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The United Nations Water Conference from the Perspective of a Graduate Student

Ivy Steinberg-McElroy

83% of natural disasters are water related. Water demand will outstrip supply by 40% in 2030. In the United States, only 15% of water workers are women. 1 in 4 people – 2 billion people worldwide – lack safe drinking water and 3.6 billion people lack safe sanitation. These are just some of the facts I learned while attending the first United Nations Water Conference in 46 years, co-hosted by the Governments of Tajikistan and the Netherlands, at the United Nations Headquarters last week. This year marked the halfway point in the Water Action Decade, which dubbed 2018-2018 the decade of Water for Sustainable Development with the goals of advancing sustainable development, energizing existing programs and projects, and inspiring action to achieve the 2030 Agenda. In addition, last year marked the halfway point in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, so this event came at a timely time. Liesje Schreinemacher, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation of the Netherlands, simplified the current global water crisis well by explaining that around the world, places “either have too much water, not enough water, or water that is too polluted” aka flooding, drought, and contaminated water.

As someone who is relatively new to the water sector, it was amazing to be in the same space as Ministers, Ambassadors, Secretary Generals, and even the King of the Netherlands (which I didn’t even know they had)! It was an overwhelming experience, but I had the opportunity to join side events on topics such as accelerating women’s inclusion in the water sector, the importance of indigenous water practices, an app for farmers to measure nitrate levels in water, early warning systems, menstrual health and hygiene, the importance of wetland conservation, and more. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t perfect and included many long lines waiting for food and sitting on the floor of crowded conference rooms as well as standing in a 2 hour, city block line to get my badge with my boss (which was fine, but how does one have small talk with their boss for two straight hours?), but it was all worth it to be in a space where so many important discussions were happening.

I ended my time at the conference by attending the closing plenary session. Picture the typical UN setup: a giant room, each country has their own table, the Chairman up front with a gavel, everyone making closing remarks. I unfortunately had to sit up in the nosebleeds section, pictured below, but it still felt like I was part of the whole thing. Speakers at the closing plenary summed up the five interactive dialogues of the conference- Water for Health, Water for Sustainable Development, Water for Climate, Resilience, and Environment, Water for Cooperation, and Water Action Decade. They emphasized that water is a common good and a human right and that although the global water cycle is out of balance for the first time in history, we still have the chance to turn the water crisis into an opportunity. Water is a gamechanger needed to achieve not just SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), but all SDGs such as No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Gender Equality, Good Health and Wellbeing, and more. For example, clean water can prevent waterborne illnesses such as cholera, which can improve health and wellbeing and give people, especially women, more opportunities to work and go to school if they don’t have to spend hours a day retrieving water, contributing to both to No Poverty and Gender Equality. They also spoke about the importance of transboundary water cooperation and representation of young people, women, and indigenous peoples in decision making.

The conference resulted in 731 (and counting) commitments made toward the Water Action Agenda, which is the collection of all voluntary commitments to accelerate progress in protecting water, “humanity’s most precious global common good” (United Nations, 2023). While this is not legally binding, it still shows everyone's willingness to address the global water crisis, despite not being required to. Discussions were also had about creating a UN Special Envoy on Water and about having a 3rd UN Water Conference before 2028. Overall, this was a great learning experience as I really got the chance to be a fly on the wall and listen to important discussions about how to tackle the global water crisis and I hope that as I progress further in my career, I can potentially be part of these discussions.


Water Action Agenda | Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Disclaimer: All information, content and materials on this blog are for general information purposes only. Any opinion expressed by the author is not necessarily the opinion of Penn Club H2O or University of Pennsylvania.

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