May 12, 2023

Water on the Global Scale: 2023 UN Water Conference

Posted by Caitlin Bergstrom

Abbey Sisti is a PhD candidate at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Her research explores the effects of climate change related conditions on marine invertebrates. As a scientist funded by federal grants, Abbey is passionate about putting the best available science in front of decision makers in a form that is digestible and relevant for public policy and regulation.


Last month, the United Nations did something it hadn’t attempted in nearly fifty years: hosting a UN Water Conference. About 10,000 participants from around the world – including heads of state, diplomats, scientists, lawyers, non-profit leaders, entrepreneurs, and more – descended on the UN headquarters in New York City to address Sustainable Development Goal #6: clean water and sanitation.  As was reiterated several times throughout the event, this was a “watershed moment” in the fight for access to safe and clean water.

But let’s back up – what is a sustainable development goal, and why should AGU members care about the UN Water Conference? In 2015, the UN member states adopted a 15-year plan to ensure a more prosperous and sustainable future for the entire globe. As a part of this plan, 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) were established to help measure world progress toward this overarching aim. We are currently in the “Decade of Action,” which was declared by the UN General Assembly in 2019 to encourage world leaders to make more substantial progress toward the SDGs by the 2030 deadline. The UN Water Conference was hosted on March 22-24, 2023 by the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Republic of Tajikistan to spur progress in the effort to secure a world with clean, safe, and accessible water by 2030. 

One thing was clear from this conference: water is both a connector and a driver between all 17 SDGs. Ensuring a world with reliable access to water is essential for achieving sustainable development by 2030. Three main themes emerged over the week: water for health and sanitation, water for climate, and water for cooperation. An estimated two billion people lack access to safe, clean water for drinking and sanitation. As climate change progresses, water scarcity and water-based disasters are expected to affect more and more of the world’s population. Armed conflict can further intensify water scarcity and put pressure on water infrastructure.

Throughout the conference, many potential solutions to these challenges were discussed, including increased financing for water issues, more formal transboundary water management, source to sea conservation of water, and a focus on youth and indigenous leadership. At the conclusion of the conference, financial and policy commitments were made by governments, non-profits, and industries to invest in and implement these and other solutions to the water crises. The U.S. alone committed $49 billion dollars to building climate-resilient water infrastructure. These commitments, termed the “Water Action Agenda,” will be key to achieving clean water and sanitation by 2030.

As a PhD student in marine science, I never expected to find myself participating in the arena of international policy, but I couldn’t pass up an invitation to serve as an observer on behalf of my institution, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. This was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. I found myself in the room with some of the most important leaders in the world – often literally standing-room-only. Interpreters in sound-proof booths worked tirelessly to translate the words of diplomats so that I – and all other participants – could listen in on special earphones. I heard case studies from cities working to develop water management policies, economic experts exploring blue bonds for sustainable finance, youth leaders highlighting the need to protect young advocates, and more. 

My experience as a scientist had never involved listening to so many diverse stakeholders who have a desire to apply research on water conservation, health, and sanitation to their decision making. However, I noticed a lack of actual scientists and scientific research shared at the conference. For example, there was a demonstrated interest in using nature-based solutions to address water conservation, but few scientists working on the issue were to be found in the room. There is an unfulfilled need for scientists, including AGU members, in the international policy arena.

I noted a few key areas in which scientists can get more involved. First, we should be explicit about how our scientific work connects to the UN’s SDGs. These goals set the framework for international policy and create a common language for stakeholders to communicate. Next, scientists should work to identify and fill the knowledge gaps preventing the proper protection and management of water. Finally, we need to better translate our work to the stakeholders who need to apply our research – including emerging stakeholders like financiers. These are individuals who can implement solutions to the water crisis but can lack the technical expertise to develop those solutions. 

While the Water Conference was the first of its kind in nearly 50 years, it is not the only place where water is at the forefront. In 2024, the 10th World Water Forum will be held in Bali, and many of the stakeholders that participated in last month’s conference will be present to further promote the Water Action Agenda. If you are interested in the UN Water Conference and seeing science represented in the international policy arena, I encourage you to visit the conference’s website to read the resulting press releases and concept papers for each of the conference themes.