business initiatives to achieve the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Some big companies are increasing their investment in other initiatives to harness industry cooperation, like those coordinated by the U.N.’s CEO Water Mandate, which works with business leaders. “Over the last 10 years, companies have increasingly realized that they need to understand water-related risk exposure and to take action,” said Jason Morrison, the head of the mandate, established in 2007 by the U.N. Global Compact in partnership with the Pacific Institute, a global think tank on water issues. 

During the conference, the CEO Water Mandate launched an investment portfolio on water resilience that has so far attracted nearly $140 million, and an Open Call for Accelerating Water Action was organized by industry in alignment with the meeting. So far more than 50 companies have pledged to build water resilience across their global operations and supply chains through the Open Call initiative.

Morrison said that the goal was “to have positive water impact” in 100 priority basins that are home to 3 billion people by 2030. “If you can improve the water resilience in these basins,” he said, “you’re really having a positive impact for a large segment of the world’s population.” 

Milin Patel, a water consultant in London, said that the Global Commission on the Economics of Water views the wisdom of Indigenous peoples as vital to instilling the importance of water as a shared resource passed down from generation to generation. “That connection to water, I would say since the age of piped water to houses, has been completely lost,” he added.

Patel argues that water education should start in grade school. A curriculum centering on water could teach students to value the resource and inspire young people to pursue careers in the water industry, working in policy, environmental studies, engineering or advocacy.

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Young people emerged as an important constituency at the U.N. conference. The Global Youth Movement for Water, counting 110,000 members under 35, demanded that young people be included in future decision-making at the local, regional and global levels. 

Carolina Tornesi Mackinnon, the 26-year-old president of the World Youth Parliament for Water, said she imagined appointing a young adult as one of two permanent U.N. water diplomats. “It would be really cool to have a team with two envoys, someone more experienced and someone younger,” she said.

Ovink, who will soon step down from his position as the water envoy for the Netherlands, said that a youthful U.N. envoy could help ensure that the commitments made at the conference are carried out. “I could even imagine three: a youth, a woman, someone from the global south,” he said. “I don’t know how creative the U.N. system could be with this, but we need a person that we all can trust.”

A Quest Inspired by Hurricane Sandy

On March 27, after the U.N. closing ceremony, Ovink spoke at the New York Historical Society about his experience with the “magic” of water as part of the museum’s Climate Lab. Ovink has a special link to the New York area: His position as special envoy for international water affairs for the Netherlands was created partly in response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 in the United States.

Shaun Donovan, then the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, visited Ovink in the Netherlands after the superstorm to learn more about that country’s protective storm surge technology. Ovink was quick to ask Donovan whether he saw the superstorm, politically and practically, as a transformational opportunity for the United States. When Donovan agreed, Ovink moved his family to New York and joined the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. 

More than 10 years later, he recounted what he witnessed upon arriving at the Jersey shore. “The people who lost everything in Hurricane Sandy didn’t want to see a Dutchman with a bald head saying that this tragedy could be used as an opportunity,” Ovink said. 

The construction of real climate resiliency in New York City and the surrounding area is now in its primary phases. And the bald Dutchman’s work on building international collaboration toward a water-secure world continues: For a decade, he has prioritized the need for global strategies on water and climate change that move beyond reactive responses to extreme weather events.

So far Ovink has promoted climate action through sustainable development in Chennai, India; Khulna, Bangladesh; Semarang, Indonesia; and Cartagena, Colombia, as part of a Water as Leverage program.  

While the U.N. Water Conference may represent the culmination of his tenure as a special envoy, he plans to continue his global quest for accountability on water issues.

“The upside is that if you invest in water, it trickles down to the other sustainable development goals,” Ovink said. “It betters health, curbs biodiversity loss, mitigates climate-related impacts and helps secure our economies and our environment.”

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