UN conference on Goal 6 of the MDGs on water.

Is this the end of the road or the beginning of a change of course?

Plenary Assembly at the UN Water Conference.

Is this a flash in the pan or the beginning of a change of course?

As the Water Conference from March 22 to 24 began in New York, the UN warned of the imminent risk of a global freshwater crisis, as many water stakeholders and studies had been saying for years. If this conference is “historic”, it is because it was the first in 46 years, even if it did not include any political declaration despite the urgency!

Before making a more complete assessment, let’s try to draw some lessons and perspectives.

Sandra Métayer, coordinator of the Water Coalition, which brings together 30 associations and foundations, declared: “Faced with the water crisis, the results of the United Nations Conference are not up to the task” and added: “It is the political will that is lacking”! Yet the urgency is there. It is Jean Lapegue of Action Against Hunger who denounces “a chronic lack of funding” to prevent water-borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid, which are major causes of mortality! Coalition Eau, ACF and Secours Islamique France with Laura Le Floch who led together a campaign “SOS commitments, not absentees” which had a media impact in France just before the Conference.

Speech by Christophe Béchu, French Minister of Ecological Transition at the Water Conference.

But there are also positive signs. For example, the “Wash Road Map”, which brings together some thirty humanitarian organizations, including Solidarités International, has gathered 175 signatures for its “Call to Action”, including those of Switzerland and France, which is great news for the future, as we can hope that other States and organizations will now join it.

On the other hand, we can only regret the very weak presence of humanitarian crises in the Conference’s agenda, even though they constitute the most serious situations leading to high mortality, particularly among children. This is the merit of the event on the fight against cholera organized by Kevin Goldberg and Baptiste Lecuyot with Solidarités International and the GTFCC (Global Task Force on Cholera Control) with the participation of major actors such as ACF, MSF, the Global Cluster Wash, the SDC, the Véolia Foundation and John Hopkins University.

Although the Conference generated 708 voluntary commitments from States and organizations that will be useful, they are nevertheless “disparate, heterogeneous and non-binding” as the Water Coalition points out. And now, you may ask, will this conference be a mere flash in the pan or the real beginning of a change of course? Everything depends on the immediate follow-up in 2023, which could finally be the turning point for water and sanitation. At the halfway point of the 2015-2030 Sustainable Development Goals, it is now or never as we are so far behind on our commitments to the 2.2 billion people who do not have access to drinking water and 3.6 billion to sanitation.

UN Secretary General António Guterres addresses the opening of the UN Water Conference, accompanied by King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and President Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan.
Photo UN/Rick Bajornas

The obstacles are to be considered as Gérard Payen, vice-president of the French Water Partnership, states: “Countries with large reserves of fresh water, such as Brazil, Canada, Russia, the United States or China, may be wary of strengthening water governance. We must therefore remind them that a United Nations resolution made access to water a human right in 2010 and that water for those who do not have enough is not less water for them and that when people do not have enough water where they live, they go elsewhere and perhaps to those who have plenty! Solidarity can therefore be a mutual insurance.

The objectives are simple and clear, as proposed by the French Water Partnership (FWP), with the appointment of a special representative for water at the United Nations, a regular intergovernmental meeting on the follow-up of Goal 6 Water, a fourfold increase in funding to accelerate the 20 global objectives related to water, and the integration of the central role of water and sanitation in all the work of the UN.

This year, we have only two windows of opportunity left that we cannot afford to miss. On the one hand, there is the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) from July 10 to 19, and then the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in New York on September 18, which could be the opportunity to adopt a resolution that includes the above-mentioned objectives.

This shows how much we must change our position and mobilize all our means to obtain this resolution. We still have a few months to act successfully.

Alain Boinet.

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