Will the UN Water Conference change the tide on the WASH crisis?  

7 min read
A sign at the UNWC in New York reading '#WATERACTION'.
Image: WaterAid

The UN Water Conference resulted in more than 700 commitments from local and national governments, NGOs and the private sector. But what does this really mean? And will they be fulfilled? Claire Seaward shares our key takeaways from the UNWC and reflects on whether these commitments can accelerate action towards reaching everyone, everywhere with water, sanitation and hygiene.

Two weeks ago, thousands of people from across the globe came together in New York, USA, for the UN Water Conference (UNWC) – the first meeting of its kind in nearly half a century. The historic 1977 summit helped establish the first UN Action Plan on water. In 2023, with progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6) on water and sanitation concerningly off-track, the conference was a vital opportunity to shift the dial and accelerate progress to reach everyone, everywhere with sustainable and safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH.

UNWC resulted in more than 700 commitments from local and national governments, NGOs and the private sector – but what do these really mean? And will they be fulfilled? While we’re working out exactly how the commitments will contribute to progress, here are our key takeaways from the conference.

1. The importance of water was proven but accountability was lacking 

The conference served as recognition of the global importance of water. However, an overwhelming 700 commitments were made by development partners, businesses, governments or non-governmental organisations – and none of them are binding. Without a more focused set of binding agreements, and a clear vision that brings together the water sector and its stakeholders, it is hard to see how true progress will be made.   

The new UN Water Envoy, a position announced at the conference, will be instrumental in driving forward accountability. But with global climate, health and economic crises growing, there is precious little time to play with. Waiting for the next UN Water Conference to evaluate progress is not an option; people on the frontline of the climate and health crises need action on water, sanitation and hygiene now. We need to real accountability for these pledges to see transformational change.  

2. WASH is a cross-sectoral issue, but sanitation and hygiene are still missing from financing discussions

It has been encouraging to see the discussions about the competing demands for water across different sectors – including agriculture, food, energy and industry – and how this will affect water security. Water is vital to the achievement of all the Sustainable Development Goals and that recognition is crucial. It was also really positive to see far more discussion of sanitation and hygiene in the sessions on water resource management; without sanitation and hygiene, there is no water security for people.   

But this increased attention isn’t yet translating across to conversations about sustainable finance. There is still too much attention on investment in water infrastructure, and not enough on the investment needed for water, sanitation and hygiene services. This includes infrastructure but goes much further into wider systems strengthening and behaviour change.  

A collage of artwork produced at a UNWC event.
A collage of artwork produced at a UNWC event about honouring ancestral knowledge to ensure sustainable and adaptive water management for climate change. Image: WaterAid

3. The links between water, WASH and climate are better recognised, so what happens next? 

It was encouraging to see that water–climate was a big topic, given its importance to the global agenda conversations. It's clear that governments see the UNWC as a stepping stone on the road to COP28, with calls for water to be firmly on that agenda. This must lead to climate, environment and biodiversity being brought together, with an acknowledgement that water connects and is crucial to them. 

WaterAid’s Water and Climate Change Campaign makes sure that people’s WASH needs are part of this wider water–climate agenda. It was really encouraging to see countries like Brazil making the point that without WASH people won’t be able to adapt properly to climate change. However, there is more to do: sanitation still needs to be a bigger part of the climate discussions – something we will be looking at for our COP28 agenda. 

4. The WASH and health conversation was surprisingly quiet 

Given that health was an official thematic dialogue, and the fact that 1 billion people across 43 countries are at risk of cholera in the current global outbreak, it was surprising that the role of WASH in both prevention and response for health issues wasn’t a bigger part of the conversations, beyond champions in organisations such as the WHO and UNICEF. The proposal of a UN resolution on WASH in healthcare facilities is welcome news, although the details need to be clearer. This would keep momentum going from the World Health Assembly's resolution, which finishes this year. It was also positive to see the UK government's announcement of £18.5 million in new support to strengthen WASH and health systems in up to five countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.  

The need for stronger global leadership on this issue is clear, especially to translate the well-established policy commitments into financing and concrete delivery. 

Promotional materials on display at the UN Water Conference.
Promotional materials on display at the UN Water Conference.

5. Keeping people on the frontline in focus 

It was positive to hear mentions of people's rights to water and sanitation in the conference outcome statements, but we still need to do much more to move from rhetoric to the practical implementation of human rights-based approaches and ensuring rights are realised. Part of this is undoubtedly that the people who have the solutions – the people on the frontline – find it so hard to be part of UN meetings. While there were creative ways of bringing people to the conference – the "Hearing the Unheard" human rights event being one – and there were strong and resolute voices at some of the events, the reality is that where such conferences are held speaks volumes. Not everyone can get visas to the USA, and the UN accreditation system is prohibitive for grassroots organisations to register to attend, leaving few with access to the same spaces as bigger organisations. 

6. The private sector gained momentum on collective action, but remains siloed from the public sector 

Partnerships and collaboration were buzzwords across the conference. We know that rapid progress happens when WASH policies and programmes have the full backing and leadership of national governments, with the support from development partners and the private sector to accelerate progress. But the reality is that the private and public sectors are still very much siloed – and this conference was no different. While government representatives sat in the UN and talked about the value of and need for collaboration with the private sector, the private sector (companies and investors in particular) sat in venues outside the UN discussing the absence of public sector leadership. Very rarely are they having these discussions in the same room, which is essential if concrete collaborations are going to be agreed on and realised.   

However, there were examples of big energy around collective action in the private sector. More than 50 companies signed the UN Global Compact Business Leaders’ Open Call to Accelerate Action on Water and a new milestone was reached in investment into the Water Equity Global Access Fund IV. This momentum provides opportunities to find those important openings to work with governments and development partners.

Where do we go from here? 

It is easy to leave the UNWC and move onto the next big conference moment – and there are many coming up in the year, where, undoubtedly, the action agenda coming out of the UNWC will be raised. What we do know is that people on the frontline of the climate and health crises need action on water, sanitation and hygiene now; they can’t wait for follow up at the next conference. 

We need to build on the energy coming out of the UNWC to refocus the sector on what the big visions and commitments are. I would rather have seen ten binding commitments than 700 fragmented or non-binding ones. This level of focus and commitment, with all the necessary accountability, is needed to really drive transformational change. 

Halfway through the SDG period, progress is still unacceptably slow. Urgency is mounting to meet global challenges that are set to grow and compound in the coming decade. Our vision is of a world where everyone, everywhere has the safe and sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene they need to build resilience to these threats. Read our policy recommendations to help make this a reality.

Claire Seaward is Global Campaigns Director at WaterAid UK.

Top image: A large #WaterAction sign is displayed outside the entrance of the UN headquarters building in New York for the UN Water Conference.