UN 2023: what is the Water Action Agenda and why is it important?

Water is the lifeblood of our planet – it nourishes the natural world and is the foundation of our societies. Access to clean water is the most fundamental requirement for human health and a declared human right. And yet, 1 in 4 people lack access to clean drinking water and almost half don’t have access to safely-managed sanitation.

The UN 2023 Water Conference brought together over 10,000 participants to catalyse commitment to water and strengthen the Water Action Agenda. Addressing the global water crisis isn’t just about safeguarding human health – it is crucial to the world economy and to many other aspects of the sustainable development agenda.

Progress on clean water has stalled

UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks from the conference summarise the water problem clearly: “water is a human right and a common development denominator to shape a better future. But water is in deep trouble. We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use and evaporating it through global heating.”

A focus on SDG 6 is now taking on renewed importance in the context of the global water crisis. SDG 6 seeks to ensure the availability of safe drinking water and sanitation for everyone, but data on some of the key indicators of progress towards SDG 6 paint a worrying picture:

  • Almost half of the world’s domestic wastewater isn’t treated safely
  • 40% of monitored bodies have poor ambient water quality
  • Over 40% of transboundary basin areas don’t have operational arrangements for water cooperation

At the same time, the demand for water is rising because of rapid population growth, urbanisation and increasing pressure from agriculture, industry and the energy sector. Decades of misuse, poor management and over-extraction have exacerbated water stress which, in turn, affects our health, economic activities and food and energy systems. We need to double the rate at which improved water management practices are implemented if we are to realise the sustainable and equitable distribution of water.

The UN Water Conference was a watershed moment

The UN 2023 Water Conference culminated in a breakthrough response to the global water crisis as governments, businesses and civil society committed billions of dollars to advance the global water agenda.

The Water Action Agenda is a key output of the conference. It collates all the commitments made to accelerate progress towards the achievement of SDG 6 at the UN event and will act as a baseline for future commitments to water.

The volume and range of commitments from across society shows the importance of cooperation on water. Japan pledged ¥500 billion ($3.65 billion) in financial assistance for the solution of water-related social issues over the next five years, whilst Nigeria and Germany made a joint commitment of $21.2 million to strengthen the capabilities of the Niger Basin Authority. Meanwhile in the private sector, Starbucks, Gap and other companies joined with the USA to invest $140 million in a Water Access Fund.

As co-host of the event, the Netherlands is committed to the Valuing Water Initiative and the implementation of the five Valuing Water Principles:

  1. Recognise and embrace water’s multiple values to different groups
  2. Reconcile values and build trust
  3. Protect water sources
  4. Educate to empower
  5. Invest and innovate

The commitments made at the UN Water Conference are a step in the right direction, but they need to be sustained to 2030 and beyond if we are to ensure the equitable and sustainable distribution of water for all.

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