The Water Dissensus – A Water Alternatives Forum
How the UN got thirsty again after 46 years
by Lyla Mehta and Alan Nicol
The UN 2023 Water Conference took place in New York on 22-24 March, 46 years after the last UN water conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina. The 1977 conference led directly to the UN water decade of the 1980s with an avowed aim of achieving 'water for all'. Perhaps overly ambitious, given the ensuing global crises, decades later some two billion people still live without safe drinking water and 3.6 billion lack safely managed sanitation. Added to which only 56% of domestic wastewater is safely treated.
Much has changed in the intervening years. Sanitation was barely on the agenda in the 1970s and most of the focus was on rural water supply, not urban water or wastewater challenges. The urgency of climate change and water's central role in extreme weather events such as droughts and floods are only now gaining major attention.
The New Delhi statement of 1990 scaled down the ambition to 'Some for All Rather than More for Some', but even that was rapidly overtaken by the Dublin Principles, positing water as an 'economic good', and the push for water supply pricing, marketisation and privatisation. By 2010 water (and sanitation) had finally achieved status as basic human rights though these rights remain paper only for millions of rural and urban poor. And there are precious few means of holding powerful global, state and private actors to account for daily exclusions from water and sanitation on the basis of gender, caste, class, race and ethnicity.
Given this nearly half a century of systemic failure to collectively address global development goals, huge expectations were placed on this 'historic' UN conference. Attended by some 7,000 delegates from governments, NGOs, academia, multilateral agencies and the private sector from all over the world, plenaries, side events and major statements in the General Assembly covered a range of topics linking water and sanitation to health, food, nutrition, energy and climate change.
Yet, the key feature of the conference remained simply a call for voluntary commitments to a new Water Action Agenda. And the meeting generated more than 700 pledges in a true show of clear, but fragmented, commitment. What remains unclear now is essentially how and who will lead on this massive collective action problem. In three short days (after nearly 50 years of waiting) and driven only by two countries (the Netherlands and Tajikistan), New York lacked political clout. And, in stark contrast to annual meetings convened by key UN agencies such as the COP and the World Committee for Food Security, there was no direct call for a new architecture of engagement by all key water sector agencies, supported by the UN, which still lacks a strong water champion.
But the conference did succeed in creating a moment of energy and a spark of unity across the world of water (even for a week) including highlighting water's centrality in ensuring nutrition, food and livelihood security as well as ecosystem integrity and climate resilience. The challenge of having waited 46 years is that the conference still did not establish a new process given the urgency warranted by water as the 'teeth of the climate shark'. Concluding with a declaration of water as a global common good, a recommendation to create a new UN envoy for water (whose mandate was not made clear), and to hold more regular UN meetings and constitute a new scientific panel on water, much remains to be done and pales into comparison with the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate or a legally binding international convention on biodiversity.
An open letter signed by more than 100 representatives from global civil society, water users and researchers urged the Secretary General to push for greater accountability, rigour, ambition and binding agreements to address both climate-induced disruption to water systems and realise human rights to water and sanitation for all.
While there were many sessions on sanitation, including needed linkages between sanitation, wastewater and climate change, the emphasis remained on water, even in official statements. The huge emphasis on the need for the private sector to solve the issue of water security and the notable inclusion of big corporations and the World Economic Forum in most of the official panels was also misplaced in our opinion, given the strong need for public financing especially to reach the poorest, and the huge past lapses on the part of some private actors in violating poor people's basic rights to water. While there were calls for gender justice, inclusion of youth and indigenous peoples, many official sessions, including the opening, were dominated by the usual suspects, including white men.
But it was great to finally attend a global water conference at the UN rather than water weeks and fora elsewhere that require payment and are invariably more pedestrian. The best discussions took place in side events co-organised by governments, NGOs, donors and researcher with forward-looking agendas: how to realise SDG 6 for Palestine in the context of Israeli occupation; joining up action on water, nutrition and food and exploring a human right to water for food security and nutrition; how to construct a feminist water agenda that tackles the politics of water and intersectional justice; building in indigenous knowledge and peoples; and the importance of youth engagement, including from Sudan, with calls to hold up truth to power and really tackle structural barriers to change.A global water report – Turning the Tide - from the Global Commission on the Economics of Water received a lot of attention with an explicit call for global collective action and treating water as a global common good. However, we need to question how far economics can drive effective collective action given embedded social challenges and complicated incentives across multiple sectors. Ultimately, political leadership has to make choices and be partisan to advance the interests of the marginalised. Also, further apocalyptic framings around water shortages, climate disruption and the global water cycle may divert attention from the thornier issues that Water Alternatives readers will be familiar with, namely power, politics, lack of accountability, transparency, public finance, fragmented governance systems and policies that fail to address the needs and concerns of the most marginalised and poorest people. Also, while it sounds sexy to view water as a global common good, isn't water management largely a local or regional issue?
Ultimately, the conference brought visibility to the urgent need to safeguard water systems so crucial for biodiversity and climate adaptation and long-wave water and sanitation injustices. But until we end the daily cycle of slow and structural violence against the poorest people on the planet as they struggle with little or no safe water and sanitation, and precarious water supplies for food security amidst climate disruption, we may have achieved little more than those other participants nearly half a century ago.
Lyla Mehta is Professor at the Institute of Development Studies and Norwegian University of Life Sciences.
Alan Nicol is Strategic Program Director, Water, Growth and Inclusion International water Management Institute.
Manny of the discussion themes singled out in the report on the 2023 summit were originally initiated at Mar del Plata.
The fact that 2023's conference took place at the UN HQ, distracted the focused attention of participants on some of the real world problems, especially in the Global South, that need attention.
I think the hosting at and by the UN was important. It gave the event weight that other fora around the world don't have. Thinking specifically here of the governmental and inter-governmental levels. However, the sad fact is this didn't translate into anything more 'official' than 700+ voluntary (and random) commitments. We need to do MUCH better on achieve real collective action driven by political leadership in the coming year. In that sense it was perhaps a wasted opportunity.
Sad that so many of the problems are still the same, but as we argued in the blog we are in a different world now with different challenges too. The fact that it was at UN HQ did elevate the issues to the highest level. WHile many global SOuth participants couldn't attend, many did, and there was a lot of focus on global SOuth concerns, esp. in side events that were also hosted by global South countries
Yes, I agree with your analysis and I must say that I felt uncomfortable (but not surprised) with the event's tendency to indulge in apocalyptic framings of the water crisis. This was evident in both official declarations and speeches and on social networks. The event was certainly more inclusive than most other similar fora (take the World Water Forum for example), but as long as we continue giving responsibility to the private sector to solve water issues, we are not going to get out of the deadlock
...simply put this is a public collective action challenge like never before. More people (and environemnts/species) are at risk than ever before because of dramatic changes in the global hydrospere. The idea that the private sector (finance, service delivery, technical and other innovations etc) will somehow ride to our rescue is misplaced. It is about where and how public finance is directed, how socieities and communities act responsibly and in concert, and, ultimately, how governments function that will decide our future. There are real challenges of private-public governance challenge out there, and we need to be clear about the need for decisions based on a societal-governmental relationship, or social contract, if you like, which sets the environment into which the private sector can (and must contribute). But it cannot be the tail wagging the dog.
As a critical water community, we need to find ways to pushback against the recycling of these crises narratives. The 'Turning the Tide' report does it too and we are planning to write something on it too.
How do you think we can pushback Filippo? And were you in NYC? Pity we didn't meet. LIke you I was v uncomfortable with private actors everywhere, including the WEF in the final wrap u p.
As someone who wore multiple hats at this New York conference (official government delegate, member of activist group, academic panelist...) what was striking was the vacuity of official programs within the matchbox UN building (baring a few exceptions) and the intellectually exhilarating discussions in side events outside by NGOs and academic bodies. What a follow-up action plan for the global community as a whole did not emerge from within: how what was debated outside will filter inside too is not clear.
But did we expect too much? I came away feeling that there was 'too much, too scattered' in and around the UN so, in effect, nothing was discussed and deliberated on at scale and in depth. Less is more, might have been a useful watchword for the conference. But it's done, and we need to make the most of it -- which I'd suggest now means putting them 700+ commitments under real scrutiny. My quick review of them last week suggests a breakdown as follows: NGO/civil soc 39%; Govt/Local Govt 25%; UN multilat 12%; Private/philanthropic 9%; 7% Academic/science and 7% other. But that's just numbers. What about the content, the value (monetary and otherwise) and the follow-up (who's monitoring). It really is a bit of a shambles.
Agree completely Dipak, and you certainly saw the different sides with your multiple hats. Like you I gained a lot from the side events and it was great that they were co-organised by interesting groupings of govts, NGOs, donors, academic institutions. Taking some of the recommendations forward will be more useful that some of those 700 pledges!
Having looked at the membership of your organisation I see some familiar names and organisations. It does seem a rather select group. There is neither Arab, Latin American or Chinese representation in your group. That's a rather large part of the world population to ignore.
Sokoine teacher 1972-74.
It is very vital point raise once again to awaken the society that need clean and safety drinking water. UN to revive back after 46 years is a wake up call for action plans to help the global world to have water purity everywhere, for Children Old and adult to access it easily and freely.
The challenges now are far greater than in 1977 (arguably), simply in terms of scale and risk of failure. The urgency wasn't there in New York, because we're probably in 'last chance saloon' right now and don't have another 46 years to figure things out. We need a global leadership capable of taking forward radical new ideas, including ways of making water secure for the poorest and most vulnerable. Someone has to start shouting loudly about the need to organise ourselves internationally in unprecedented ways (and between conferences), whilst avoiding the terrible international fragmentation across water that is hampering our capacity for real collective action.
The UN has indeed got thirsty - and its manifestation may be the crowded masses of UN-Water, which is an amalagamation of those who know about 'water' and also those who do not - but have to pose - because, as the saying goes - water is everyone's business.
Apologies for the cynical stance here - but I cannot help it!
Having been deeply involved over the past three or so decades, cynicism has dawned on me, and interestingly on quite a few of my peers too. We have seen a lot of talk, a lot of hot air and a lot of Hans Christian Andewrson's 'Emperors in New Clothes' parading through water fora, after water fora... voicing out loud but empty words.
Makes you wonder about the 700 (or so) New Pledges - especially when you look at them closely - look at what agencies are making the pledge - and what are they pledging - unfunded, unmeasurable and unnerving ... too many of the un-wallah's over enthusiastic about nothing much. Those on this planet that are desperate for water for their daily needs probably find those pledges to be a mockery of their needs.
So - what to do? Look forward to another UN summit in 40 years?
It has to be time to call out those that proclaim their promises and hold them to account - unless these utterances are accompanied by finance and commitment to convert their talk into measurable amounts of water & sanitation for a given number of people, then their statements have to remain codswallop! And this should be stated at every opportunity - not just in dissencus - but in the main stream media too.
Shami, I share your cynicism. BUT, we also need to be active and not passive and so we need to do something. It has to be at the level of political action. And it has to borrow a leaf (or three) from climate activism. I think we may need some kind of youthful 'rebellion' to get moving because the post-1977 generation have signally failed to build a robust international architectire. Somehow we allowed a quasi-formal structure to emerge that has not served a very useful purpose. And now, with a far more serious global situation threatening real harm to millions of people, we need institutions and leaders whoi can do just that. Lead. And this time, it has to come from the countries most affected by a massive upheaval in the global hydrosphere. And we have to call out failure too. We need to move on from what doesn't work.
I love your analysis of 'too many cooks spoiling the broth' and agree that many of these pledges are pretty useless given that they are not binding. THere were loud calls for accountability, we need to push for this, see comments above. While regular conferences and meetings won't necessarily improve things on the ground, they can serve as a mirror and also highlight global, national and local failings.. So hopefully the UN will get its act together and also have more regular meetings, and some binding convention or protocol, as is the case with climate or food. As a critical water community, we should begin, as you say, to call out those that make promises and hold them to account for their lack of finance and commitment, and also for gross violations.
You criticism is on defining water as a global common good. I disagree with that critique. By defining water and in mho also “water information” as a global public good, you open different financing options. In that frame, a national water-data institute can be funded for the long term, with for instance a trustfund, not just for a 5 year project period, after which it collapses because the country no longer has budget for securing those vital management data.
Such funding would be conditional regarding quality and transparency. It would probably not increase the overall costs of development activities, looking at the study-industry that has developed due to the absence of proper trusted data on water resources and their uses.
George, having global mechanisms to generate and make water data available is not exactly the same thing as defining water as a common good. Likewise we could say that establishing a UN water body (irrespective of whether this would be a good idea - Shaminder Puri would probably doubt it) is not the same thing as buidling a 'global water governance', whatever that means.
But on data: your idea is attractive, especially to the many who have been frustrated by problems of access and transparency. But because data are political, things might not work as you expect. Most countries have 'national water-data institutes', even if fragmented between several ministries. Many have promised an 'integrated water data-base' of some sorts but have failed to deliver, or are displaying on the web little usable daily data since time series are not available. FAO would also testify to the political nature of the number it collects and that it is not able to correct against countries'will, even when they are blattantly erroneous (but 'politically correct'!). Nothing is easy...
George, thanks. We're (I'm!) not against the common good framing. At all. It's just a nice term, which doesn't take us far. And we need to go a long way to being able to prepare for major shifts in where water is in abundance/scarce in ways that we haven't encountered for (probably) millennia. Not to mention water quality changes...Last time all these changes took place on such a scale, human numbers were probably in the low millions, not billions. So we do need to think about the governance -- and a starting point is always data, so we know what we're talking about. But I suspect that there is already a lot of data out there and available. It's not even -- necessarily -- about making all that data institutionally housed (ChatGPT and other AI will soon make that irrelevant), but it is a out how we decide to use and respond to data at the human systems level. That's the biggest challenge.
Evidently this rhetoric so outraged the WA Forum moderator(s), that it was preemptively deleted within literally seconds of its in-thread submission.
Just ten months later, the Tatmadaw mounted a full-blown coup —assiduously non-violent for at least the first several weeks— seizing absolute power, and imprisoning Daw Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy cabinet members, where they remain incommunicado under trumped-up charges. And the death toll has since reached several thousand amongst all sides in the present multifaceted civil wars engulfing much or most of Burma/Myanmar.
I have since mounted several "Grand Bargain"-centric conference presentations/webinars, eBooks and videos; within which were included in-full my own de-platformed remarks, above: as instantly censored by the WA Forum moderator without explanation. Nothing too-clever-by-half in there about "the usual suspects". You might Google up "Cultivate Understanding", our primary website.
The editors note that this comment is largely unrelated to the topic proposed for discussion; We urge contributors to limit their comments to the substance of the post. Irrelevant comments may be deleted for the sake of not distracting the viewers’ attention and time.
ref: "many official sessions, including the opening, were dominated by the usual suspects, including white men."
Hardy har har! Perhaps the OP authors had inserted this just for yucks, and ironically so. But it might well still be indicative how those on the side of the angels feels free to play around with inflammatory, politically correct rhetoric. Within an important discussion here at WA Forum on eFlows, groundwater overdraft, demand side management, and elite planners too quick to ride roughshod on those at the receiving end of their schemes (and over their supportive ecosystems), one of our colleagues posted in the comment thread...
"Thank you Dr. P. for this pertinent case study illustrating, up to the point, the political power distribution between two extremes: the democratic debate and the military rule. Unfortunately, authoritarian political regimes still subsist on our planet, even within those that only by name are called democratic", to which I replied...
"Appreciate your latest thoughtful response, Prof. G. But I would wish to clarify here that in my view, since the accession in 2016 of Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor, Myanmar cannot be properly characterized as under 'military rule'; and arguably, not even as an 'authoritarian political regime'.
"Certainly, the present constitution which empowered her rise to the de-facto prime ministership allocates disproportionate influence to the Tatmadaw [the Burma/Myanmar state armed forces]: which has not infrequently been exercised brutally; given the military's free hand under that constitution in areas of armed separatist or anti-national uprisings and border conflicts.
"Daw Suu Kyi is treading a extremely narrow and difficult path, and her recent multiple de-platforming and un-personing by woke academics (e.g., the revoked Oxford U. honors) —especially in response to the ugly situation in Rakhine State vis-a-vis the Rohingya, which I believe to be essentially demographics-driven— is a virtue-signaling cheap shot.
"One of the potential positive outcomes of the speculative Salween Peace Park (SPP) Grand Bargain is that the constitutional legitimation of the Tatmadaw's occupancy of the SPP would no longer exist under peacetime conditions there. And if indeed, the military withdrew and locally demobilized, Suu Kyi's hand would be strengthened domestically and Myanmar's erstwhile international prestige as a bonafide democratizing polity considerably recuperated. Her non-renewable term as effectively the country's PM ends in thirteen months: all the more reason to accelerate that discourse.
"The [Thai] Royal Irrigation Department is presently pushing their Salween/Chaophraya interbasin transfer (IBT) project and if they somehow mobilized the energy to run the pumps from sources outside of Myanmar, this scheme could well be implemented on a unilaterally Thai and completely top-down basis; with zero benefits flowing to the Kayin/Karen, and a continued war footing throughout most of Kayin State.
"Once again, in light of the focus of this month-long thread, the SPP is notable because the presumptive top-down —and perhaps wildly over-confident— bottom-up approaches to WRM would be meeting nose-to-nose there. And —one hopes— productively engaged towards an achievement transcending the particular e-flow/ecological conservation issues."
Again, this and much more on the Cultivate Understanding website!
The editors note that this comment is largely unrelated to the topic proposed for discussion; We urge contributors to limit their comments to the substance of the post. Irrelevant comments may be deleted for the sake of not distracting the viewers’ attention and time.
Thanks Lyla and Nicol for this provocative piece. I agree with many of the claims made. There is greater understanding and awareness of the wicked nature of water problems now than it was 40 years ago. Greater understanding of the role of climatic variability and change in aggravating water insecurity; a deeper understanding of the role of wastewater in small-holder agriculture and of urban and peri-urban water issues; the role of state and non-state actors and formal and informal modes of water provisioning. Seeing water as a global common may help channelise funding and resources but yes water is better understood as a local common, that is where it is managed or (mis) managed. While many may share the disillusionment with global platforms like these, perhaps one needs a greater understanding of the structural conditions that prevent the translation of policy outputs relating to water (such as pipes and hand-pumps) into intended outcomes. Gender mainstreaming is clearly one area where this is relevant; where, for instance, reserving seats for women in local water management organisations does little to change the status quo in terms of decision-making processes around water.
That's my suggestion. 1) we need a political structure that is capable of looking at the whole and seeing where there are useful and doable starting points, based on a breakdown of the complexity. 2) Then plan what to do under each part of the puzzle and get the right 'collective' together to do this. 3) Then do it! (financing, monitoring, communicating, reviewing, etc). One of the key starting points has to be dealing with gender inequalities. At the conference, we put togehter a side event on a Feminist Water Agenda, that was about tackling the politics and going beyond the 'women in development' narratives. Happy to share more info. We were basically arguing for a more political and activist type approach becuase progress has been so poor since 1977.
Thanks so much Vishal. Agree completely about the disconnect between global and local commons. Also despite all the understandings of the complexities of the issue, the structural conditions and violence remain. Maybe it's because of the invisibility of poor women, indigenous peoples, Dalits and so on as well as power imbalances in the sector that the structural violence this persists, including through 'gender mainstreaming' processes.
Dear Lyla Mehta,
Its heart warming to read so much write up about the recent attempts rally the international community to a Water consensus and financing.
Much of the great lakes region is at the edge of having a potentially devastating conflict on water development projects and equitable sharing. The federal republic of Ethiopia is up in arms against Egyptian age-old control of the upstream water and Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and now Sudan and South Sudan completely bared from any mechanized use of water for production a long the Nile basin.
Such tensions along the Nile basin over access, use and control of the precious water resources has very little to do with global water development financing but water politics and survival albeit the development interests of upstream states that have been bared from accessing the massive Nile basin water for industrial and agricultural production.
The downstream states sponsor rebel factions and secession movements in the upstream countries for the sake of dis-stabilizing the latter away from getting organized to use or tap on the potential of the Nile basin water for development. A case in point is Ethiopian conflict, Sudan and South Sudan. Until such subterranean conflicts are addressed, global forums on water will continue to appear as though Annual birth day parties in whose effect will not be felt in much of the global South where water stress has become a reality and a threat to their very existence.
You're right, Martin. These events can seem so remote from political trends on the ground. That doesn't mean they're completely disconnected, however. Although this event was in NYC, it included (in my estimation) a pretty good Global South representation (especially when compated to other large-scale events held in the 'north'). It also tackled, in fairly small ways, some of the major development challenges in regions of the world such as the Horn of Africa, including issues of cooperation and equity. I'd suggest, however, that the big issues surrounding the Nile and upstream/downstream relations are best tackled at a sub-continental scale including through the likes of the Nile Basin Initiative, etc. With current events in Sudan uppermost in our minds, perhaps we also have to be mindful that non-water factors can lead to water crises (domestic water supply in Khartoum, impacts on inter-state relations on the Nile, long-term effects on demand etc of destabilised states). So, what I'm trying to say, is that often we need to look to non-water facts, factors and fora to solve water-related issues.
Thanks to Lyla and Nicol for raising the discussion. Although not attending the UN 2023 conference I have been involved in WSS since the days of Mar del Plata. The four Dublin principles included “Social and economic value of water.” The problem was that too many influential bodies considered the “economic good” only, ignoring other principles: “Finite and vulnerable resource, Participatory approach, and Role of women”.
We have forgotten also another point: priorities of water use purposes where Water and Sanitation Services lie on the top. As the Berlin Rules by the International Law Association (2004) remind us, water and wastewater services (WSS) fulﬁl the “vital human needs” of communities and therefore play a fundamental role in societal and community development.
Related to apocalyptic framings around water, in WSS the major challenges and solutions lie in management, institutional, policy and governance (MaInPoGo) issues. Nobel Laureate D.C. North defines institutions as the “formal and informal rules of the game” while organizations are the “players.” Indeed, we need better team play, proper roles and will of cooperation.
One of the many challenges is the common lack of understanding of water and water services. Thereby taking more seriously awareness raising, public education and customer/citizen orientation is needed by all the stakeholders. Water and especially water services management are fundamentally a local issue where solutions need to be find based on local conditions. Yet, not criticizing the issue of global common good as such.
Critical infrastructure services, including water and sanitation services, are vital to the societies and their economic growth, so governments must work to ensure that these services are as secure and resilient as possible. In both OECD and non-OECD countries, there has been years of little or no management and maintenance of underground water infrastructure. Poorly maintained water supply systems can generally be traced to insufficient financial resources and poor management. While the problem of aging and deteriorating infrastructure does not occur suddenly, it nonetheless constitutes a crisis for water utilities. The cost of renovation and renewal of water infrastructure systems is substantially increasing across the world due to their accelerating deterioration. The studies point out the importance of the institutional factors affecting those managing water utilities and those providing regulatory oversight. Therefore, also more research and educational activities and funding focused on regulatory governance and management of water infrastructure assets are in utmost importance and in top priority.
In 1977, the conference developed guidelines for water resources management, that have largely stood their test this far. In addition, it got UN to declare the 1980s The Internal Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade. A major feat. Neither before, nor after, has the world seen such a monumental development effort. Both these achievements were based on rigorous assessments of the state of these issues, in a global perspective. In my view, the event under discussion here, should have been based on global updates concerning these issues. Then, there could have been a good discussion on what worked, and what went wrong, as a basis for a search for better strategies. Here, an obvious suggestion would be to develop a convention on water, similar to the ones that exist concerning biodiversity and climate change. Then, the COPs would keep the water issues alive, and prevent them from another 46-year sleep.
To me, the “Turning the Tide” report seems utterly dated, and lost in buzzwords and fuzzwords. Privatiation is, in my mind, not the adequate way forward, but we know rather well, what forces that are promoting it. In addition, water can in itself never be a common good, but universal access to it, would really be common good. This is where the problem sits, as the conference seemingly took notice of. But I lacked the obvious conclusion, that we should urgently finish what was aimed at in the water and sanitation decade.
I don’t really agree with what Lyla Mehta and Alan Nicol state about the New Delhi Declaration. The experiences, that it sums up, provide excellent guidelines for a continuing activity, which, unfortunately, never took place. The “Some for All, rather than More for Some” motto relates to what actually happened during the Decade, namely that far too large a part of the efforts went into providing better services to people, that were already adequately served. As far as I know, the motto is part of agenda 21. Within that context, there can be no discussion, that actual development has forcefully taken place in the opposite direction. I see no problem with the motto as such, and would have been much happier if power and resources were more equally shared by now.
There are a couple of posts here about “the usual culprits”. The introduction actually touches on one of those, namely the World Bank, that initiated the Dublin Conference, and then used the GWP as a mouthpiece to launch its hostile IWRM bid which, with solid backing from the gang mentioned, put a wet blanket over other efforts at water governance methodology, at least until 2012, when the spell was broken.
Together with the IMF, the Bank imposed “structural adjustment” programs on a host of developing countries. Together, these caused a backlash in water and sanitation services, that more than negated the positive impacts of the water and sanitation decade.
Already the Brundtland Report, stated that, unless the IMF, the World Bank, and other international development banks, were forced to go back to, and stick to, the objectives, for which they were originally instituted, sustainable development would be a futile goal.
It’s a shame that the UN does not organize the follow-ups on it’s own major achievements, but asks two member countries to host them. Last year, we had the 50-year anniversary of the Stockholm Conference, the first step on our road to sustainable development. It was hosted by two countries as well, and was, like the current one, a lackluster event.
I share the frustration and disappointment with the actual outcomes of the latest UN water conference as well as recent climate change COPs. But maybe this is not where the real action is, or where the potential solutions and ways forward lie. Thousands of local projects, programs, and initiatives are underway with growing collaboration among researchers NGOs, government departments, private firms, civil society organizations and informal groups of citizens. “Local” here can refer to a neighbourhood or small community, a city, province, local or even national governments, or even a regional institution (the Nile Basin Initiative was mentioned in one comment). I would include applied research and implementation projects supported by donors, for example, some CGIAR Initiatives that are testing multiple solutions with local people and other partners.
Some commentators represent such active institutions – for example, Alan Nicol is a senior scientist at IWMI. Instead of IWMI (and other institutions) spending precious funds supporting large numbers of staff members as participants at these expensive international conferences, perhaps they should participate in a more limited but strategic way and used the saved resources to strengthen their programs on local levels. That is where we can make a real difference.
Thanks Doug. Noted re. participation at conferences (and i'm sure you attended many in your time at IWMI too...), but I think that's something of a red herring. This was an important event for an institution such as IWMI, working on a a huge range of major policy issues in water, to be contributing to, and not just attending. And, as you know, our contributions are based on science -- in fact the need for science to inform approaches was mentioned by the Sec-Gen in his final statement to the closing plenary. 'Going local', as you say, is a part of the puzzle, sure, and it's something IWMI is also deeply invovled in through many of our country and regional office. But I must emphasise that this is not a binary -- either or. We need voice and input at an international level informed by work undertaken in partnership with others at a local level. That's a key strength, arguably, being ablt to combine the two. So when you say 'not the real action' I sense you're turning this into a binary, which I'd argue it's not.
There are calls for "UN 2.0", "Our Common Agenda" and other inferences that business as usual isn't working, and that a transformation is needed and already in progress. Webinars immediately before and after the UN 2023 Water Conference expressed cynicism that any progress will take place.
A stakeholder new to the dialog might view the situation hopeless, untrustworthy, and otherwise not worth the effort to participate. As described in the first paragraph and in the referenced reports, there are still billions of people without sufficient water, sanitation, and hygiene (SDG 6.1 & 6.2), pollution is reducing the quality of diminishing water supplies (6.3), transnational cooperation agreements are moving slowly (6.5), and water for agriculture is presented as hoarding blue water, mostly from groundwater sources. However, in the case of WASH, if delivery of services as indicators for goals in the short run is combined with an assessment of water-related mortality over a larger time scale, say, from 1977 to 2023, one can see real progress has taken place where water-related mortality is largely decoupled from the megatrends of the Great Acceleration, especially population and GDP. This does not diminish the fact that more than a third of today's mortality rate in LDCs is directly connected to inadequate WASH and that there is still much work to be done 'leaving no one behind'. But the point is that there is hopeful progress which warrants local stakeholder participation within an enabling environment of trust in institutional reporting. Participation is key at all levels, and a longer-range scale will be needed in the coming decades as megatrends become more acute challenges, for example, add water-related mortality from climate migrations where "access to WASH" is unrelated to WASH in homes.
If one performs content analyses to the Mar del Plata Action Plan (MDP+10, MDP+20, etc.) and to the current SDG goals, UN-Water web pages, UN 2023 Water Conference Thematic Discussions, etc., you will find that the content of these has not changed significantly - Mar del Plata was complete in scope but it's implementation remains incomplete. However, word frequency is different, for example, where climate is mentioned briefly but very small in contrast to today's dialog. Another example, MDP was stronger in training and capacity development areas, much of which was implemented. And today we are much more aware of the political economy and why it affected the first Water Decade after MDP. So, again with the new stakeholder's view, one might think that we have just been wasting our time and rebranding terms for old concepts, and, again, the stakeholder might conclude that it's not worth the effort to participate. However, a closer look to MDP and the current goals shows that while the terms and concepts are not new, the contexts are very different and a renewed view and new energy needs to be applied. They are in-line with each other, where one is building on the other. We are still not there yet, but it is still worth the effort to participate. Other indicators of progress can be gleaned by advances in conceptual frameworks for socio-ecological cooperation.
The above involved a mixed-methods study, where the qualitative methods involved interviews with development professionals with field experience who saw signs of progress and of transformation, despite an apparent lack of overal progress and the associated cynicism.