UN 2023 Water Conference: 3 Key Takeaways

By Dawn McGregor 23 May, 2023

The second ever UN Water Conference (last one was in 1977) wrapped on March 24th. Did it deliver meaningful action? What interesting programmes were launched? What's next? Check out CWR's McGregor's 3 takeaways

The second ever UN Water Conference took place March 22-24; delivered some meaningful action but not at the urgently needed mammoth scale to achieve SDG 6
Probably the biggest achievement of the Conference was that it shone a super bright spotlight on water that the world couldn't ignore; water often gets overlooked
Water Action Agenda delivered 700+ commitments but none accountable; it's not so much what happened at the conference but what happens after as 'water is and shall remain everyone’s business'

The second ever UN water conference (last one was in 1977) took place in New York March 22nd – 24th 2023.  As I wrote last month, we had some hope that the conference would deliver meaningful action and in some cases it has but not at the urgently needed mammoth scale to achieve on SDG 6, since we are so woefully of course or to sustainably manage global water resources.

UN 2023 Water Conf delivered some meaningful action but not at the urgently needed mammoth scale to achieve SDG 6 or to sustainably manage global water resources

Nonetheless, it happened, and it put water at the top of the agenda (at least for those 3 days), which is good. To amplify action, there was also New York Water Week that included 145 events from networking to film festivals and field trips to sports events.  Topics like “Racing to find solutions to subway flooding” and a new app that provides a history of New York water as you walk around the city were discussed.

CWR didn’t attend the Conference – though I did join the panel of an official virtual side event organised by CDP – we did think about it but in the end decided not to since it wasn’t expected to be a watershed event (and we weren’t the only ones, hear from global water gurus). The UN themselves had not set any explicit standard to judge the success of the conference and was constrained by an agreement that no political declaration would be made. That meant the primary outcome would be voluntary commitments from participants. More on this in my key takeaways below.

Check out our 3 key takeaways

We are glad to hear though that it was very well attended. Below is some information on the event for context and after that my three key takeaways on the Conference and its outcomes.

UN 2023 Water Conference

Two governments co-hosted the Conference, the Netherlands and Tajikistan. The programme addressed five themes:

  1. Water for Health: Access to WASH, including the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation
  2. Water for Sustainable Development: Valuing Water, Water-Energy-Food Nexus and Sustainable Economic and Urban Development
  3. Water for Climate, Resilience and Environment: Source to Sea, Biodiversity, Climate, Resilience and Disaster Risk Reduction
  4. Water for Cooperation: Transboundary and International Water Cooperation, Cross Sectoral Cooperation, including Scientific Cooperation, and Water Across the 2030 Agenda
  5. Water Action Decade: Accelerating the implementation of the objectives of the Decade, including through the UN Secretary-General’s Action Plan.


3 Key Takeaways of the UN 2023 Water Conference


1. Good to shine a super bright spotlight on water but the Conference didn’t up the ante on not achieving SDG 6 or sustainably managing global water resources

Probably the biggest achievement of the Conference was that it shone a super bright spotlight on water and the challenges that the world couldn’t look away from. For those 3 days water was a top global priority and was reported on.

Probably the biggest achievement of the Conference was that it shone a super bright spotlight on water…

…water often gets overlooked

Water often gets overlooked in global development and climate change discussions, which is at our peril since water is the most vulnerable resource to climate change and is how we feel climate impacts – flood, droughts, sea levels rise, glacial melt, permafrost melt and more. Water is also a dealmaker for our economies, for our communities and for achieving essentially all of the other SDGs too.

The lure of the spotlight was also clear on site with more than 10,000 people attending the Conference. We heard that there were ques around the block of people waiting to collect their access passes and inside the Conference was just as busy with sessions so full that people were turned away.

No game changers really came out of the Conference

However, while the attention is positive, no game changers really came out of the Conference. As I mentioned before, it wasn’t really expected that there would be even before the Conference. Some industry experts were hoping this would be water’s “Paris Agreement moment” but it wasn’t.  Only 12 heads of state turned up in person, others sent their environment ministers.

The Conference conducted the comprehensive review of the implementation of the International Decade for Action, “Water for Sustainable Development”, 2018–2028 and attempted to ramp up action on SDG 6 through the Water Action Agenda.

2. Water Action Agenda – yet another promise of progress – though there were some interesting programmes launched

Called by some as the centre piece of the Conference was the Water Action Agenda, a compilation of voluntary commitments from national governments, non-profits, businesses, and intergovernmental agencies.

Water Action Agenda commitments hit 700+ but just voluntary & some repackaged existing commitments…

…not going to get us anywhere fast

By the end of the conference some 700 commitments had been made and as of today, this has increased to 737. The commitments vary in type, size, everything really, but the crux of the commitments of the Agenda is that they are voluntary and there is little to no accountability on delivering the commitments. In fact, some have stated that some corporate commitments are actually just repackaged already made commitments, not encouraging. It seems like the Agenda is another place to make more promises that will not be kept. Good intentions aren’t going to stop us from dying of thirst or systemic shocks to our economies.

However, what is encouraging is that some interesting and potentially effective programmes were launched at the Conference, of note are:

3. It’s not so much what happened at the Conference but what happens after

Regardless of how the Conference went, it was always going to be important what comes after and in that sense, it was good that the Conference happened. As said, the Conference forced people to notice water it also now forces the world to ask so what are we really going to do to solve the mammoth challenges?

Water is and shall remain everyone’s business

UN-Water chair Gilbert F. Houngbo

It’s time to get real and there are no excuses because the world saw the Conference happen and witnessed how behind we are and how much we are risking. It’s up to all of us to be the change needed. As UN-Water chair and Director General of ILO Gilbert F. Houngbo concluded at the Conference, Water is and shall remain everyone’s business”.

Further Reading

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Dawn McGregor
Author: Dawn McGregor
Dawn leads CWR’s work to help corporates navigate increasingly disruptive & material risks from water & climate threats, as well as transitional risks in the supply chain arising from new regulations in China. Here, Dawn engages extensively with the global fashion industry delivering on-ground workshops in China to keynotes and strategic input at European HQs. She has written at length on the end of dirty and thirsty fast fashion and her report to overcome gaps between brands and manufacturers for a clean and circular future inspired the industry to create a new wastewater tool. Dawn also works closely with the property and tourism sectors where she not only conducts strategic assessments of their exposure but builds collective action toward resilience via closed door working groups and invite-only events. Having helped build CWR, Dawn is a frequent keynote, panellist & moderator at events, including being twice selected as the lead-rapporteur at World Water Week. Her articles are cited in various industry publications including the UN’s ‘World Without Water’. Dawn previously worked in a global investment bank assessing geo-political risk, crisis management and business resiliency. She was born and bred in Hong Kong and has lived in France, England, Singapore and Beijing.
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