Written by Igor Vieira

It has been almost fifty years since the global community met with the focus of putting water and everything that goes with it on the agenda at a United Nations conference. One month ago, the global community was gathered in New York to discuss, build, and direct steps to streamline water security processes in a world dealing with the results of a global pandemic while facing a climate emergency.

The major outcome of this conference can be read as the Water Action Agenda, this tool, let’s call it, contains hundreds of signed commitments that relate not only to the goals of the SDGs, especially 6, but that correlate with the climate agenda – timely, since water and climate are core issues that represent one agenda.

The goals can be rooted and divided into working 6 axes of interactive dialogues: Water for Health, Water for Sustainable Development, Water for Climate, Resilience and Environment, Water for Cooperation, and Water for the International Water Decade. The number of events happening in the pre-conference and the intense volume  of sessions during the three days of the conference reflected in the number of participants: there were many people registered, and the logistics of the plenaries made access difficult for many of them. 

In its official communication, the United Nations emphasized that more than one thousand three hundred proposals for parallel events were received and something close to five hundred were approved to take place. This demand reflects an urgency for meetings like this to be more frequent, making it possible for more people to collaborate, ensuring geographic representation at the meetings.

Thus, although the conference represents an important space for the dialogue on water and sanitation to be translated on a large scale to the places of origin of the seven thousand people present, it proves difficult to identify solid results or outcomes from this meeting. In part, this is because there is no constituent/convention to hold the issue as the UNFCCC does with climate COPs, for example. Another curious thing was how “Water Justice” and “Water Security”, were much used expressions in the corridors and in many plenaries at the same time, but always in discussions reflecting on how to assign new ways of giving water a financial value.

How to evaluate these three days of work?

If we think about the actions of the countries, which presented voluntary commitments, there is still a long way to go to consolidate an agenda that will continue with full force. António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, spoke at the closing plenary that the world needs to find a new direction to manage and conserve water. In parallel, the latest IPCC synthesis report is emphatic that humanity already has the technologies and resources to drastically reduce emissions, which would be fundamental to protect water resources. What is missing? Political action.

It also lacks a more plural and participatory space – although it had many people, many voices were left out of the conference. The presence of many young people, especially from the global south, was made impossible either by lack of resources, complex logistics, or visa denials. This is something that needs to change in spaces like this. In its twenty years of operation, Waterlution has demonstrated the potential and power of action of young people who are guided by water to make changes.  At micro and macro scales, many young water leaders who have been through Waterlution’s global programs are not only in leadership positions around the world, but are also fostering in their communities the interdisciplinary and complex problem-solving oriented thinking of things.

To pluralize this space, whenever it happens again (and we hope it doesn’t take another ‘almost 50 years’ to arrive), inclusion is not enough. Mechanisms that ensure the participation of people on the frontlines of water and climate issues are key. Waterlution has been expanding its network in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, and has seen many organizations from these regions have events accepted that did not happen as planned due to lack of logistical support – approval letters that took a while to arrive, lack of space to host the events in NY, funding for speakers travels and more.  

If at the Climate COPs the big issue ends up being climate finance, it is possible to say that at this conference this subject is just as urgent. The Water Action Agenda is an impressive mechanism, especially because of the number of commitments that were made/suggested. However, for them to actually happen, a cohesive work that links more meetings like this with targeted metrics of how the investments in water solutions will happen and where those investments are. Here again the historical responsibility of global North countries needs to be held accountable so that continuous and tangible investments take place for the systemic change that will ensure access to water and sanitation and climate adaptation in the global South.

And therein lies the fundamental element to solidify action for water.

Effectively, Waterlution was present with 4 global team members, presenting a side event called “The power of collaborative innovation for water security, paving the way for climate adaptation: learnings from youth-focused partnerships focused on diversity and gender equity”. We participated as panelists in two partner events, “Facilitating access to water knowledge” and “New Pathways to bridge SDG 6 and SDG 14”. It was a privilege to participate in this historic moment for global action, sharing knowledge with partners from around the world focusing on water and climate.

Thinking about forms of water management and governance must put into perspective the planet’s current moment in relation to this resource – the conference made it clear that there is no longer any time to ignore the transversality in carrying out actions to manage, protect, and distribute water. It is necessary to cross health, ecosystems, biodiversity, traditional knowledge, urbanization, gender, social and economic characteristics in these guidelines. 

Recognizing that water is a fundamental human right is important, but it is not enough. It is necessary to treat water as what it really is: people.