Advancing climate resilient water, sanitation and hygiene on the global agenda: key takeaways from the sixth UN Environment Assembly

4 min read
Ta-aba, 13, pours water collected from a borehole in Galaka, Ghana, September 2023.
Image: WaterAid/ Nana Kofi Acquah

The European Union's resolution on water policies at the UN Environment Assembly is a welcome step in closing the financing gap for Sustainable Development Goal 6. But member states must do more to meet the urgency of this crisis. 

One key outcome of last month’s UN Environment Assembly was the adoption of a resolution on “effective and inclusive solutions for strengthening water policies to achieve sustainable development in the context of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution”.

Held every two years, the UNEA is the most important platform for decision-making on global environmental issues, and brings together heads of state, ministers of environment and other representatives from UN Member States. This year, 15 resolutions and two decisions were adopted to address pressing environmental challenges. A Ministerial Declaration also emphasised the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and the integrated approach to water through the anticipated United Nations system-wide strategy for water and sanitation.

The resolution on water policies, put forward by the EU, rightfully highlights that water and sanitation has the second highest investment gap of all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and encourages investment to close the financing gap for sustainable and climate-resilient water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services. The resolution also notably advances integrated water policies that respond to climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution – coined the ‘triple planetary crisis’.

We applaud the European Union’s leadership for developing and tabling the resolution, but it only goes so far. The final adopted text does not adequately reflect the urgency of worsening water insecurity for millions of people around the world. The resolution also only sets out to “encourage investment in sustainable, climate-resilient water and sanitation infrastructure … including to close the investment gap in water and sanitation”, but does not emphasise the required action or response. Rather than ”promoting” and ”inviting”’ parties to act, the resolution should have gone further and called for bolder commitments and interventions that inspire a shift from the status quo.

The resolution should have also included a stronger emphasis on the underpinning function of safely managed WASH services to achieving human and ecosystem health.

Turning the resolution into action

With only a few years to the end of the SDG period, efforts to achieve Goal 6 by 2030 need to ramp up. Given the acute urgency of providing universal clean water, decent sanitation and good hygiene in the context of climate change, we call on government to do two things.

First, we call for governments to mainstream the provision of WASH services across health policies and programming in line with the One Health approach advanced in the resolution, to reflect the centrality of WASH to achieving improved health outcomes for people and ecosystems.

Wetland and coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of poorly managed sanitation, affecting the communities and ecosystems who depend on them. But when domestic WASH services are provided consistently and safely, it ensures healthy and clean water sources, such as rivers, streams and groundwater sources. Wetland and coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of poorly managed sanitation, affecting the communities and ecosystems who depend on them.

The second is for governments to speed up the quality and quantity of financing towards climate-resilient WASH, as a key component of the climate adaptation financing agenda.

Climate change is primarily felt by having too much or too little water. It also disproportionately affects marginalised and vulnerable populations, exacerbating existing inequalities. Sustainable water management practices are crucial for ensuring water security. Further, climate-resilient water and sanitation systems and services enable communities to adapt and develop resilience to climate impacts.

Getting climate finance for WASH faster can help ensure equitable access to essential services. However, very little attention and investment has been given to addressing the effects of climate change on water and sanitation services. In 2020, for example, just 1% of the billions pledged globally to fight climate change went to protecting and providing clean water for communities vulnerable to its effects. This gap has not narrowed in the past four years and needs urgent attention.

As the EU’s resolution to the UN Environment Assembly states: ‘water is indispensable for health, well-being and human development’. It is foundational to the resilience of communities and the ecosystems on which they rely. We hope to see firmer commitments that reflect this at this year’s One Water Summit, taking this important resolution one step further.

Alexandra Chevalier is WaterAid's EU Representative. 
Patience Mukuyu is Lead Policy Analyst – Water Security and Climate Resilience.

Top image: Ta-aba, 13, pours water collected from a borehole in Galaka, Ghana, September 2023.