The problem statement for water is clear: we are way off where we need to be to achieve SDG 6. There is more than enough water in principle, but water security remains out of reach for billions of people. The technologies exist to make water and sanitation more accessible and affordable for all, but these innovations can only solve problems if they get funded and deployed. This tension between the reality that we could solve global water challenges, but haven’t yet, animates much of the policy conversation on water.
This UN Water Conference – the first in over 40 years – was a much-needed moment of stock-taking on where we stand in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. After three long years of a global pandemic, the event unlocked tremendous energy in throngs of participants scrambling into tiny basement conference rooms at the UN. The Conference co-hosts, the Governments of the Netherlands and Tajikistan, and particularly Henk Ovink, Water Envoy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, deserve our collective gratitude for making it happen. But now that we have returned home, what lasting impact can we expect, if any?
If there is one theme from the event that gives me both hope and trepidation, it is the emphasis on diverse partnerships. The summit attracted thousands of participants from governments, non-profit organizations, and the private sector. What the summit got right was to create space for countless constructive collisions between stakeholders with diverse capabilities and interests. My hope is that these encounters will unlock the tremendous potential energy that stems from juxtaposing stakeholders who rarely interact, but probably should. If the discussions I witnessed are any indication, the UN Water Conference is a cause for optimism.
A multi-stakeholder approach to fast-track deployment of technology to address the world’s big water challenges is essential
The other reality is that partnerships and voluntary commitments are typically what governments reach for when there is nothing more binding or ambitious to be had. This conference reminded me of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development organized in Johannesburg to mark a decade after the historic Rio conference that gave birth to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Convention to Combat Desertification. Ten years on, as interest from governments in focusing on these commitments waned, World Summit organizers focused on making lists of partnerships to advance the cause of sustainability. In the present day, I wonder whether any of these have survived, let alone created a meaningful impact. I hope we do not look back in the same way on this Water Conference.
A multi-stakeholder approach to fast-track deployment of technology to address the world’s big water challenges is essential. No single player can make that happen. We need the private sector, government, development agencies and multi-laterals to get better at working on the problem together. But we also need to stop treating events that happen every four decades as moments that can bend the arc of history. Xylem is ready to do our part by convening a follow-up meeting on World Water Day 2024 at our Reservoir Center to expand on the $11 billion private sector innovation commitment we launched with diverse partners.
The world’s governments can also do more. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has created incredible multi-stakeholder momentum around climate change; anyone who has attended a climate Conference of the Parties can sense the stakes in each round of negotiations. Perhaps it’s time to create a similar cadence around water, either by reframing treaty mechanisms such as the Convention to Combat Desertification or creating new vehicles around the broader theme of water security, or at least by establishing a biennial rhythm on SDG 6 through 2030 to drive inter-sectoral alignment. The key is to channel the scattered raindrops of effort across sectors into an unstoppable current, and to turn the moment we had in New York into a momentum that lasts.