When leaders gather in New York on 22-24 March for the first major UN Water Conference in almost 50 years, the world must not miss the opportunity to secure greater cooperation on shared waters – which account for some 60% of global freshwater flow – as a prerequisite to address the global water crisis.
With 153 states worldwide sharing rivers, lakes and groundwater reserves with their neighbours, yet only 24 having all their transboundary basins covered by operational arrangements, water cooperation is an increasingly critical issue for peace, health (through access to clean water and sanitation), climate change adaptation, ecosystems, energy (hydroelectricity, nuclear power plant cooling), food production, disaster risk reduction; in short, for the entire sustainable development agenda. With so many countries depending on shared waters, increasing such cooperation is a precondition for transformative water action at the global level, which the Conference offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver.
Proven solutions exist: the UN Water Convention
The good news is that there is no need to reinvent the wheel: the United Nations already offers a global international legal framework for water-sharing that has proven its value over the last 30 years. In particular, a treaty known as the UN Water Convention provides a unique intergovernmental framework and global platform for transboundary water cooperation, which more and more countries are seizing to support concrete action on the ground.
“What we need now is to capitalize on the current thrust for water cooperation, witnessed as more than 20 countries worldwide are in the process of joining the Convention’s 47 Parties, and consolidate this unique multilateral instrument as the platform to advance practical action for joint water management. By committing to join the UN Water Convention, governments can send a clear signal to the international community at the UN Water Conference of their readiness to cooperate on water as a catalyst for sustainable development efforts across the board”, stressed UN Undersecretary-General Olga Algayerova, Executive Secretary of UNECE, which services the Water Convention.
As the subject of significant political momentum, a groundswell of support and commitment to accede to the UN Water Convention could be a key outcome of the Conference, with positive impacts for populations in shared basins worldwide. In particular, countries including Iraq, Nigeria, the Gambia, Cote d’Ivoire, Panama are on the cusp of officially joining the Convention. This month, Niger confirmed its intention to join the Convention, which will bring all major countries bordering Lake Chad under the Convention’s legal framework. Some 15 African countries (Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Congo (Republic of), Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Gambia, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia) are in the process of joining the Convention, among more than 20 states worldwide. This month, El Salvador confirmed its intention to join the Convention, as did the Dominican Republic in 2022.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called on all Member States to join the Convention and ensure its full implementation, stressing that “the 1992 Water Convention is a powerful tool to advance cooperation, prevent conflicts and build resilience”.
“We need to shift from water crisis to a water secure world; from water conflicts to water cooperation”, the President of the UN General Assembly, Csaba Kőrösi, told press in Geneva ahead of the Conference.
The UN Water Convention, whose secretariat is serviced by UNECE, is a unique global legal and intergovernmental framework. It requires Parties to prevent, control and reduce negative impacts on water quality and quantity across borders, to use shared waters in a reasonable and equitable way, and to ensure their sustainable management through cooperation. Parties bordering the same transboundary waters are obliged to cooperate by concluding specific agreements and establishing joint bodies.
Water cooperation: key moments at the UN Water Conference
As one of the key cross-cutting themes of the UN Water Conference, water cooperation will feature prominently throughout the high-level discussions. In addition to numerous references to cooperation and the role of (and intention to accede to) the Water Convention expected in statements from Ministers and other high-level officials, together with important official commitments for action on cooperation submitted by governments, river basin organizations, UN entities and diverse stakeholders, key occasions will include:
Speeding-up transboundary water cooperation: the value of the Water Convention (high-level side event organised by Estonia, with over 15 Ministers expected to affirm commitment to accede to and further implement and promote the Convention. (ECOSOC room, 22 March, 9:30-10:45 EDT, UNTV webcast)
Interactive dialogue 4: Water for Cooperation: Transboundary and International Water Cooperation, Cross Sectoral Cooperation, including Scientific Cooperation, and Water Across the 2030 Agenda (SDG 6.5, 6.b and SDGs 16, 17); 23 March, 15:00-18:00 EDT (UNTV webcast)
Committing to advance transboundary water cooperation worldwide for sustainable development, climate action, stability and peace – organised by Slovenia on behalf of the Transboundary Water Cooperation Coalition (comprising over 40 governments, international organisations and stakeholders); 23 March 18:30-19:45 EDT.
Advancing Water, Sanitation and Hygiene
Fulfilling the human rights to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) for all will be a key theme in the Conference, where governments’ action under the UNECE/WHO-Europe Protocol on Water and Health will be showcased. Despite important achievements under the Protocol in the Pan-European region, much greater efforts will be needed, as 16 million people still lack access to basic drinking water and 29 million do not have basic access to sanitation services. Climate change is posing significant additional threats to access to WASH worldwide. Key programme highlights include:
Interactive Dialogue 1 - Water for Health: Access to WASH, including the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation; 22 March, 10:00-13:00 EDT. 2 March, 10.00- EDT.
New momentum to make safe water and sanitation a reality for all: How to scale up globally practical tools and know-how gained under the Protocol on Water and Health? - organised by Hungary, 22 March, 14:00-15:15 EDT.
Details of events involving the Water Convention and Protocol on Water and Health are provided at https://unece.org/environmental-policy/events/un-2023-water-conference
Overview of Water Convention and Protocol-related side events