Which key themes emerged during the 2023 Water Conference?

June 9, 2023

The UN 2023 Water Conference was undoubtedly a historic event. Happening nearly 50 years after its predecessor, the 1977 Mar del Plata UN Water Conference, not only did the 2023 Water Conference gather thousands of water gamechangers, it also served as the midterm comprehensive review of implementation of the UN Decade for Action on Water and Sanitation, as the full name of the Conference indicates. As we are currently halfway through the UN Water Action Decade (2018-2028), the Conference served as a space for reflection and realistic evaluation of our progress towards achieving the water-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Following this trend, being at the UN Water Conference felt like a great opportunity to conduct a different kind of review, one assessing the kind of themes and problems discussed in the Conference session in search of alignment (or lack thereof) with the most prominent human-water issues in the academic literature.

With this in mind, I decided to explore how well the UN 2023 Water Conference sessions reflect and respond to the most pressing human-water problems. To assess this, I am using a database of global huma-water problems based on the academic literature of nearly the past 20 years. This is a database that has been developed by the Problématiques working group within the NEWAVE Network.

This overview is a result of a systematic literature review of scientific sources from the water governance field. The database consists of 476 peer-reviewed articles from the period of 2004-2022. The papers were coded to identify the human-water problems taking centerstage in the academic literature. These problems were then clustered according to the themes, creating problématiques – broader, higher level, recurring issues that manifest on multiple scales, in various geographical settings and persist over time. Table 1 offers an overview of identified problématiques and their sub-categories.

Figure 1. Problem typology based on scientific literature from the period between 2004 and 2022

Has this typology been reflected in the sessions of the UN 2023 Water Conference? Although only at preliminary stages, the research has already yielded some interesting findings. Table 2 lists the key themes of the Conference side events (held in the UN headquarters). 

Figure 2. Key themes present in the official UN Water Conference side-events held at the UN headquarters