We need a multi-stakeholder coalition of champions on water

On 24 February 2023, a Geneva Urban Debate on the UN 2023 Water Conference was organized with the participation of an excellent panel. Cities and urban areas are very much exposed to water-related challenges – be it water shortages or floods, sanitation, urban health issues or others. However, cities can be also part of the solution given their significant share of water consumption and waste-water generation. Speakers reflected on the biggest challenges ahead in the area of water and sanitation and the potential outcomes of the conference.

Several speakers referred to the fact that the UN 2023 Water Conference will be only the second UN Conference dedicated to fresh water, following the Conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 1977, and will provide a unique opportunity to undertake commitments and accelerate action towards achieving SDG 6 and other internationally agreed water-related goals and targets. They discussed the role of LRGs in multilateral processes and the ways and means their inclusion can be reinforced and their added value cherished in a more tangible manner. They encouraged LRGs and city networks in the audience to make commitments to the conference and participate actively in the implementation in the future.

Special scientific advisor to the UN President of the General Assembly (PGA) Johannes Cullmann who is currently the vice-chair of UN Water presented the main goals and structure of the 2023 Conference for the Midterm Comprehensive Review of Implementation of the UN Decade for Action on Water and Sanitation (2018-2028) that will take place in New York (22-24 March), co-hosted by Tajikistanand theNetherlands. He emphasizedthat in relation to the water-food-energy nexus, governments and other stakeholders need to act in a smarter way for better outcomes. The culture of investment in water-related programs and infrastructure needs to change. The hydrological cycle should be considered as a global commons and should be handled accordingly by national authorities and the international community.

Governments alone cannot achieve the SDGs, but they need the cooperation of Local and regional governments (LRGs) and the private sector. With an opening and closing session, six plenary sessions, and five interactive dialogues, as well as side-events, the UN Water conference will embrace the principles of inclusion, cross-sectoral responsibility and action orientation. It will result in a summary of proceedings from the PGA that will feed into the 2023 session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). It is important that cities also bring transformative commitments to the process and participate actively in the implementation of the outcomes.

Nathalie Olijslager-Jaarsma, Program Director for the UN 2023 Water Conference from the Netherlands, explained that despite the regional differences, the question of water and sanitation is crucial for development everywhere. She believes that the conference will be the right platform to help people understand the real value of water. It is still possible to change course – whether we face the challenge of too little, too much or too dirty water – if we act quickly and efficiently.

Stakeholders can learn from each other’s experiences at the local, national and trans-national levels. One of the side-events of the conference – organized by C40 and Resilient Cities Alliance – will bring together mayors to share their experiences and present their commitments.

Head of UN-Habitat Geneva Office Graham Alabaster advised to move from simple SDG monitoring to action on the ground. He highlighted the importance and interdependence of all SDGs in general, and SDG6 and SDG11 in particular. Mayors are the “missing middle” in the discussion about action and related investment needs. Based on past experiences, new rules of service provisions could contribute to more equitable development in the sector of water and sanitation in urban areas, especially in informal settlements which are the biggest challenges for LRGs due to the lack or inaccuracy of data.

Better cooperation and more information-sharing would contribute to local and national capacity building. Water-scarce countries for example are the best sources of effective regulation and delivery solutions. The international community should help sharing their experiences to a wider audience.

Marie-Pierre Meganck, Head of Project for UN 2023 Water Conference from France, reminded the audience about the necessity of a holistic approach, including water, climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution. A whole-of-society collaboration can answer the challenges of finding an intersectoral balance. The international community plays an important role to advance trans-boundary and multilateral solutions to the emerging water-related conflicts. At the national level, investment in programs on water should be an integral part of the financing of development programs.

The Conference will be an opportunity to steer the UN into the right direction. The improvement of inter-agency coordination is necessary. More than 30 different UN agencies deal with water-related issues. Their activities are often overlapping and lacking synergies. We have to strike the right balance between inclusivity and effective collaboration. We need to develop an inclusive and effective system of global governance on water and sanitation led by a multistakeholder coalition of champions.

Coordinator of the Geneva Environment Network, Diana D. Rizzolio described the multistakeholder activities in Geneva around the topic of water and sanitation. She emphasized the steps to build bridges between LRGs and the multilateral ecosystem. Several good examples show that cities have the potential and often the political will to step up and advocate for their interests in multilateral processes in the Human Rights Council (HRC), the UN Environment Programme or the World Health Organization, to name a few. She also mentioned the activities of the HRC Special Rapporteur on Water and Sanitation who follows an inclusive approach and reaches out to all concerned actors, including LRGs.

The Geneva Cities Hub aims at following-up on the participation of and potential commitments by mayors at the conference. Water is a dealmaker for the SDGs, and for the health and prosperity of people and our planet. Our progress on water-related goals and targets remains alarmingly off track, jeopardizing the entire sustainable development agenda. SDG11 on sustainable cities and communities has a lot of connections with SDG 6 on water We can only accomplish Agenda 2030 if we successfully localize the SDGs, and LRGs play a key role in that endeavour.

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