World Water Day 2023: Building water resilience together for sustainable development
World Water Day 2023 marks the halfway point in the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development – an opportunity to take stock and course correct. Over the past few decades, I’ve seen global calls to action on water come and go whilst water challenges have steadily grown larger; compounded by climate change, population growth and rising competition over scarce resources. So, how can we make meaningful progress by the end of this decade?
The era of easily accessible and reliable water resources is clearly over. The European continent, where I live, is now facing water security challenges and experienced a one in 500-year drought last summer, undoubtedly not the last. Ensuring better allocation of water resources is fundamentally a local challenge that needs to be addressed at river basin and sub-basin level. But global actors, including UN agencies, development finance institutions, global companies and civil society actors engaging across constituencies can help change the water paradigm and influence local decisions.
For many decades, the dominant paradigm has pushed us towards technological fixes: a focus on ever more costly water and wastewater treatment technologies, or the hope that “desalination” could save us when we had exceeded available natural sources. We are now hitting the limits of these technological fixes that also do precious little for the environment.
What we need to do more of is to maintain and restore the ecosystems that can sustain clean and abundant water resources for people and nature for many generations to come. Rivers cannot be run dry to serve the needs of urban dwellers and farmers: we need them to remain alive – but this needs all actors reliant on water resources to work together under a common umbrella.
Water utilities and agencies need to identify how they can rely on nature to clean and retain water in the landscape. As competition over resources grow, agri-food corporations need to implement water efficiency measures, at plant level and throughout their value chain for key ingredients.
Civil society organisations such as The Nature Conservancy can help public and private actors take more risk, engage with other agencies beyond their comfort zone, and prepare investment programmes that include a mix of green and grey infrastructure solutions so as to manage water resources in the most sustainable manner possible.
The 2023 UN Water Conference as an opportunity for new commitments
In March 2023, water sector actors are convening in New York for the UN Water Conference to focus the world’s attention on water issues for a very brief moment. Although coverage of the UN Water Conference is unlikely to match that of the climate or biodiversity COPs that took place at the end of 2022, those events prepared the ground as water was elevated as a key connecting issue on both occasions.
Water is now firmly seen as an essential resource not only for human health but also for ensuring the integrity of our natural systems on which all life depends. This moment will be key to formulate new commitments. I am particularly looking forward to upcoming commitments on collective action, which will entail defining clear guiding principles on how different types of sector actors can work together to catalyse investment, all the way from project preparation to implementation. This is essential especially for watershed investments that require multiple actors to work together to define their strategic location in a basin and mobilise multiple revenue streams to make them happen. I am looking forward to work together with all our partners from the public and private sectors, civil society and academia to start bending the curve on water security in the next five years.