Interview with Marie-Laure Vercambre, director of the French Water Partnership (PFE – Partenariat Français pour l’Eau)

Christophe Béchu, Ministre de la Transition écologique et de la Cohésion des territoires, à la tribune de l’ONU à New York lors de la conférence de mars 2023

Alain BOINET: We welcome Marie-Laure Vercambre, Managing Director of the French Water Partnership, who took part in July in the UN High-Level Panel in New York on the follow-up to the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), and more specifically this year to SDG 6 on water.
What were the results of this panel meeting? What was the atmosphere like? What was the composition of the French delegation? What can you tell us about the report published at this time by UN Water on SDG 6, the midpoint of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals?

Marie Laure VERCAMBRE : Indeed, I represented the French Water Partnership (FWP) in New York in mid-July for the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF). This is an annual event at the United Nations, which reviews the achievement of a number of SDGs. Different goals are reviewed each year. This year, this was the case, among others, for SDG 6, dedicated to freshwater.

As a reminder, there are some twenty targets on water in the 2030 Agenda, and SDG 6 takes a fairly vertical approach to freshwater issues. That is to say, it takes into account human issues, with access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, but also includes the question of water pollution, its optimal use, its sharing, inclusivity, its governance and sharing between states. Remember that some 60% of all freshwater flows in transboundary basins. Consequently, this is a major issue of governance and inter-state cooperation, which is far from satisfactory or optimal.

To contextualize the High-Level Political Forum, we need to talk about previous events. In March 2022, the United Nations Water Conference took place. This was the first UN conference on the subject since 1977. For the first time, member states came together to express their views on water as part of the Decade on Water and Sustainable Development. This conference was therefore not modelled on the targets of the Agenda 2030’s SDG6 on water, but was held specifically for this decade. It had the great merit of allowing states (and stakeholders) from all over the world to express themselves, which was extremely rare since nothing had existed since 1977.

Marie-Laure Vercambre, Director General of the French Water Partnership during the water conference moderated by Arnaud Gonzague (Deputy Editor-in-Chief at. L’Obs) as part of the 2049 project, with Esther Crauser-Delbourg. (environmental economist, specialized in water resources issues), Mickael Goujon, research professor in hydrogeology and polluted sites at Uni Lasalle) and France, Mont Saint Aignan, Uni Lasalle University, April 13, 2023

If we return to the High-Level Political Forum, SDG 6 had not been discussed there for several years. All in all, the event served as a reminder of just how far we are from achieving the targets set out in SDG 6… nothing to write home about.

What’s new is the momentum generated by both the conference in March and, later, the HLPF’s review of MDG 6. The review of the MDGs followed on from the conference and kept the spotlight on the subject of water. In particular, it was an opportunity to highlight the UN Water report on SDG 6, a very important mid-term report, since we are halfway through the 2030 Agenda, between 2015 and 2030.

The Forum follows on from the March conference, which generated high expectations because in March it was announced that the UN Secretary General would a priori appoint a special envoy for water. This had been a request from many states, but also from many organizations, including the FWP, for some time. A second request was for more regular conferences, like the one in March, with more impactful agendas. France, the FWP and many of our partners have sent out a very strong message, calling for these regular conferences to be set up as of now, or as part of a forthcoming resolution.

Ethiopia EU increases aid in response to El Niño drought ©EU ECHO Anouk Delafortrie

So, at the time of the High-Level Political Forum, there was this expectation that the UN would reveal who the special envoy would be. They didn’t. There were also expectations about this possible resolution[1] that would have given the UN a mandate to organize these conferences… but no news on that either. There were rumors in the corridors, more or less well-founded. What we did know, however, was that a resolution was being negotiated during the high-level political forum. While we were all in New York, there were informal meetings between states on the subject of a resolution. Some states were pushing for regular meetings, while others were very cautious and wary.

The appointment of the Special Envoy and the resolution on possible future UN conferences are two decisions that were decoupled so that neither would prevent the other from eventually being accepted. Indeed, it is possible that one subject may meet with more resistance than the other, particularly the holding of conferences.

Negotiations were at this stage at the time of the High-Level Political Forum in July.

In addition, there was the synthesis report on water and sanitation 6 of Sustainable Development Goal 2023, which recalled in particular that progress had been made in the area of national statistics. Figures updating data since 2015 were therefore released… quite inadequate. For example, the number of people without access to safely managed water has fallen from 2.3 billion to 2.2 billion, a mere 100 million fewer… a far cry from the universal access hoped for by 2030.

The report recommends that governments work on financing, of course, but also on governance, inclusive participation and statistical data, since not only census statistics but also hydrological data are totally inadequate in many countries.

Synthesis report on water and sanitation 6 of Sustainable Development Goal 2023

This is the background to the report, which makes a number of recommendations, mainly concerning governance:

“The UN System We Need: Recommendations to Meet the Ambition of the UN Water Conference 2023 on Water and Implement the Water Agenda for Action:

> Water must be integrated into all relevant intergovernmental processes. Water must be integrated into all relevant intergovernmental processes.

UN leaders, UN entities and member states can play a fundamental role in the implementation of these processes and of global and regional efforts on change, health, biodiversity, food, energy and disaster risk reduction, among others.

> Regular intergovernmental meetings and conferences: to measure progress and maintain momentum at the top of the global political agenda.

> UN leadership convened at the highest level. UN Heads of State or Government can help accelerate the achievement of MDG 6 and drive the water agenda through regular dialogue and decision-making.

> A more effective coordination interface at country level. Interaction between UN entities working on water and the UN development system, through the Resident Coordinator system, can be improved to support and intensify the acceleration of the achievement of MDG 6 at country level.

> A system-wide water and sanitation strategy can be elevated and transformed into a country-wide strategy.

> Strengthening the water and sanitation programs of UN agencies. More effective coordination of water and sanitation programs at national level. Scaling up existing programs and developing new ones to fill gaps and meet emerging needs can strengthen the UN system’s capacity to implement MDG 6.

> A UN coordination office to strengthen UN-Water’s inter-agency mandate. Adding a coordination office to UN-Water’s resources can strengthen the UN system’s capacity to deliver results. This coordination office would serve the inter-agency mechanism of UN-Water.

What is the High-Level Political Forum?

When SDG6 is on the agenda, it’s a panel made up of the major international players and experts in the field of water, who have taken note of the UNICEF/WHO JMP and the UN synthesis report. A number of them gave their views, and a number of states were then able to respond and ask questions. A number of civil society actors, accredited or invited, were also able to put questions to the States.

The French Water Partnership was honored to be invited by the French government to speak from the French headquarters, in the room. Unfortunately, we were unable to do so, as the session chair simply did not give France the floor. There were a large number of requests, and I have to admit that a number of countries took the floor to talk about things that had little to do with SDG 6… with an argument between Ukraine and Russia about the impact of the war on water infrastructures, particularly in Ukraine and in border areas, and a confrontation between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Renaissance Dam… all of which had little to do with achieving MDG 6.

But as it happens, the adoption of the Agenda 2030 and the definition of targets and indicators in 2015 was a real breakthrough. These targets and indicators are increasingly serving as a compass for many actors and countries. We were able to witness this for ourselves, when the French government asked us to speak on their behalf. Our messages on SDG 6 are very similar, and there was indeed a whole delegation of organizations that went to New York. On fresh water specifically, there was the PFE and a company with a mission in the medical field who spoke about the measures they take on a daily basis to reduce water pollution and their water footprint. Why was this company there? It wasn’t there to speak from the French headquarters, but as part of the presentation of the French national roadmap for implementing the Agenda 2030 in France, while the PFE was to speak about water in the world.

Ethiopia is experiencing its worst El Niño-induced drought in 50 years ©EU ECHO Anouk Delafortrie

The French delegation was mainly there to talk about achieving the SDGs, particularly SDG6 in France. I’d like to come back very quickly to the messages we conveyed, because even if we weren’t able to speak orally, France’s speech was officially recorded.

Since there was no official news, we reiterated that we would indeed like to see a special envoy and regular water conferences at the United Nations.

We also wanted to talk about disengagement at the international level, since the FWP’s messages really concern the wider international arena, i.e. the UN and global governance. We reiterated that the Agenda 2030 itself would not be achieved if the targets on water in all their diversity were not met, and that for this to happen we needed to de-silo and really work across the board. In other words, the water community needs to have a much louder voice in negotiations on agriculture, climate, cities, etc., through a special envoy for water, for example. We won’t be able to solve water problems without much more integrated measures in all relevant areas.

Thirdly, we called for the adoption of serious action plans to meet water targets. Obviously, progress varies greatly from one country to another, but the global trend is alarming: 2.2 billion people have no access to drinking water. Business as usual isn’t working, and we need extremely significant measures to go further.

What’s astonishing for the French, however, is that SDG 6 is an SDG that is regressing in relation to a previous dynamic. France is still a long way from providing access to drinking water for everyone in the country, but we’re close if we compare ourselves with certain countries where 20% of the population has access to drinking water. However, in terms of water pollution, for example, we’re going backwards and away from our targets.

This was one of the surprising findings of the French national review on MDG 6. When it comes to access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, we know that there are real challenges, particularly in the overseas territories, but not only there. There are also migrant populations, the homeless, etc. So universal access has not yet been achieved in France, even if a number of steps are being taken. I think it’s very important to say this, because the situation is completely different from what it used to be.

A wheel produced by the Commissariat Général sur le Développement Durable, illustrating the achievement of the SDGs in France. ODD6 is in decline

If we consider access to water to be a human right, we need to take action. A decree was recently passed in France to clarify responsibilities. Inter-municipalities are now officially designated as the bodies responsible for providing drinking water to all within their territory. This doesn’t mean that assistance can’t be provided at other levels. Little by little, the human right to drinking water is being implemented in France.
So there are measures to be taken, be they financial, fiscal, regulatory, in terms of governance, awareness-raising, etc. It is obviously unacceptable that such a basic human right should not be a reality.

As for the French delegation at the high-level political forum, it was a very large delegation. For me, it was my first High-Level Political Forum. We also spoke in 2018, but I don’t think the delegation was as big then.

It was bigger this year because the French roadmap for achieving the Agenda 2030 was adopted following an interesting multi-stakeholder process, led by the Commissariat Général au Développement Durable for the Ministère de la Transition Ecologique et de la Cohésion des Territoires. When the roadmap was being drawn up, we were part of the steering committee for the consultations. We pushed for water issues to be included in the roadmap.

We then organized meetings to continue encouraging civil society organizations and all players in French society to take ownership of these issues. This is a real mobilization effort on the part of the French government, because this roadmap is not the “French government’s roadmap”, it’s France’s roadmap. There’s a very significant leverage effect, and everyone has responsibilities and resources to make available, so everyone’s mobilization is growing year on year. There were around thirty of us in New York.

For example, André Viola, a French elected official from the Aude region, represented UCLG[2] on behalf of local authorities… For some members of the delegation, the event was a chance to discover the United Nations system. The PFE is well acquainted with the UN system, and some actors sometimes have unfounded expectations about what can happen at the UN, what measures can be taken there, and how it works. Involving stakeholders helps them to understand how this body works, what realistic expectations they should have, and how to highlight their claims.

In fact, it was perhaps because the delegation was so large that the presidency did not renew its voice in SDG 6.

This was followed by meetings to draw up a summary document, the Revue Nationale Volontaire, which is available on the Internet. It was a highly participative exercise, with a strong emphasis on transparency. The results are what they are, with room for improvement in all areas.

It’s a very good development that there’s a French roadmap, with a growing involvement of all these organizations, and France making national reviews. This is a very difficult and onerous exercise, which falls to a small team within the Ministry. It’s definitely an approach to be encouraged, as it’s obviously not the case in most countries. It’s important to keep looking in the mirror, because there’s still a lot of room for improvement, even in France of course.

France National Review

Alain BOINET: On September 1, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution on SDG6, following up on the water conference you mentioned last March in New York. What do you think of this resolution, its progress and its limits?

Marie Laure VERCAMBRE: It’s a real step forward, given what was going on until 6 months ago (i.e. virtually nothing) in terms of UN conferences on the many issues surrounding water.

There are already meetings on transboundary waters, regional meetings… but the March conference had the ambition to talk about virtually all water issues, in a non-binding but exhaustive way. It was a conference that would only conclude with a summary of the commitments made. The conference did, however, include the Water Action Agenda, which brought together a certain number of commitments from States, coalitions, multinationals, associations and cities: metropolises, megacities, etc. So there were initiatives, but they fell far short of what was needed to achieve the universality objectives.

This resolution, which was voted on in the wake of the conference, recognizes what the conference achieved and reflects a certain maturity on the part of the international community. A letter was sent to the Secretary General of the United Nations requesting the organization of this conference, even though there was no obligation to do so. This resolution states that the States recognize that they are a long way from achieving the 2030 agenda, and proposes two conferences: one in 2026 and one in 2028. The 2026 conference will deal specifically with the 2030 agenda, and is similar in format to the March conference. It will review the situation 4 years from the end of the 2030 Agenda and study the measures and policies that might be needed to really change and accelerate the trend.

It’s already a commitment, because the States and stakeholders will have their backs to the wall, because with 4 years to go to 2030… we won’t be fooling around. It’s obviously a conference that encourages action, that encourages people to come and report back, and that says “we can’t say we didn’t know”.

The 2028 conference will focus on the end of the 2018-2028 decade, a decade launched by Tajikistan, on water and sustainable development. This conference is not related to the Agenda 2030, but it is one more conference on water that is scheduled on the international agenda.

In addition to having succeeded in wresting from States that did not want these conferences, or who imagined them in less ambitious, less binding formats, we also succeeded in getting the resolution to contain another advance. What’s interesting is that the resolution also asks the UN Secretary-General to draw up and propose a strategy on the potential of the UN system to achieve the 2030 Agenda. This will involve taking stock of what needs to be improved, what can be improved, what is insufficient, and proposing new things… It will not commit to taking any measures, but the work will have been done, the analysis and reflection will have been carried out on the changes that could be proposed within the United Nations to achieve better governance of all water-related issues. Once again, water is not just about the human issues of access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, but also about the issues of pollution and sharing, so it’s a resolution which, as we know, didn’t satisfy certain States who wanted to go further.

The resolution doesn’t mention it, because these decisions have been decorrelated, but we also know that a special envoy on water is to be appointed shortly. In this way, we have laid the foundations for an evolution in global water governance, so that things can be done in a much more serious way. We’re still a long way from a COP or binding measures, but compared to what existed before, it’s a step forward. It was totally unacceptable that there were no real implementation mechanisms, no consultations, no meetings where States could agree and decide to change things in a globalized perspective.

Alain BOINET: Precisely, this solution, with two conferences in 2026 and 2028, raises the question of the strategy to be adopted for the French partnership on water, as there are now a number of meetings to come, and therefore to be prepared for… Without prejudging the strategy of the FWP, which has yet to be drawn up, what are, in your opinion, the major elements to be taken into account in this strategy, and how can we work within the FWP to define these strategies?

Marie Laure VERCAMBRE: Indeed, we haven’t yet carried out the internal consultation with our members to establish this new strategy. There are certain things that need to be said. The action we need to take takes place against a backdrop of climate change, completely accelerated climate disruption, the collapse of biodiversity… The words are strong, but it has to be said. There are also human development and humanitarian issues at stake, as we can see from the many populations who find themselves in extremely precarious situations: displaced, on the road or in camps… The figures are very impressive and have been growing for several years…

The announcement of two conferences has very little impact on the framework in which we operate.

Maslakh IDP camp, Afghanistan. UN PhotoEskinder Debebe

At the same time, 2026 and 2028 are tomorrow. It’s still very short term, so what’s certain is that between now and 2026 and 2028, the FWP is still totally relevant, with its messages of de-siloing, because you have to realize that today, health-related water issues are essentially addressed in WHO meetings, agriculture-related issues in FAO meetings, environment-related issues in UNEP meetings, etc…

We need to break down these compartments. We need to de-siliconize, get users around the table, and arbitrate on a global level. For the moment, however, there’s no requirement to do so, so it’s hardly the case, and international processes ignore each other.

Even in the humanitarian field, we can see that humanitarian actors who are not specialized in WASH need to be made aware of its importance. It really is a human phenomenon that is reflected in our modes of governance. So the Agenda 2030 explodes a perspective of silos. Achieving the Agenda 2030 will have addressed virtually all the major development and sustainability challenges we can hope for. With the Agenda 2030, we have a tool. A tool that needs to be truly implemented. Decentralization at governance level is entirely appropriate. Of course, we need to make the UN conferences permanent, because for the moment there are only two conferences planned, 2026 and 2028: 2026 because it’s before 2030, and 2028 because it’s the end of the decade. The next step will have to be equal to all that will not have been achieved by 2030.

The March conference in New York was organized in one or two years, thanks to the Water Action Agenda process. So a number of initiatives have been launched, and this is a good idea since it means mobilizing a certain number of players and hoping for an ever-greater snowball effect. This is also what we will continue to promote. In the context of the acceleration of MDG 6, many actions can focus on knowledge, which is extremely important for achieving certain objectives more effectively. We also need to think about financial resources and governance, because at the moment it’s very weak, and neither thought out nor organized around achieving these objectives, which means we have very little chance of achieving them. So we’re going to promote action plans that will also apply to French players.

Alain BOINET: The question that arises is that of international initiatives or coalitions to be built to organize a strategy beyond the 2 conferences. At the March conference, a call to action was launched by what is known as the Watch Roadmap process, which brings together a wide range of humanitarian actors, including NGOs, UN agencies and donors. I believe that this call has now been followed by almost 100 players, including Switzerland first, then France, and doubtless other countries in the future. Can PFE be a member of this international initiative as part of its strategy?

Marie Laure VERCAMBRE : We strongly believe in the Call to Action, in the sense that, obviously, we are aware of the limit of a signed piece of paper, but it is the discussions around the Call to Action that make it possible to raise awareness among States. As well as to actors we had not spoken to before on these emergency issues. Populations are in crisis or fragile situations with even more vulnerability than populations in developing countries. However, we know that these numbers are increasing and it is very important when we talk about the universal achievement of access to drinking water and sanitation as a human right. These left behind are numerous so measures must be taken. An awareness that must be made on the challenges of access to drinking water, universal sanitation and these populations, especially since funding has even declined almost inversely proportional to the number of people concerned today. The United Nations, states and humanitarian actors are overwhelmed by the numbers.

There are some Indian NGOs and multi-stakeholder platforms that have signed the Call to Action and we also aim to knock on the doors of huge groups, Indian consortia. Not only because they have foundations, because we must also create this dynamic and because we must not forget that in a number of countries, there are not the same systems of governance, democracy and that the actors are next to each other and do not work together.

It is a collective dynamic that we must launch and the Call to action is used for that, to increase the number of signatories to make them work together, to ensure that we talk about it more and more, that those who can act act.

The Call to Action is an awareness-raising tool and it is also a way to establish a discussion with those who are in charge and who can make decisions for these populations.

In a large camp near Pak Tauw, which currently hosts a thousand families from five villages, sanitary conditions pose a serious threat to the health of the population. Photo Credit: Mathias Eick EU/ECHO January 2012

Alain BOINET : How would you like to conclude this interview?

Marie-Laure VERCAMBRE : We are coming to a key moment in the efforts of the EFP since its inception in 2007. We have been present and active, we have contributed to very important developments on water issues, including the recognition of the human right to water by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010. We have also acted on French legislation, on the issue of ratification by the France of international conventions on transboundary waters.

Today, we are at a crossroads because the end of the 2030 Agenda is approaching while we are still very far from achieving the goals.

Therefore, a real reflection with our members would be quite relevant to see how to embark on this in these new stages. There will be conferences, but conferences for what and what other advocacy efforts?

In general, I am optimistic because the situation is increasingly striking and all actors in society are aware of the issues of poverty. Migration is an issue that is constantly talked about in the media. The French debate and clash on these issues. So these are issues, like climate change, that are now being debated on an ongoing basis. And we have our backs against the wall, so this state will, I think, give rise to new measures, new action plans because there is an expectation on the part of citizens.
The members of the EFP are very determined.

We mentioned earlier the WASH Road Map and the Global Watch Cluster, the humanitarian sector in the field of drinking water is being structured. Maybe it should have been done before but now it is, we have the framework to move forward together, I have this optimism.

Alain BOINET: Thank you for concluding with a message that is both realistic and optimistic, which we badly need.

[1] Pour rappel une résolution est votée en assemblée plénière aux Nations unies ce qui signifie que les États adhérent en majorité à l’idée, l’acceptent et donc l’actent.

[2] United Cities and local governments


Read more about water and UN:

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

The right to access drinking water and sanitation in France by 2023: persistent delays

UN drinking water: some progress, a lot of catching up to do!

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