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UN Water Conference: ‘we need a renewed sense of action’

On the sidelines of the historic Conference – held at UN Headquarters from 22 to 24 March – the SDG Media Zone is an informal setting for experts and senior officials to discuss a wide range of topics related to water.

On the first day of the Conference, Conor Lennon from UN News led a conversation focused on building partnerships and enhancing cooperation, to accelerating progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal for Water and Sanitation (SDG 6), and realizing the human right to water and sanitation.

The guests were Kristin Meyer, a programme manager at the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), Neil Dhot, the Executive Director of the International Federation of private water operators (Aquafed), and Richard Connor, the editor-in-chief of the UN World Water Development Report.

The session took place the day after the launch of the 2023 Report, which warns that, with up to three billion people experiencing water shortages, we are facing a global water crisis, unless international cooperation is significantly improved.

The following is an edited summary of the SDG Media Zone session.

Conor Lennon (UN News): How has the message of the UN World Water Development Report changed over the years?

Richard Connor: Statistically it has evolved. More people are covered by water and sanitation services, but we’re definitely not seeing enough progress.

There is more recognition of the importance of inclusivity, whether related to gender or poverty, and that we need to work together. This led to the theme of this year’s report, which is cooperation and partnerships.

Conor Lennon: Is it important that the UN is holding a devoted to water issues?

Richard Connor: It’s surprising that there hasn’t been a water conference for so long, considering that water is omnipresent. There is Conference of Parties (COP) for water, as there is for biodiversity or climate change.

Forty-seven years is a ridiculously long time to wait, and I hope we have a follow-up within a decade or so, to truly take stock of what we can accomplish, such as general worldwide agreement on water.

Conor Lennon: Kristin Meyer, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) says that, over the last decade, nine out of 10 of the disasters triggered by natural hazards were water related.

Kristin Meyer: We know that floods and droughts are increasing, from each new IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change) report.

However, if we take appropriate action, natural hazards don’t have to turn into disasters. That’s why we’re promoting international cooperation. We also need to really look at the links between climate change, resilience building, and also the role of biodiversity and ecosystems to prevent disasters from happening.

We’re seeing a lot of progress in the international debate and in the international community and this is also where we can make the biggest impact, by bringing those different elements together and making a better impact for people on the ground.

Conor Lennon: What role should the private sector play, in terms of international cooperation?

Neil Dhot: I think the answer lies in public-private partnerships. The way to make them successful is highlighted in the World Water Development Report, which talks about inclusive stakeholder collaboration, and that is key, because you need to have public buy-in for any kind of water or wastewater services.

The flow of data is crucial, but it’s up to public authorities to publish that information. And, in developing countries where you’re extending out the public water system and getting new people to connect, you can’t do that without the help of civil society. For example, in India, we’ve worked with the local community, who can convince local women to use tap water, rather than more expensive tanks of water.

So, it’s about partnerships – from the global right down to the local level.

Conor Lennon: What needs to be achieved at the UN Water Conference?

Kristin Meyer: We need to build those partnerships in order to addressing disaster risk; that means sharing data and knowledge, and involving the whole of society,

The UN Secretary-General wants more people to have access to early warning systems, and this means having access to the right kind of information, so that they can act accordingly, so that when a hazard comes towards us it doesn’t turn into a disaster.

Neil Dhot: Making good on the commitments made in the Water Action Agenda. The whole sector needs to make itself accountable. There’s no point coming to New York just to talk. We have to come away with new partnerships and ways of working together. All the ideas are already in the World Water Development Report, so we know what we need to do. We just need a renewed sense of action.

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