Youth making waves at the UN Water Conference

There is hope for a better water future following the first UN Water Conference in almost 50 years. Thousands of participants, governments, representatives of the UN agencies and diverse stakeholders, including civil society and business leaders, young people, mayors, scientists and more, became united in a global call for action during the UN Water Conference in New York on 20-24 March 2023. 

The conference also brought together young people from across the world, and they literally got a seat at the negotiating table. Global youth rose to the occasion to ensure that their voices were heard. During the conference I had the pleasure to support the IWA-Grundfos Youth Action for SDG6 delegation which included 14 young water professionals advocating for a water-wise future. Many of them joined the conference as speakers, panellists, session organisers, delegates, and rapporteurs. It was a marathon for them.  

According to the Global Youth Movement for Water, around a quarter of the side events hosted at the UN headquarters had selected youth as one of their target audiences, while many of the events that took place both inside and outside of the UN premises were organised by or with youth-led organisations, including the five interactive dialogues and four special events which saw the involvement of youth-led organisations as speakers or rapporteurs. 

This level of engagement is unprecedented in high-level arenas, especially for a UN conference. At the same time, it is a realisation of the great mobilisation power that young people have and an official recognition that their participation is indeed needed to solve the significant challenges that our world is facing. It demonstrated that “water is and shall remain everyone’s business” as UN-Water Chair and Director General of the International Labour Organization Gilbert F. Houngbo affirmed. 

Although this meaningful youth engagement is strongly desired, it is not something that is easily achieved. Different perceptions are still in conflict, and one of the key challenges is finding a way to ensure that all voices are included in decision-making processes. This challenge is even more complex when we add climate change and all the other environmental issues that are causing uncertainty in our society. Managing all these instabilities requires collaboration and partnerships at local, regional, national, transboundary, and intergenerational scales. 

The Water Action Agenda, the key outcome of the Conference, seems to capture what is needed to achieve a sustainable and water-wise world. Of the 700 commitments that are included in the agenda, more than 400 include youth in its scope. Tajikistan, for instance, pledged to amplify the voices of youth in global processes, aiming to use the Dushanbe Water Process as a follow-up mechanism to the UN 2023 Water Conference. Grundfos, alongside 16 other private sector companies, shared commitments to invest more than $11 billion in innovation and youth engagement over the next five years. 

The bold commitments of the UN Member States also mobilise financial support for water action globally. For example, the EU committed to improve access to drinking water and/or sanitation by 2030 for 70 million people. The EU will also support its Member States with €20 million in funding to accelerate the deployment of wastewater surveillance for COVID-19. The Asian Development Bank pledged to invest $11 billion in the water sector in the Asia-Pacific Region and $100 billion in the water sector globally by 2030. 

The commitments bought together multilateral development banks, governments, non-governmental organisations, and international water and youth platforms. They create momentum that is much needed to accelerate progress and tackle the global water crisis. We know we are lagging behind. We know the obstacles. Now we have to make sure that the commitments can strengthen intergenerational partnerships, support meaningful youth engagement and ultimately deliver SDG 6 by 2030.  

Isabela Espindola

Membership Engagement Senior Officer (YWPs and Regulators) - Strategic Programmes & Engagement isabela.espindola [a]
Dr Isabela Battistello Espindola is a Brazilian young water professional based in London and working at the International Water Association (IWA) as the Membership Engagement Senior Officer responsible for the young water professionals and regulators... Read full biography