Will Collective Inefficiency be over in March 2023?

In March 2023, the United Nations is due to hold a “rare” conference on water. Gérard Payen urges the international community to overcome its inertia and make this summit a historic event, during which important political decisions will be taken and an annual agenda will be set to achieve Goal 6 of the 2030 SDGs.

Water settling ponds and community participation to dig trenches in Béni, DRC ©Solidarités International 2005

Governments discuss freshwater at such a large number of international events that their work is now fragmented, scattered across disparate events, with no guiding principles and very little coordination. This results in confusion for the governments themselves, as well as for most other stakeholders in the international community. UN-Water does its best to ensure technical coordination, but the political coordination of various water-related activities remains to be defined. All these events are nonetheless useful forums for developing knowledge and preparing future decisions. For example, the World Water Forums in Mexico (2006) and Istanbul (2009) paved the way for the human right to safe drinking water to be recognized in 2010, while the Marseille Forum (2012) and the Budapest Summit (2013) led to the adoption of a specific Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on water in 2015.

In March 2023, the United Nations will hold an International Water Conference. It will be jointly presided by Tajikistan and the Netherlands, and will be attended by all governments. This will be a major event since only UN summits can give rise to global political decisions that countries consider binding and that benefit from long-term operational monitoring. The many intergovernmental meetings held in parallel to UN efforts may yield useful conclusions, but in the absence of institutional follow-up mechanisms, these findings generally do not progress very far. Within the United Nations, most of the meetings devoted to water are organized by UN agencies or Secretariats for international treaties that specialize in a particular field, only covering certain water issues. An international conference on all freshwater issues (all types of water as well as sanitation) is therefore a very rare event at the UN. Water issues are multiplying and becoming increasingly interrelated with every passing year. They underpin the vast majority of SDGs, making the 2023 conference a very rare opportunity to take useful collective decisions to improve the global organization on water issues.

United Nations general assembly, September 2020

The SDGs: A Coherent Vision

In 2015, a revolution took place. The adoption of the SDGs was the first time that governments had taken all the major water issues into consideration within a global program. Prior to that, collective goals only existed for drinking water and access to toilets. In 2015, this very patchy perspective was filled out with supplementary targets for water resources management, pollution and wastewater management, water ecosystems, flooding, public participation, water in schools, adaptation to climate change, urban planning, etc. In short, a complete vision on water issues was born. Twenty SDG targets are directly related to water. That’s great news! But unfortunately, nothing much has changed since 2015 in intergovernmental circles. It is as if the silos of the past have taken over again. In 2018, at the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), governments discussed water for three hours but took no new decisions. Worse still, during their first SDG Summit in October 2019, they boasted about their progress on access to safe drinking water, in stark contrast with global statistics predicting that the 2030 target for universal access to drinking water will not be reached until the 23rd century at the pace of progress resulting from current policies. Since 2015, no intergovernmental work has been done to acknowledge and rectify the insufficient progress towards water-related SDG targets. This lack of activity on all water issues stems directly from the fact that there is no specific UN political forum for water. Unlike the majority of SDG key topics, which each have their own intergovernmental platform with regular political meetings, water is not so fortunate and, politically speaking, has been left behind. There is a dire need for collective coherence and efficiency, but this is very seldom discussed since many institutional stakeholders, countries and UN agencies see more interest in maintaining the status quo.

Water tower in Koniba, Mali ©Solidarites International 2019

A UN Political Summit on Water is Much Too Rare an Event

Some say that the 2023 UN Water Conference will be the first since the Mar-del-Plata conference in 1977. This shows very little regard for the UN Sustainable Development Commission meeting in 2005, which brought together all the world’s governments for two weeks and resulted in a nine-page UN resolution on integrated water resources management, ecosystem preservation, drinking water and sanitation, including the treatment and reuse of wastewater. However, since 2005, the only significant UN resolutions on water have been the inception of the International Year of Sanitation (2008), the recognition of the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation (2010) and the adoption of the SDGs (2015).

The 2023 UN Conference will therefore be one of the very rare events where decisions can be taken on all water issues. This will be an opportunity to make intergovernmental work on water more effective. It will be an opportunity to streamline intergovernmental work, if participants decide to organize an annual UN intergovernmental meeting on all water-related SDG targets, as is the case for the other SDG key topics. This would ensure political coherence between the many disparate existing efforts and enable the organization of efforts to achieve SDG 6 and all the global water-related goals. A decision of this kind cannot be taken in 2023 without active preparation and sufficient anticipation. This will be one of the main issues at stake during the 9th World Water Forum that will take place in Dakar in 2022.

Kick-off meeting in preparation for the 9th World Water Forum, spring 2019 ©WorldWaterForum

Will the 2023 Conference take the decision to institute regular UN political meetings on all water-related SDG targets? If so, the conference will be quite historic. But if we miss this opportunity, the international water community will only have itself to blame for remaining collectively inefficient, for the lack of political attention paid to water and for the slow progress towards water-related SDG targets.

By Gérard Payen, former Water Advisor to the United Nations Secretary General and Vice President of the French Water Partnership and Astee

Who is Gérard Payen ?

Gérard Payen has been working for more than 35 years to solve water-related problems in all countries. As Water Adviser to the Secretary General of the United Nations (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 numerous water-related global sustainable development objectives. Today, he is a director of 3 major French associations dedicated to water and continues to work to mobilise the international community for a better management of water-related problems, which requires more ambitious public policies. At the same time, since 2009, he has been advising the United Nations agencies that produce the world’s water statistics. Impressed by the number of misconceptions about the nature of water problems that hinder public authorities in their decision-making, he published a book in 2013 to dismantle these misconceptions.

Water in crisis(s) “Exclusive interview with Abdoulaye Sene and Patrick Lavarde, co-presidents of the Dakar World Water Forum 2021”.

©Abdoulaye Mbodj



Access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a humanitarian emergency because unsafe water and its diseases are a major cause of mortality. It is a priority because its scarcity leads to tensions between the various users and risks of conflict between communities and countries. It is also a duty for the countries that unanimously voted in 2015 at the United Nations for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include access to drinking water for everyone in the world by 2030. It is finally one of the necessary conditions for development.

We now know that the current trajectory is not the right one to achieve universal access to drinking water in 2030. We have 10 years left to meet these commitments.  This is why we are dedicating this issue of Humanitarian Challenges to water and sanitation on the occasion of World Water Day on 22 March.

In March 2021, in Dakar, the 9th World Water Forum must be a major moment to remobilize the international community and water stakeholders. We have one year to achieve this. With this in mind, here is the exclusive interview with Abdoulaye Sene and Patrick Lavarde, co-presidents of the Dakar Forum.

Alain Boinet : Senegal wanted the 9th WEF to be different, even breaking with the previous ones. What are the reasons for this and what do you expect from it?

Abdoulaye Sene : Indeed, Senegal wants the 9th World Water Forum to be different from the previous ones, both in terms of organisation and content. We want the next Forum to be a historic forum in terms of results, a forum for concrete responses to the concerns of the populations. Moreover, we have launched the Dakar 2021 Initiative to bring our Senegalese and African touch to the 9th Forum. Beyond the political and diplomatic aspects, the 9th Forum must lead to concrete results and commitments to respond to the pressing challenge of the water and sanitation issue in Africa and the world.

Alain Boinet : You said that the 9th WEF should “build a forum of answers”. What do you mean by that?

Patrick Lavarde : The first World Water Forums helped to identify, publicise and share the sector’s major issues. Subsequent Forums have supported concrete advances such as the right to water or the need for a Sustainable Development Objective specific to the field of water. The Forums affirmed the political dimension of water issues and identified solutions to meet the challenges. The time has now come to focus on concrete responses to the challenges posed by water management by implementing these solutions in order to achieve the water-related targets of the Sustainable Development Objectives (SDOs) and thus meet the expectations of the most vulnerable populations.

Alain Boinet : Dakar will be the World Water Capital in March 2021. What do you think this means, for Senegal and Africa more generally?

Abdoulaye Sene : Dakar will host the 9th World Water Forum on behalf of Senegal and Africa. It will be the first time that a country in sub-Saharan Africa has hosted this major world water event. This Forum is therefore an important issue for both Senegal and Africa, where water issues are obviously much more pressing. For Senegal in particular, this means that its water diplomacy has borne fruit. It should be pointed out that our country stood out very early on for its regional and even continental leadership on water issues. Moreover, this forum is both an opportunity and a challenge in view of the many expectations and the importance of its organization.

Alain Boinet : The Dakar Forum defined four main priorities under the evocative theme of “Water Security for Peace and Development”. Why this link between water and peace?

Patrick Lavarde : Water security is a key issue for the future of the African continent. It is also a major issue for the world as a whole. Indeed, tensions related to water are increasing while demographic pressure is accelerating, urbanization is on the rise and climate change threatens areas that are already water-scarce. Without water security, development, food, health and education are at risk. Therefore, it is a major challenge for peace in all regions where water is at the heart of people’s security. In order to avoid conflicts between water users, between countries sharing the same resources, appropriate responses must be found.

Alain Boinet : How is the issue of water, sanitation and its various uses raised today in West and Central Africa?

Abdoulaye Sene : The issue of water and sanitation is very acute in West and Central Africa. It has become a major concern in these two regions of the continent, which live largely from agriculture and livestock. Increasingly, West and Central Africa is experiencing difficulties in meeting its water and sanitation needs. All this translates into public health problems and some of the water crises that these regions are experiencing, not to mention the recurrent conflicts between pastoralists and farmers. This means that the water problem has now become a source of insecurity for the populations. The continuous increase in population combined with the effects of climate change partly explains the difficulties of West and Central Africa to face the challenge of water and sanitation.

©Abdoulaye Mbodj

Alain Boinet : The Forum is an international event that is organized well in advance. What is the preparation architecture and how does it work?

Patrick Lavarde : The Forum is organized jointly by Senegal and the World Water Council, which have set up an International Steering Committee (ISC). Each of the four priorities is coordinated by a steering group of relevant institutions and co-chaired by a Senegalese and an international member of the ISC. The themes addressed within each of the priorities, which are related to the water-related targets of the SDOs, are prepared by an action group made up of specialized institutions. In order to involve the maximum number of stakeholders, each action group will rely on a broad consultative group of actors who will have volunteered through an international call for proposals.

Alain Boinet : How do you see the link between the 9th World Water Forum and objective 6 of the 2030 SDOs when UN Water underlined last year that the trajectory was not the right one to achieve the planned objectives?

Abdoulaye Sene : The Forum is indeed intended to be a catalyst for SDO 6. It is an opportunity to mobilise funding, to renew commitments, with a view to achieving SDO 6. If we don’t resolve this issue of achieving SDO 6, we won’t resolve any SDO. It must be said that all the SDOs are linked to SDO 6 in some form. It is true that the trajectory is not yet on a very good curve, but the commitments and expected outcomes of the Forum can help to reverse the trend and accelerate the achievement of the MDGs, in particular MDG 6 by 2030. Beyond SDO 6, the Dakar Forum will be connected to the water issues in Africa, in particular the continent’s Agenda 2063.

Alain Boinet : As co-chair of the international steering committee, you are looking for partners strategic for the Forum. Where do we stand and what do you expect from them?

Patrick Lavarde : The strategic partners provide specific support for the organisation of the Forum through an agreement signed with its organisers. This support can be at the level of the Forum as a whole, of one of the priorities or of one of the actions depending on the interest and capacities of the partner. The strategic partners participate, as appropriate, in the pilot or action groups. Some of these partnerships have already been formalized and many others are in the process of being finalized under the impetus of the Forum’s Executive Secretary.

Alain Boinet : What does the Dakar 2021 Initiative consist of and what do you expect from it very concretely?

Abdoulaye Sene : The Dakar 2021 Initiative is the major innovation of the 9th World Water Forum. Senegal has
through this program bring a specific touch to this event. The Dakar 2021 Initiative was officially launched on 16 January in Dakar. It is an operation generating commitments and actions to accelerate progress, particularly towards the achievement of the MDGs. The initiative aims, among other things, to label community projects targeting access to drinking water and decent sanitation. These labelled projects aim to achieve tangible results to be presented at the Forum in 2021.

Interview published in the Water Barometer 2020 by Solidarités INTERNATIONAL.

Biography of Patrick Lavarde :

General Engineer of Water and Forest Bridges, Patrick LAVARDE is a permanent member of the General Council for the Environment and Sustainable Development. He was Governor of the World Water Council (2012-2018) and President of the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) between 2016 and 2018. He contributed to the organization of the 6th World Water Forum in Marseille, notably as co-chair of the thematic commission, and was a member of the bureau of the international steering committee of the 8th Forum in Brasilia. He created the National Office for Water and Aquatic Environments of which he was Director General from 2007 to 2012. Between 1998 and 2007, he was Director General of the National Institute of Environmental and Agricultural Sciences and Technologies. Prior to that, he held various responsibilities in the central and decentralized administration in the forest, water and agriculture sectors.

Biography of Abdoulaye Sene :

President of the national committee for the organization of the 9th World Water Forum, “Dakar 2021”.
Chairman of the SOGEM/WHO Board of Directors (2013-2017).
Founding President of the International Think-tank Global Local Forum.
Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Commission for Development and Regional Planning of the National Assembly of the Republic of Senegal (2007-2012).
President of the Regional Council of Fatick (2002-2009).
Special Advisor to the Minister of Mines, Energy and Hydraulics of Senegal (2001-2002). Head of the Mission of Studies and Development of the Fossil Valleys (1994-2000).
National Director of Hydraulics and Rural Engineering (1984 to 1994).
Expert in Hydraulics, Climate Change, Decentralization, Governance and Local Development.