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Ellie Perkins on the UN Water Conference 2023 in New York City

Ellie Perkins on the UN Water Conference 2023 in New York City

by Ellie Perkins

Ellie Perkins at the UN Water Conference this March

York University’s academic delegation to the UN 2023 Water Conference attended the first UN meeting on water in almost 50 years, held at UN Headquarters in New York City. York’s 10 delegates were among nearly 7,000 registered participants.

Unfortunately, many others who might have attended the conference, particularly from marginalized communities and/or the Majority World, were not able to participate due to visa difficulties, lack of funding for the trip, and/or challenges in negotiating the complex rules for registration. We noticed that there were surprisingly few Indigenous people present. There were many business representatives from beverage companies, water treatment industry, and entrepreneurs touting new innovations.  Most participants were academics, NGOs, or government staff. 

UN Water York Delegation side event on March 24, 2023

The conference was partly intended for stock-taking at the midpoint of the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development (2018-2028), and its major themes related to the importance of water for health, sustainable development, climate resilience, and international cooperation.

The format included plenary sessions, headed by the UN organizers (the governments of The Netherlands and Tajikistan), and ‘interactive dialogues’ on each of the themes above where participants could be scheduled for short oral interventions. These meetings took place in the UN Headquarters buildings, including the UN Conference Centre, the General Assembly Hall, and other large auditoriums.

So what was the meeting’s purpose? The conference website said, somewhat vaguely, “The outcome of the Conference will be a summary of the Conference proceedings and new commitments, pledges and actions by Governments and all stakeholders towards achieving SDG 6 and other water-related goals and targets, compiled in the Water Action Agenda.” It gradually became clearer that the main point, from the UN’s perspective, was to encourage groups of water stakeholders to make voluntary commitments to each other (e.g. we will do X by time Y measured according to Z; A will do part 1 and B will do part 2; etc.), so that these partners would be able to hold each other accountable for the actions and outcomes. This can be seen a reasonable approach for an international organization which has no official way of enforcing its conventions, declarations, or covenants, and which is well aware that many of its member states-parties may be opposed to particular UN initiatives. 

Registered participants could also propose side events, which took place in parallel sessions of 75 minutes throughout the three days of the conference.  York’s side event proposal, drafted by Prof. Sapna Sharma, was selected for inclusion as an in-person event, one of 200 chosen from the nearly 1300 proposals submitted. York’s event included two Indigenous speakers, two academics, one entrepreneur and one international organization representative; additional proposed participants from Africa and Europe were not able to attend.  The event was titled “Water security, disasters, and resilience in a changing climate: challenges, opportunities, and solutions”.  It was attended by about 75 people (standing room only) and ended with applause. York University also announced a new agreement with UNITAR (the United Nations Institute for Training and Research), and the creation of a CIFAL training centre (Centre International de Formation des Autorités et Leaders) at York University – the only one in Canada.

Side event organizers were encouraged to highlight agreements their group members were making with each other to improve water conditions identified by participants.  This is potentially a participatory, bottom-up model for creating positive change – as strong and sustainable as the respectful relationships among the participants making the agreements. The UN Water meeting resulted in nearly 700 partnership commitments joining the new Water Action Agenda, and the creation by the UN of a new position – Envoy for Water -- and a new scientific panel on water.  More information is on the UN Water website.

However, this model does not focus on the global inequities and financial constraints which prevent many communities and countries from addressing huge water crises, nor does it necessarily question or challenge the underlying systems of capitalism and colonialism which cause water and climate crises worldwide.  A few, but not many, of the conference’s side events raised this and highlighted organizations and partnerships – notably those among Indigenous people – which are working for a more fundamental transformation of worldviews and governance systems.

Among the many critiques of the meeting were that there are no enforcement guarantees; a global accord on water is still needed, plus an international finance mechanism to implement its priorities; youth and Indigenous peoples should be central to the discussions rather than side-lined; conflicts and violence over water were not adequately addressed, including those due to mining, large-scale agriculture, and urban development; there was little discussion of water-related migration. More than 100 water experts sent a letter to the UN general secretary criticizing the lack of “accountability, rigour and ambition”. Some of us among the York delegation also took up an invitation to delegates to submit written inputs for inclusion in the conference’s website and final report. Our statement calls for all UN initiatives on water to lead with water protectors: Indigenous, elders, women, youth, and marginalized peoples.