The International Water Conference in New York: a reflection of our fragmented ambitions or a source of political awakening?

Access to clean water is a real issue in the Bentiu IDP camp, Southern Sudan.
UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

Five decades after the 1977 Water Conference in Mar del Plata, have things fundamentally changed? As a reminder, the challenge was to prevent a future crisis by improving access to drinking water and sanitation and by modifying uses. Some countries, particularly among the developing ones, were campaigning for access to funding to develop suitable infrastructures and to anticipate the water crisis that many scientists were already predicting due to climate change. The rich countries responded with an offer to study the development and financing of water projects .[1]

Even if in many developing countries, significant progress has been made over the past two decades in the area of access to drinking water, it is clear that the objectives of the MDG6 will not be achieved in 2030, either with the current level of development or the commitments and reflections addressed at this conference. Waste, overuse, pollution, climate and environmental crisis, conflicts and their corollaries lead to serious shortages and crises. Today, the issue of water management has never been so fundamental and central; even countries rich in water resources that previously felt safe are increasingly threatened by climate extremes. Moreover, water is a recurrent factor in all and the variety of current crises: health, security, food, energy, social and environmental.

Developed countries, especially those in the North, are beginning to see the first major impacts of climate change on water resources in their territories. Extreme climatic events, which have become more recurrent and violent in recent years, already provide a glimpse of the challenges related to water use in a warming world.

Credit photo : Geneva Water Hub.

The Conference recognizes that freshwater is a finite resource that must be considered as a tool for sustainable development and enable us to increase resilience and mitigation to climate change. To do this, we must strengthen our early warning capabilities and revolutionize the way countries are equipped to deal with droughts and floods, while leveraging partnerships. That is why, in his address, Mr. Guterres reminds us that all of humanity’s hopes rest, in one way or another, on our ability to set a new course based on science to bring the Water Agenda to life. They rest on the implementation of the decisive, inclusive and concrete commitments made by Member States and other parties at this conference.

Today, more than 700 commitments have been made. However, there are real doubts that they are up to the challenge of achieving MDG 6. They constitute a program of completely disparate and non-binding actions. They are far from the collective, coordinated and strategic response expected from States to the water crisis.

It became clear during the debates that the world can no longer wait several decades for the community of states to concern itself with the political positioning of management. The crisis is here and we are living it. Solving the crisis requires consultation and dialogue between all the new actors in the water community: humanitarians, financiers and economists, military, religious and civil society organizations, but also and above all young people and women who in developing countries contribute greatly to the water chores. These voices, including those of youth, are increasingly present in water forums. This trend was confirmed at the New York Conference and marks a positive evolution of a growing community.

In the face of the multiple and complex water challenges that the world is currently facing, the establishment of a UN Special Envoy on Water has become a necessity and the process must be accelerated.

Teenage girls fetch water from a nearly dried-up well in Hassi Laetach, Mauritania.© 2019 European Union (photographer : Xaume OLLEROS)

We would like to see a political mandate for the Special Envoy to challenge states on water issues and to convene regular intergovernmental meetings. Ideally, he or she should be able to examine specific situations, such as cases of violations of the human right to water and sanitation, allegations of armed attacks on essential water services, and competition between states or users over the sharing of water resources. His work would strengthen existing but still deficient instruments of international law.

The Special Envoy will have to play a key role in the follow-up of the commitments made during the conference. He or she should be a “water champion” who embodies the issue and makes it highly visible at the UN level, particularly in other political areas that deal indirectly with water (agriculture, health, trade, environment, etc.). The objective would be to avoid situations such as the Paris Climate Agreement where water is not mentioned in the text, even though it is the main vector through which we feel the effects of change: floods, drought, changes in precipitation, etc. He will also have to ensure with donors and countries that the financial commitments in favor of developing countries are respected and that the recipient countries also respect the rules of transparency of financial management.[2] . The Special Envoy is also expected to work with countries and basin organizations on the need to strengthen transboundary cooperation for peace and development[3] and also on the protection of water infrastructures that present certain risks in conflict areas[4]. In this respect, the mandate of the special envoy on water should be at the crossroads of the three major global agendas: peace, development and humanitarian.

As a sign of the growing awareness of the vital and irreplaceable nature of water, the theme of peace is supported by a growing coalition of actors. The Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation will propose a focus on the theme of water and peace in his next report to the UN General Assembly[5].. UN-Water will make it the theme of the United Nations World Water Development Report 2024.

We can see, in this aspiration for peace, the premises of the systemic upheavals caused by climate change and the accumulation of pollution affecting the resource. From now on, no one is safe from problems of water insecurity. We are entering an era of unpredictability in which each State and each actor in water cooperation can learn from the other about institutional practices that can withstand adversity[6]. A new political culture of water sharing and preservation needs to be invented, a culture that listens to traditional knowledge and the actors of territorial resilience. Let us hope that these exchanges on our relationship with water will strengthen our awareness of a common belonging to the human species, which is the basis for the creation of the UN. Water diplomacy, the path outlined by the Global High Level Panel on Water and Peace, has a decisive role to play in achieving this[7].

Boubacar Barry PhD. PE., Dr Madiodio Niasse, François Münger, Caroline Pellaton, Jean Willemin.

Pole WaterDakar :
Geneva Water Hub :

References :

“Missing the “Peace” piece of the Water Puzzle”, Global Observatory for Water and Peace uses this brief for the 2023 UN Water Conference, 2023. A lire ici.

“Emerging Issues in Shared Water Management in Africa: Understanding to Prevent Conflicts and Strengthen Cooperation for Sustainable Development and Peace”, Dr. Madiodio Niasse et al, Pôle Eau Dakar, 2022. Read here.

Call for inputs from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the water and peace report of the Special Rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation. Read here.

Boubacar Barry PhD. PE.

Dr. Boubacar Barry holds a PhD from Purdue University (USA). He has 42 years of research experience in the fields of water and soil conservation with organizations such as ISRA, UNDP, FAO, USAID and IWMI. His research interests include hydrology, hydrogeology, irrigation and drainage. His work is supported by his expertise in GIS, numerical and stochastic modeling and expert systems. From 2010 to 2017, Mr. Barry was seconded to WASCAL (West African Center for Climate and Land Use Services) as Research Director and Director of the Competence Center based in Ouagadougou. Throughout his career, he has supported structures as a scientific advisor such as CNCR (National Council for Rural Consultation), ROPPA (Network of Farmers and Producers of Africa). Dr. Barry is also a research associate at IPAR a think tank based in Dakar working in rural development in Africa and since November 2019 to March 2022, he assisted the Executive Secretariat of the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar on the themes “Water and Rural Development” and “Water and Cooperation”. He is also since November 2017 Chairman of the Technical Committee of Experts of GWP-AO (Global Water Partnership -Africa Section).


Dr Madiodio NIASSE

Dr. Madiodio NIASSE is an environmental geographer. He has worked as a researcher with the IDA (Institute for Development Anthropoly) and later with the IRD. He also served as an expert at the World Commission on Dams (Cape Town). After serving as Director of the International Land Coalition (c/o IFAD in Rome) from 2008 to 2014, Dr Niasse is now an independent consultant based in Senegal.


François Münger  – Conseiller, ancien directeur général – Geneva Water Hub

François Münger holds masters degrees in mineralogy and geophysics (Univ. of Lausanne), in hydrology (Univ. of Neuchâtel) and in environmental engineering (EPFL). His experience spans a wide range of private and public institutions in Switzerland, Africa, Latin America, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. He has served as Head of the Central American Water Program for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and as Senior Water Specialist at the World Bank. After leading the SDC’s global water program for the past eight years, François was appointed Swiss Special Envoy for Water and given responsibility for the creation and development of the Geneva Water Hub.

Caroline Pellaton –Corporate Operations Manager – Geneva Water Hub

Caroline Pellaton holds a PhD in earth sciences from the University of Geneva. She joined the Geneva Water Hub in June 2018 as an operational manager and member of the steering committee. She contributes to defining GWH strategies and directions and monitoring the achievements and implementation of activities. More specifically, she contributes to certain thematic lines, such as the protection of water infrastructure in armed conflicts as well as to advocacy activities for water and peace. Prior to joining the Geneva Water Hub, she worked for more than 10 years as a country program officer in the Water and Habitat Unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross in emergency and post-conflict situations in various contexts such as Sri Lanka, Niger, Republic of South Sudan, Central African Republic, Yemen and Jordan.

Jean Willemin  – Chargé de programme senior – Geneva Water Hub

Jean Willemin holds a Master’s degree in Sociology and a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Water Management and Policy from the University of Geneva. Prior to joining the Geneva Water Hub, he worked in the field of human rights for both international organizations and NGOs, and has been involved in water governance issues for a decade. In addition, he is specialized in facilitation methods which he practices with international organizations, NGOs and public administrations. At the Geneva Water Hub, he is in charge of a regional dialogue on water as a vector for peace in West Africa.


[1] Robert Stein ; Revue Nature 1977

[2] From Mar del Plata to the UN 2023 Water Conference: where do we go? (UN 2023 Water Conference Side Event)

[3] Committing to advance transboundary water cooperation worldwide for sustainable development, climate action, stability and peace (UN 2023 Water Conference Side event)

[4] Arria-Formula meeting on Protection of Civilians/Water (UN Security Council); Sparing water systems in armed conflicts (UN 2023 Water Conference Side Event);

[5] Call for inputs by the Special Rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation opened until 26 May 2023 for the Thematic Report to the 78th session of the UN General Assembly “The rights to water and sanitation as a tool for peace, prevention and cooperation

[6] Sharing Water in Fragile Contexts: Lessons from the Sahel (UN 2023 Water Conference Side Event) 




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