ESR-Reflections on the UN Water Conference

June 9, 2023

From March 22nd to 24th, 2023, five early stage researchers from NEWAVE traveled to New York for the UN Water Conference­– the first to be held in almost 50 years. Our team was made up of Gina Gilson, Dona Geagea, Hannah Porada, Sinfekesh Girma, and Radhika Singh, all looking at different aspects of water governance around the world. While we are united in the goal of improving the way water is managed, understood and used, our perspective of what water governance could and should look like often differs. Our reactions to the UN water conference highlighted some of these similaries and differences, and we thought it would be interesting to present the diversity of our opinions in this blog post.

Gina Gilson

The only thing I expected from the UN Water Conference was chaos– and that was delivered. In the weeks leading up, I didn’t know how to prepare. As I scrolled through the hundreds of pages of side events, I wasn’t sure what would set this apart from any other large conference. There was the opportunity to see the UN process firsthand, if I could manage to get the right badge. And I was hopeful that the historic nature of the event would attract a diversity of participants that would be unlikely to convene otherwise.

The whirlwind days presented opportunities to simply watch and listen. To hear scientists, practitioners, academics and activists speaking in metaphors in hopes to reach some shared understanding. To hear ideas promoted, contested, praised, and demonised. To be packed like sardines in windowless rooms where Indigenous leaders discussed the rights of nature. To gaze at the Manhattan skyline with a plate of macaroons as economists discussed ensuring water supply for the poor and vulnerable.

At times I felt hopeful that all of these people, across sectors and across the world, are all playing their part in solving pressing problems. But at times I felt discouraged about which values are being prioritized and which voices are being heard. Though it is intimidating to navigate, it is empowering to see a role for myself. And I feel immense gratitude to the many brilliant colleagues and new acquaintances who are on the frontlines.

Dona Geagea

I was at the World Water Forum in Seoul, South Korea in 2015 and at the World Water Forum in Brasilia, Brasil in 2018, and I walked out of the UN Water Conference with the same taste in my mouth. I was hopeful this UN level conference– 46 years after its predecessor in Mar del Plata– would lend a different flavour (a less corporatised one) to the agenda-setting on water at such a high level decision-making venue (UN Headquarters, NY). Leveraging a large crowd (nearly 7000 people) for this event couldn’t possibly be a disservice to building political and civic momentum for the water agenda – or so I thought. I kept wondering how such a large crowd could be convened meaningfully. The taste I left with is this one: a resonance of corporate dominance, a strong market-logic to the solutions-based approach (rather than tackling problems upstream).

I will flag some observations here: (1) A ‘big show’ to present already made decisions. With the technology we have on hand in this day and age, pre-decided commitments can be read online — what I came for was to witness the deliberation over decision-making. Member states, including multinational corporations seem to have come to present their water stewardship agendas – and to leave it at that.  (2) Commitments still included investing copious amounts of money on outdated/contentious solutions like building dams (in the case of Kenya, 100 dams in the next 5 years). The outcry of the environmental movement and the discussions around de/post-growth, nature-based solutions, or gendered-impacts of water challenges (and leadership) seem to continue to be siloed by strategically being positioned at the “side events” – isn’t it about time they go center stage?  (3) Some intentions were masked in sessions on ‘common good’ and ‘multi-stakeholder partnerships’ that applauded MNC’s on their water stewardship efforts– without questioning their controversial impact. A representative of a beverage company, on a panel alongside other MNC’s like Apple Inc., told a tale about having to shut down production at their factory site in the North of Brasil several times, due to a severe drought causing a state of emergency. Rather than showcasing how well we can ‘adapt’, shouldn’t a real water stewardship approach first ask why continue to operate a highly water-intensive production process in a drought-stricken region? Even dissent of an indigenous leader - in another session on public consultations - saying if her people were truly consulted, they would say ‘no’ to any extraction project on their territory - fell on deaf ears (not the audience’s though) when a unique ‘consultation’ model continued to be presented.

In the interest of not sounding like a complete cynic, I will acknowledge that I was inspired seeing more women of colour in power (including reconnecting with my fellow women in water). It was refreshing to listen to perspectives from Indigenous Women Leaders sounding the alarm bells again on problematizing power dynamics within water governance - and pointing to other ‘ways of knowing’ water (being a living entity).

My concluding thoughts is that corporate dominance is ‘watering down’ major political processes and urgent issues within water governance - even/especially at the level of the UN. Questions must be asked about who is doing water governance and who is being left out. More importantly, questions around flagging the paradigms shaping our water governance – ones being highly promoted, ones being resisted, and ones blatantly pushed (IWRM in SDG 6.5) -  and why  - would make a fantastic session with country representatives, researchers/academics and activist perspectives. Perhaps in a session like this, representatives of multinational corporations could do some listening and reflexivity on their role, for a change. Afterall, they do have a large role (and $) to play, but the invitation is for civil society and governments to set the agenda first, if ever we wish to move away from the same rhetoric (‘let’s be gamechangers’) - same results (‘falling behind on our goals’).

Hannah Porada

I arrived at the conference with a suitcase full of non-specific skepticism. My initial sentiment of skepticism became substantiated as I began to follow the maelstrom of endless dialogue panels and discussions. One source of overriding discomfort was the (almost) complete depoliticization of the conference spaces I attended. A pre-conference email had banned any political actions from UN grounds. The ‘dialogues’ I attended were mostly set up in a way that there was no space nor time for dissent to be voiced or discussions to be had. Throughout the sessions I attended, the technical expert discourses, the reduction of water to only one value, or the naturalizing discourses often remained unquestioned.

As a political ecologist focused on the extractive industries, an experience that left me with an exceedingly bitter aftertaste was a ‘discussion’ convened by a research group that – funded by an Australian-based fossil fuel company – started to present a framework on ‘transformative’ and ‘human-rights-oriented’ approaches for ‘water-intensive industries’. The concepts mobilized – many of them originating from grassroots movements and critical academic research – had been ‘rendered technical’ into indicators and lost their political meaning. Moreover, the presented ideas were put forward without a straightforward disclosure of interests. The harsh criticism of a female indigenous territorial defender from the Ecuadorian Amazon – speaking of the lived experience of human rights abuses, toxic environments, and the murder of environmental defenders - was largely bypassed; I highlight it here! There was no space either for session attendants to problematize nor re-politicize some of the ideas put forward.

Based on this experience and looking forward, I ask myself whether, where, why, and how I would want to engage in future UN conferences? I perhaps would rather invest my time and energy elsewhere, support (trans)local processes that I feel could marginally or tangibly contribute to more just and equitable water futures.

Sinafekesh Girma Wolde

Preparing to attend the UN-Water conference was one of the most exciting moments in my short water career. Excited to be part of the second water conference in UN history, feeling it might take another 40 years for the third one to come and most of all to witness high-level plenary and interactive dialogues that will provide an opportunity to take on a shared responsibility across all sectors shaping the future of global water security. I looked forward to networking with participants working in my field, from my home country, and around the world and having enriched open discussions.

Instead, we were welcomed with overwhelmingly high numbers of side events with a broad spectrum of water-related topics (in the headquarters, online, and outside the UN) organized without a break. Coffee breaks and lunch breaks are where participants would normally network and continue the conversations, they started in the main sessions bilaterally or multilaterally. After selecting the sessions that could broaden my knowledge, Ph.D. research and magnify youth advocacy, still felt like I was missing out on so many more important sessions that were running simultaneously online and outside. Little did we know, we were welcomed by queuing for up to 2 hours just to get a secondary badge for half a day, followed by another up to 2 hours queue in the afternoon. These sessions were the main programs for interactive dialogues and high-level plenary. The time wasted queuing could have been used to attend other side events if the process of getting a secondary badge was automated.

My reflection on the content of the conference is limited to only sessions I could attend in person focusing on the topics of extreme weather events, early warning systems, environmental migration / displacement in Africa, and youth advocacy and capacity building. The issue of water scarcity, drought, and climate change as exacerbating factors for water stress, the cruciality of cooperation, urgent action on water-related risks, and integrated water management and monitoring topics were repeated in many of the sessions I took part. Water is critical and central to achieving not just SDG 6 but all the other SDGs. Therefore, cooperation at all levels, from academics to practitioners, and local to international stakeholders, is necessary. These cooperations will help to ensure equitable access to resources and address water-related conflicts, migration, and sustainable water management practices among the participating actors. Based on these principles, many of the sessions were designed with the participation of various stakeholders from different parts of the world. The voices of dominant actors and financial institutes were louder and more influential than representatives of indigenous communities and young people. On a positive note, with persistence engagement, and hard work, these voices were part of the discussion and on the round table. A year ago, young people were hosted in a separate venue, left to share their work and experience with each other, and occasional visitors from other stakeholder group representatives. Even if this broad inclusion is beginning in the right direction, there is still a lot to be done in creating a more inclusive environment for marginalized groups to be part of the decision-making process.

Hydroclimatic change is escalating the severity and frequency of extreme weather events, leading to more floods, water scarcity, and droughts. Adaptation and mitigation strategies are essential to address the water crisis globally. Many small-scale project experiences that led to positive outcomes were shared by the representatives of highly affected nations and participating main funders. The fundamental challenge these countries voiced collectively was the need to secure continuous funding to expand the implementation of these projects throughout their country or region. Otherwise, we will meet again next year and the year after at a similar conference to talk about the same issues and have the same fragmented and reactive discussions. To this end, the lengthy process of getting access to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and the yet-to-be-approved Loss and Damage funding scheme was raised by developing and affected country representatives. Some initiatives for young people, such as the World Water and Sanitation Workforce Initiative and the Revitalization of the 55 African Youth National policies that could facilitate the mitigation of the above challenges, were also presented and received positive feedback.

The conference also brought about some opportunities in terms of increasing awareness to view and work on water as an entire water cycle, facilitating international coalition and partnership, especially with the new addition to the round table like marginalized groups, showcasing technological advancement and innovation of other participants, the possibility of developing mutually agreed upon policy and regulatory framework from the water action agenda, facilitating financing and investment among participants and finally the opportunity to create special UN water envoy or intergovernmental water body for each member states that could coordinate the shared responsibilities and to ensure the implementation of all the commitments.

The conference also raised some concerns:

-   The commitment from governments and stakeholders is well-intentioned but vague with limited reflectivity and a short time limit (4min). The how? Why? and what is needed to achieve those commitments was not clear. The same goes for the commitment submitted by organizations to the water action agenda because of the word limit. This led to all participants publishing their separate 700 commitments without a time-framed action plan and a follow-up and accountability system already in place.

-     The need for jargon translation among different sectors/actors, especially between academics and practitioners. An example of our session raised very interesting discussions and led to some confusion among panelists. I also noticed similar issues during discussions between different actors at the other side events.

-     The need for integrated extreme weather event monitoring platforms. Countries affected by extreme water events repeatedly mentioned that they need a platform to monitor hydroclimate events and preparation, but they lack access to resources and knowledge.

-     Allowing to host these many sessions simultaneously with a long process of getting into the interactive dialogues and General Assembly scattered the focus of participants and robbed them of the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the main conference themes and objectives.

I left New York feeling overwhelmed (with the hundreds of sessions packed in 3 days), conflicted (with the hypocrisy of preaching proactive and collective action while still showcasing conditioned, fragmented, and reactive projects), and hopeful (that we might see another follow-up UN-Water conference soon and that young water professionals are becoming more untied to bring change and be part of the discussion) and thankful (to participate, learn from and connect with water professionals from around the globe). The conference certainly has put the spotlight on several critical issues that need collective action and the political will to do so, but its success will be determined in the future.

Radhika Singh

The UN Water Conference was injected with a sense of possibility. Thousands of attendees from countries all around the world were present, representing governments, private sector companies, financial organizations, NGOs, and advocacy groups. As I waited in the two-and-a-half hour line to collect my conference name tag, I watched networking in full swing: people greet acquaintances, share information on the water-related project they were currently working on, and exchange business cards. Over the next three days, networking only gained momentum. There was also an enormous amount of networking taking place between government officials and representatives of donor organizations or INGOs, although these meetings would sometimes include a researcher or two. I tried to network a little myself, but often got roped into discussions completely unrelated to my field of research (and interests) and would have to conjure up escape plans. I did get the opportunity to speak to some wonderful people at a women in water networking event, though.

During the conference, I attended one panel discussion after another, although I also spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out where the next panel would be and how to get there in the sprawling UN compound. Most of the panels that I sat in on were about agriculture and food systems in sub-Saharan Africa. I got the sense that the speakers were looking forward to sharing what they were doing with the rest of the group and that it was an opportunity for them to discuss their work outside of the narrow confines of their organizational silo.

Some of the panel discussions were better than others, although for the most part people stuck to expressing the urgency of whatever it was they were working on (“there is a water crisis”), non-controversial statements (“we all need to work together to solve it”), and a dire warning of what would come if we did not (“water is necessary for life”). However, I sensed I was missing some of the nuance in these discussions for a few reasons: 1. I didn’t know most of the organizations very well and was therefore unsure of their strategic directions; 2. I had not been in the water space for long, so I couldn’t tell how much perspectives on certain water issues have or have not changed; 3. I am unfamiliar with the ways in which people frame water issues outside of academia. I tried my best to listen closely and pick up on the smaller and more easily missed differences between narratives. I hope that in the next UN Conference I will be better positioned to absorb more of the intense and often overwhelming activities and dialogues.