UN Water Conference: “We need to understand, value and manage water better”

From 22 until 24 March 2023, the Netherlands and Tajikistan will co-host the UN Water Conference in New York, as we are halfway through the UN Water Action Decade (2018-2028).

For the first time in 46 years since the first UN Water Conference (1977) in Mar Del Plata, Argentina, this conference will aim to create a momentum where everyone – from both inside and outside the water sector – comes together to take action and address the broad challenges surrounding water.

The upcoming summit will be an opportunity to respond to “the urgency that water creates, on the one hand, and it will offer the space for collaboration, on the other,” said Henk Ovink, Special Envoy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands for Water.

As stakes for the conference are high, UNRIC interviewed Nathalie Olijslager, Dutch Programme Director of the UN Water Conference and Henk Ovink, Special Envoy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands for Water.


  1. What are the priorities for the Netherlands as a co-host of the UN Water Conference?

Nathalie Olijslager (N.O.): Our priority is to wake up the world, to make everyone understand, value and manage water better. We all need water, but not everybody has access to water. While the population on this planet is growing, we aren’t really thinking about the amount of water we have, nor how we use or reuse it. Groundwater is being emptied quicker than we can refill it; water is becoming more polluted, which not only affects our health, but also the economy. We hope to create a momentum to show we should care about water and invest in it. Understand, value and manage. That is our slogan.

Henk Ovink (H.O.): The task is tremendous. We face an ever-increasing global water challenge. Population and economic growth and poor management combined with climate change and a decline in biodiversity have broken the hydrological cycle. Meanwhile, the approach to water management is fragmented, short-term and profit-oriented, whereas it should be understood as a global common good. Water is “homeless” within the UN as it does not have a dedicated political agreement nor an agency. So, our ambition is for the conference to be attended by all stakeholders, from Ministers of Finance, Environment, Agriculture and Water, but also the private sector, the financial sector, civil society, indigenous people, women, youth, academics, etc.  Their commitments to the Water Action Agenda must be ground-breaking and radically change the current situation. We need to ensure the momentum of the conference sees continuity on the ground through concrete action and within both Member States and the UN system itself.


  1. What will be the biggest challenges around water?

N.O.: In this conference we have chosen to discuss water across five different themes through the interactive dialogues. First, water for health: there are still billions of people without access to clean water and sanitation facilities. The biggest challenge is that we need to increase our efforts fourfold in order to achieve SDG 6. Second, water for sustainable development. How much water we use for our economy and food production. We need to make it clear that water is also the engine of our economy. Third, water for climate. People are aware of climate change crises, but we still need to invest in it, because if you invest upfront, you save lives and have less economic damage. We call this anticipatory finance. Four, water for cooperation: water is a global common good. It is very important to ensure good cooperation and make countries aware that we are all dependent on water and interdependent on having high-quality water in good amounts. Lastly, the Water Action Decade. We are looking at the second half of the decade, but also at the processes the UN already has: a COP on climate change, a COP on biodiversity, and we will have the Summit of the Future. How can the Water Action Agenda be implemented in the existing processes, so that it doesn’t end up in a drawer?

H.O.: The biggest challenge is the lack of societal and political awareness and ownership, paired with the fragmentation within the water sector itself and across other sectors. Another substantial challenge is delivering water security for everyone when it is absent and not on the agenda. We need to get the basics right. It is unthinkable that in 2023, billions of people still don’t have access to safe drinking water, safe hygiene and sanitation facilities, with women and children suffering the most. That is where a huge leap needs to be made. The last challenge is related to two other major crises: biodiversity loss and climate change, where the cost of inaction outgrows the cost of action. If we don’t fix our global economic approach around water, it will undermine everything else.


  1. When will we know if the conference has been successful?

N.O.: The success lies in the ambition level of the Water Action Agenda and in how actionable it is. It will also require follow-up within the processes and structures that are already in place, so that in every water-related process, it is clear which actions need to be taken.

H.O.: It will be a success when it is not a water conference for water experts only, but a conference on water in the context of sustainable development, where everyone acts, from a finance minister and an investor, to indigenous people, youth and women. When the Water Action Agenda boosts commitments, including real game changers with coalitions of parties that have ownership for system’s change. And when follow-up is guaranteed in society, institutionally and politically.


  1. Can you give an example of cooperation for the conference?

N.O.: We are working with the EU, specifically with the Commission and EU Member States to commit to the Water Action Agenda. We have had discussions around the Green Deal and about what is “the Blue” in the Green Deal. What kind of new policy measures, new subsidy schemes or fiscal incentives is the EU creating to treat water better? The EU is very important for transboundary cooperation, because they have the Water Framework Directive, a mechanism which includes criteria for water quality across the EU.

H.O.: The partnership between the Netherlands and Tajikistan: a country with glaciers, where you can drink the water straight from the rivers, but not necessarily from the tap yet. The country has top water management and water politicians, and they are the ones who put water on the global agenda: a first-class water champion. And the Netherlands, a low-lying delta in Europe, but also with islands in the Caribbean, where challenges around coast, river and island issues are intertwined with urbanisation and economic growth. The cooperation of these two countries is the golden ticket we can offer the world: it has led to added value, enhanced understanding and tremendous action, political and social commitment.

N.O.: Technically we are two sides of the same coin. The two countries combined; we face all the challenges of water together. This is what makes UN so strong, because the UN in the end is about having this whole system built upon talking to each other and cooperating.


  1. Can you give an example of the impact the conference will have on everyday life?

N.O.: My hope is that when all the actors at the conference, including UN Member States’ governments and other stakeholders, such as companies, non-state actors, think thanks etc., are aware of the challenges, that it will trickle down, that they will want to implement the Water Action Agenda and make the difference on the ground. We had over 1100 newly accredited organisations.

H.O.: More than two billion people still don’t have access to safe drinking water and almost 4 billion people do not have access to safe sanitation. This is a huge driver of inequality in the world. The conference will have to commit to that concrete task on WASH: water, sanitation and hygiene. At the same time, there must also be an impact on oceans, food security, the climate agenda, human rights, cross-border cooperation, these are all covered by the five interactive dialogues. And the conference must inspire and influence the political agenda.


  1. How will the Water Action Agenda be followed up?

N.O.: There are different ways of how you could follow up, but you need all the countries to also agree upon this. In July, there is the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on SDG 6 and we hope of course that, if the momentum has been created, between the conference and the HLPF, perhaps more countries would want to support the Water Action Agenda, implement it into existing processes or come up with other ways of how to take it further.

H.O.: We want the outcome of the conference to lead to safeguarding water in every agenda item of the conference: in food, biodiversity, health, energy, climate. We want to see it firmed up in the agendas of the SDG Summit and the Summit of the Future. The conference is the beginning, not the end. Water must have a place in society, in our hearts and minds, and in the decision-making of governments and businesses. The UN has to secure a place for water in its organisation and in the political mechanisms available, and Member States must ensure a political follow-up. The Water Action Agenda is a means, not an end, which can help with that. At the same time, it is the catalyst for implementation, scale-up and replication to help us change course, now, because we have no time to waste.

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