When will we decide to step on the gas ?

Dirty water, Sof Omer, Ethiopia @Rod Waddington (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Gérard PAYEN, Vice President of the French Water Partnership and former Water Advisor to the United Nations Secretary General (UNSGAB).

In September 2019, in order to achieve the Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2030, UN member states decided to accelerate their efforts and declared 2020-2030 the “decade of action and results.” This desire to accelerate did not include water-related actions. On the contrary, based on reports from UN agencies that were not very alarmist, the States even congratulated themselves on their progress in the area of drinking water.

Since then, UN-Water has made great progress in terms of statistics. Knowledge of the issues has improved significantly, with reports providing quantitative estimates on almost all of the ten water-related SDG indicators in mid-2021. These new data show more clearly the enormous needs and the slow progress. There is no longer any question of minimizing or denying the problems.

Gérard Payen at the 4th Mediterranean Water Forum of 2021 @Gérard Payen

The UN agencies have finally responded. At a meeting of all ambassadors in New York on March 18, 2021, they publicly hammered home the message that states must “quadruple the pace of their efforts” on water. “Quadrupling” is not a trivial term. It is not 5 or 10%. It is a colossal acceleration of a magnitude almost unheard of in public actions. In order to quadruple, it is necessary to revise all public policies, to draw up action plans with precise objectives and intermediate stages and, of course, to mobilize appropriate resources that are far greater than those currently available.

Alas, since the adoption of the SDGs in 2015, with exceptions of which I am not aware, public policies related to water resources, access to water and sanitation, and water pollution management have been modified only marginally so far. The gas pedal does not seem to have been pressed anywhere. Global statistics show slow and very relative progress.

For example, the number of people without access to clean water was 2.0 billion in 2020, a reduction of less than 0.2 billion over 5 years. Continuing at the same rate from 2020 to 2030 would leave at least 1.4 billion people without access to safe drinking water in 2030, the date set by the 2030 Agenda for “universal” access, i.e. access to truly safe water for all. Worse, access to drinking water is regressing in some parts of the world, such as in the urban half of the world and in sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, no country seems to have adopted the collective objective of halving the flow of pollution discharged by its urban waters between 2015 and 2030.

So who will step on the gas and when ?

Obviously, water-related actions are local and often the responsibility of local authorities. But in our interconnected world, these local actions need to be part of a broader vision, even beyond national borders. Indeed, there are many interdependencies, whether through river basins or through imports of commercial products that allow many countries to use water available in other countries for their benefit. States therefore have an important role to play, both within and between them. Internationally, they may meet to discuss issues related to one aspect of water, but these meetings very rarely address the full range of water issues. For example, states have not yet found the time to seriously discuss their progress towards the 20 water-related SDG targets.

General Assembly of the United Nations, September 2020

However, as I wrote in this barometer last year, an exceptional diplomatic sequence opened at the end of 2019 in view of a major conference organized by the UN on water in March 2023. States have already met in March 2021 in New York and in July 2021 in Bonn, Germany. They will meet again in Dakar during the 9th World Water Forum and then at least three more times before March 2023. While the intermediate steps are important, decisions can only be made at the 2023 conference. Will they seize this rare opportunity to decide to act and to press the many gas pedals within their reach ?


Gérard Payen


This article was published in Solidarités International’s 2022 Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Barometer, which we will publish in our next edition of Humanitarian Challenges.


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Who is Gérard Payen ?

Gérard Payen has been working for more than 35 years to solve water-related problems in all countries. As Water Advisor to the UN Secretary General (member of UNSGAB) from 2004 to 2015, he contributed to the recognition of the Human Rights to drinking water and sanitation as well as to the adoption of many water-related global Sustainable Development Goals. Today, he is a director of three major French associations dedicated to water and continues to work to mobilize the international community for better management of water-related problems, which requires more ambitious public policies. Simultaneously, since 2009, he has been advising the United Nations agencies that produce global water statistics. Impressed by the number of misconceptions about the nature of water-related problems, ideas that hinder public authorities in their decision-making, he published a book in 2013 to dismantle these misconceptions.