UN Water Conference: From Mar del Plata to New York and beyond

The past 

Global water leaders are meeting in New York on 22-24 March 2023 after 46 long years since the first UN Water Conference held in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 1977. The conference report, also known as the Mar Del Plata Action Plan, identified the critical role that water resources play in improving human social and economic livelihood. The Plan also noted the need to implement specific and concerted actions for solutions at national, regional and global scale, without which a better quality of life and promotion of human dignity could not be assured. 

Following the conference, the first UN Water Decade from 1981–1990, also known as the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (IDWSSD), is estimated to have granted access to safe drinking water for over a billion people globally. However, many professionals were of the view that the IDWSSD failed to achieve its goals, mainly due to its broad approach. The issues were generalised and addressed without taking into account regional, national and community differences. For instance, the Action Plan was not based on a holistic approach and did not consider the role of local communities. It mainly focused on the contributions of national governments, which as a result gave governments the leverage to either choose to go by the Plan or not. Lastly, the Action Plan did not come with targets or timelines, which made the assessment of progress difficult.  

Conversely, the IDWSSD cannot be said to have been a total failure because it brought a much-needed spotlight on the importance of clean water and adequate sanitation for all. In that decade, the role of national governments in investing in the provision of clean water and adequate sanitation was highlighted; a role that was previously reserved mainly for regional and international development organisations. In that same decade, the idea of access to clean water and adequate sanitation being a human right was birthed, and the call was sustained through to 2010 when the UN resolved to formally recognise the human right to water and sanitation. Additionally, metrics for measuring progress in terms of water and sanitation access were initiated. Significant progress was recorded both in knowledge generation and practice. Several initiatives came into force with inspiration from the Mar del Plata Action Plan, including, but not limited to, the 1992 International Conference on Water and the Environment, the 2015 Millennium Development Goals Agenda that had a goal dedicated to water, the World Water Day initiative, and the 2016 Sustainable Development Goals Agenda, which has a goal dedicated to water and sanitation, with associated clear targets. 


The present

Currently, efforts are being focused on the Sustainable Development Goal on water and sanitation (SDG 6). Progress on SDG6 is slow, undermining the human right to water and sanitation. Organisations have become increasingly aware of the silos that exist in the water and sanitation sector and are developing programmes to ensure cross-sectoral approaches in implementing solutions. The mapping of stakeholders has taken an inclusive approach over time with women, youth, marginalised groups, and users being consciously included in various levels of engagement spanning from decision-making, design, and implementation of solutions. Lots of innovations and initiatives, both at the global and local scale, are being churned out to solve the water and sanitation challenges. Examples are bio-digester toilets, capturing water from the atmosphere, performance improvement contracts, water safety plans, WASH incubator and accelerator programmes, digital water systems, open access to WASH publications, and more. This shows that there is a lot of effort being directed towards access to clean water and safe sanitation compared to the first water decade. Interestingly and progressively so, the WASH sector is holding itself to the highest standard and wants to make sure that the SDG 6 targets are met on time, hence the call for actionable commitments to be made in the midterm review of the water action decade. 


The future

After this midterm review of the water action decade, all the other sectors will be monitoring the WASH sector to see how progress is being accelerated so they can learn from best practices. To make sure the sector stays on track, I outline some ideas that can be explored. 


Implementation Drive

As mentioned above, there have been many useful innovations in the sector over time. To achieve significant progress, attention should be given to the implementation of numerous innovations. At this stage, adequate resources and policies need to be developed to create a conducive environment for the execution of projects that transfer these innovations and inventions from shelved prototypes to minimum viable products and beyond. This will ensure that the solutions are deployed at the local level. 


WASH–Employment Nexus

Currently, there are still high numbers of people who do not have access to clean water and safe sanitation, and there are multiple challenges related to water conservation due to climate change and human-related activities. On the other hand, unemployment is still one of the longstanding global challenges of the world that is threatening the national security of several countries. It is necessary to understand the volume and the kind of workforce needed to reach the SDG 6 targets by 2030. Once that is done, the next step will be to design academic, vocational, and technical programmes targeted at the unemployed population. Also, there is the need to approach the provision of water and sanitation services from a sustainable self-financing angle, which allows the services to pay for their maintenance and expansion. The WASH crisis provides the avenue for job creation and the employment crisis provides the workforce. What are currently missing are the right training, resources, and political will to harness the benefits of the WASH-employment nexus. If this is done successfully, a larger part of society will be working on specific sustainable initiatives improving access to WASH services for more people. 


Global Accountability System

Authorities responsible for the implementation of WASH policies, programmes, and projects need to be held accountable on their output and their goals and objectives. The current regime of individual states self-reporting on the SDGs does not work. National governments should be encouraged to set their own self-paced and characteristic objectives, but there must be an independent global system to monitor progress while taking into account national limitations and differences.  An independent accountability system can expose mismanagement of WASH-related resources and low levels of commitment and dedication by governments on the water action agenda. This accountability system could go a long way to help donor agencies and investors to know where to donate or invest for maximised societal and environmental impact. A good example is how the International Monetary Fund uses the debt to GDP ratio and other fiscal indicators to assess countries. I believe that there should be a similar system that will compel countries to prioritise universal access to clean water and safe sanitation.


Cover image: ©UNDESA. In the picture: Mr. Li Junhua, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and the Secretary-General of the UN 2023 Water Conference; Mr. Henk Ovink, Special Envoy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands for Water; and Mr. Sulton Rahimzoda, Special Envoy of the President of Tajikistan for Water.

Jacob Amengor

Chair IWA YWP Steering Committee - Water Quality Assurance Supervisor
Jacob Kwasi Amengor is a young water professional from Ghana, with over 9 years’ experience in the water and sanitation sector. He earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Water and Sanitation from the University of Cape Coast in 2014, and currently ... Read full biography