What the world’s worsening water crisis needs — another conference

By Dean Muruven, WWF

Everywhere you look, cities and countries are battling to cope with too much water or too little. From floods in Queensland to South Africa’s national drought disaster, the warning signs about the impacts of our warming world are flashing. Companies and governments are paying more attention to water risk but it is not paying off. Action is still too slow, the scale of ambition too small.

What we need — and I never thought I’d ever say this — is another global meeting. Every year.

If you are familiar with the water sector you probably know that you could spend your time at some water meeting or summit every month of the year. But there is one glaring gap in the packed conference calendar: a high-level conference on freshwater that makes decisions, shapes global policies, and gives our most precious resource the attention it deserves.

So it’s great to see that the High-Level Panel on Water’s (HLPW) report on the Value of Water released this week calls for just such a conference. You might have missed it as it crops up towards the end after a host of other important recommendations. But it could be the game-changer.

© Adam Oswell / WWF-Greater Mekong

We do have the tri-annual World Water Forum, the 8th version of which kicks off in Brazil on Sunday and the annual World Water Week. These global gatherings are important but they don’t drive decisions, don’t bring governments and the private sector together to ensure that the urgent transformation of water management is on track. Indeed that there is an agreed track at all.

When the world’s leaders committed to ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all as one of the Global Goals (SDG 6), they recognized that water is at the heart of the sustainable development agenda. If we fail to achieve SDG 6, we won’t get close to achieving the others. And the statistics show we are way off track.

Already, 36% of the world’s population live in water-scarce areas, where more than 20% of the world’s GDP is produced. Around 2 billion people are compelled to drink contaminated water and 4.5 billion lack access to safe sanitation. Population growth, urbanization and climate change will only add to the world’s water stress — and to the difficulties of bringing these numbers down.

That’s why the UN Secretary-General and World Bank President convened the HLPW — to accelerate efforts to tackle the global water crisis. Comprised of 11 world leaders, the panel has the political weight to champion the delivery of SDG 6.

The panel recognized at the start of its mandate that there had to be a fundamental shift in the way world looks at water if we are to achieve this goal. This month marks the end of its mandate and it has concluded its work with a major report calling for water to be valued correctly, greater investment in sustainable water infrastructure, and enhanced protection of rivers and other freshwater ecosystems. But in my view perhaps the HLPW’s most important recommendation is the need to increase global water cooperation, including holding a freshwater summit on an annual or bi-annual basis.

If we are truly serious about delivering the ambitious targets under SDG6 then we have to, at the very least, create a space where we promote international cooperation, exchange best practices and build global partnerships. Governments alone will not deliver SDG 6. It will require an engaged private sector and open spaces for civil society: all contributing towards achieving a water-secure future. So the new platform must ensure that businesses and civil society organizations are able to articulate their contributions towards achieving SDG6.

None of this is new and perhaps the greatest lesson to learn from the climate community that delivered the Paris Agreement is that you have to get everybody talking about the problem to secure a global commitment.

© WWF / Martina Lippune

With the UN Decade for Water due to be launched in June 2018, the time to act on this is now. The 11 Heads of State who made the commitment to accelerate our path to deliver on SDG6, can leave a lasting legacy by ensuring that annually, we come together as governments, business and civil society not just to talk, but to learn, act and commit to valuing water and delivering on the commitments that we must achieve by 2030.

Australia and South Africa might feel like a long way from home for most of us, but in a warming world, we all face new normal. Only by working together and cooperating better internationally can we transform the way we manage our freshwater resources and mitigate the impact of climate change on our communities, cities, companies and countries.

Obviously, an annual conference alone won’t solve everything. We need to start a conversation that leads to real cooperation. But a meaningful platform is a critical step.

“If we cannot get into a room to talk about our future, then we probably do not have one.

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