On the morning of March 22nd, 2023, I watched from a balcony as the United Nations held its’ first dialogue on the human right to water in over 50 years. This once in a generation conference was convened to review the world’s progress in assuring Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6), Clean Water and Sanitation for all by 2030 (UN DESA), and to set forth an agenda for the remaining 7 years.

As I held the headset providing translation close to my ear, I was filled with excitement, anticipation, and concern. The world has made some progress. Since 2015, 600 million people gained access to safe drinking water, and following the turn of the century (i.e. 2000), 2.4 billion now enjoyed safely managed sanitation (UN Water). However, it’s not nearly enough. Two billion remain without safe drinking water, 3.6 billion still lack safely managed sanitation (UNWater), and we continue to fall short of all other benchmarks set for SDG6 (Richard & Michela).

Yet, I was hopeful.

Some ten thousand participants, spanning all sectors of society (national/international government/non-government organization, public/private entities, the academic/scientific community, etc.), had gathered at UN Headquarters in New York City (UN 2023 Water Conference), and from what I gathered, this was an unprecedented level of involvement, far more than regular meetings of the General Assembly. Events were taking place all over the city, and the conference had received quite a bit of media publicity, even celebrity attendance (UN Web TV). The potential of the conference seemed endless.

The session opened with formalities of recognition and circumstance, followed by the announcement of high-level commitments to global Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and, of course, calls to action to address the consequences of inadequate water and sanitation, illustrated by the alarming statistics I have come to know all too well.

“Each year, 829,000 people die from diseases directly attributable to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and poor hygiene practices” … “each day more than 700 children, 700 children, under age 5 die from diarrheal diseases due to a lack of appropriate wash services. In areas of conflict children are nearly 20 times more likely to die from diarrheal disease than from the conflict itself” … “to reach this goal [securing safe water and sanitation for all] by 2030 we need to quadruple progress” (Catherine Russell – UNICEF Executive Director)

Framed by this dire reality, the intent of the session was to foster a productive dialogue on Water for Health (UN Secretariat), and to focus on commitments made by UN member states and other accredited stakeholders. Unfortunately, what followed, was anything but productive, and reinforced many of the critiques known to be leveled against the bureaucracy of the UN.

The session was cumbersome and at points, disorganized. With no pre-established order, member states and participating stakeholders would notify moderators when they wished to speak. They were then allotted three minutes, timed by a clock on two large screens. However, representatives would regularly go over time (despite pleas from moderators), reading lengthy, pre-prepared scripts, often echoing a shared message; that despite progress, if any had been made, member states lacked resources, faced intensifying water, sanitation, and hygiene insecurity, and were requesting immediate assistance from the international community. There would be pleas for greater representation (youth involvement, the private, sector, those with disabilities, etc.) and even a comment regarding the conflict in Ukraine. Yet, all of this would go largely unacknowledged, save a brief comment or two. With little time in-between, moderators would move from speaker to speaker, reiterating over, and over, that the focus should remain on “commitments” and “action”.

By the end of the session, only a few substantial commitments would be made.

Of the five major sessions (Water for Health; Sustainable Development; Climate Resilience and Environment; Cooperation; and the Water Action Decade), this would be the only one I was able to attend. Entry required special tickets, which were difficult to acquire in advance, and each session overlapped significantly with the numerous other events taking place inside of the UN and across the city. As much as I was there to witness politics, I was also there to build relationships, and I hoped that the smaller, independently organized sessions of the conference would be more promising.

It was challenging.

Tens of events took place simultaneously and details regarding each event (time, location, topic of presentation, etc.) varied greatly, so you had to be selective and flexible as the schedule was updated irregularly. Additionally, it became clear that the UN was never designed for thousands of participants at a single time. Corridors and conference rooms were overcrowded, leaving little room to maneuver or converse comfortably. Participants often resulted to the floor as there was insufficient seating and given the immense number of people at a session, it was difficult to tell who was presenting and who was simply there. Sessions were constantly interrupted by those coming/going, and the moment an event was over (or not even), one group of individuals would rush out, while another rushed in. This left little time for any meaningful exchange. A brief introduction, appreciation of their activism/project, and the sharing of contact information was about all that could be achieved.

The private events I attended outside the UN were more formal, better organized, and more purposeful. They centered on the promotion of large-scale commitments to SDG6 and/or the presentation of high-level individuals (excellencies, CEO’s, foreign/domestic government officials, etc.). That said, if you (your organization) were not the focus of the event and/or you (yourself) unfamiliar to others attending, it was necessary to be more assertive in order engage in conversation (something I know many are uncomfortable with).

Inconveniences aside, I was able to engage with a number of individuals (ranging from current/former heads of state, executives, philanthropists, other academics, etc. ). Yet, far more important, was what each session shared.

A number of organizations and individuals from around the world are doing an incredible amount to support SDG6. While much of it remains on concentrated to local/regional scales, their impact was encouraging, and tangible. Inclusive decision making and representation in policy (involving women, youth, children, indigenous knowledge, cross sectoral collaboration, greater regional recognition, etc.) was an evident theme, and mirrored sentiments expressed during UN’s first dialogue.

However, it’s hard to say whether these calls will reach the highest level of international/domestic governance they were intended for. Their apparent reception during the first dialogue was meager, and despite statements by UN officials and those outlined in conference reports (promoting more equitable/inclusive solutions to the global water crisis) (UN DESA-DSDG) the high-level outcomes of the conference more overtly emphasize the general provision of water, facilitated by technical/monetary solutions offered by member states and the private sector (UN 2023 Water Conference).

This leaves me apprehensive about what will be accomplished in the next 7 years.

My concerns are not to diminish the historic importance of this conference, its’ outcomes, and the efforts of those at every level and capacity to address the growing water crisis of our would. They are to reflect on the gaps that remain, those that continue to hinder our progress in achieving equitable and inclusive water and sanitation for all. While technical solutions, monetary investments, and commitments of action and/or intervention are absolute necessities, I fear they will be half measures if they do not represent those they are intended to serve. In fact, we know they can fail.

The notion of water and sanitation for all must be one of many voices, equal in weight and concern.

P.S. ~ I would like to sincerely thank the Synapsis editorial team for their unending support of my pursuits and writing. It was the publication of my second article with Synapsis; Acknowledged but Unheard: The Absence of Children’s Voices in Water Insecurity which started the chain of events that enabled me to attend the United Nations 2023 Water Conference and continue my advocacy for the human right to water.

Works Cited

Richard, C & Michela, M. (2023). The United Nations World Water Development Report 2023: partnerships and cooperation for water; executive summary. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000384657

United Nations 2023 Water Conference. (2023). Historic UN conference marks watershed moment to tackle global water crisis and ensure water-secure future. https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC /GEN/N23/028/75/PDF/N2302875.pdf?OpenElement

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2023). Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal6

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs – Division for Sustainable Development Goals. (2023). United Nations 2023 water conference global online stakeholder consultation: Themes for interactive dialogues summary report. https://sdgs.un.org/publications /un-2023-water-conference-global-online-stakeholder-consultation-summary-46135

United Nations Secretariat. (2023). Interactive dialogue 1: Water for health: access to water, sanitation and hygiene, including the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation (Sustainable Development Goal targets 6.1, 6.2 and 6.3 and Goals 1, 3, 4, 5 and 17). https://documents-ddsny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N23/028/75/PDF/N2302875.pdf ?OpenElement

United Nations Water. (2021). Summary progress update 2021: SDG 6 – water and sanitation for all. https://www.unwater.org/publications/summary-progress-update-2021-sdg-6-water-and-sanitation-all

United Nations Web TV. (2023). Changing the course of the global water crisis. [Video]. https://media.un.org/en/asset/k10/k10ejl3kqp

Image: Steven Rhue

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