At the UN Water Conference, Running to Keep Up with an Ambitious 2030 Goal for Universal Water Rights
Delegates met on water issues for the first time in 46 years, with climate change making action ever more urgent. In some regions, progress must quadruple to provide clean water and sanitation for all by 2030.
On Wednesday morning in Manhattan, the United Nations Water Conference began in dramatic fashion when Mina Guli, a 52-year-old Australian foundation CEO and water activist, broke a blue ribbon stretched across the U.N. Plaza, completing her 200th marathon in a year.
Guli calls herself a “non-runner” and has said she’s chosen such “crazy” marathoning extremes “because it is crazy that billions of people still don’t have access to clean water.”
Li Junhua, the Secretary-General of the 2023 U.N. Water Conference, struck a similar note once the conference began inside: “Water is lifeblood, and if lifeblood is in crisis, that means our survival is in big trouble,” he said. “If we are going to fail on water that means we are going to fail people and the planet.”
António Guterres, the U.N. Secretary-General, added during the opening session that four key actions are needed to accelerate the world’s progress: closing the water management gap, massively investing in water and sanitation systems, focusing on water resilience and addressing climate change.
Water is the primary medium through which people experience climate change, with floods and droughts accounting for more than 75 percent of natural disasters, according to the U.N. World Water Development Report.
As the conference began, the U.N. assessed the state of the world’s freshwater resources in a midterm review of the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development, which began in 2018, concluding that while some progress has been made toward better water management, the international community needs to step up in order to achieve the U.N.’s water goals.
The goal at the heart of the conference—Sustainable Development Goal Six (SDG6)—calls for making clean water and sanitation a human right for all by 2030.
At current progress rates, the midterm review concluded that the world will not come close to reaching that goal by 2030 and, in some areas, must quadruple transboundary water resources management. This, the report said, would require balancing the competing water demands across society and the economy without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.
the world ….. must quadruple transboundary water resources management
“Water and climate change have one sad thing in common,” said Simon Stiell, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. “The world is not on track to achieve SDG6 or the Paris target to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
The report also found that the global urban population facing water scarcity is projected to increase from 933 million in 2016 to approximately 2 billion people in 2050. Data on water quality in the environment is more difficult to monitor.
Freshwater ecosystems are among the most threatened in the world and are rapidly lost or degraded by human activities. Wastewater, including agricultural runoff, is the leading cause of water pollution, with an estimated 80 percent of global wastewater entering water bodies untreated, the report said.
Catching her breath after her marathon, Mina Guli recalled reaching the array of flags flying above the United Nations Headquarters on Wednesday morning feeling inspired but also slightly afraid of the opportunity ahead.
She beamed with pride as she reached the blue ribbon marking the finish line of the 200th 26.2-mile race she had run in 32 countries, from Australia to New York City, during the past year. Starting from Uluru, a semi-arid desert in central Australia, she criss-crossed through six continents, with a special visit to Sharm El-Sheikh during the 27th U.N. Climate Change Conference in Nov. 2022.
This was not Guli’s first series of marathons for water. As the founder and CEO of the Thirst Foundation, a nonprofit based in Sydney focused on water and sanitation, she is used to coming up with unorthodox campaigns to raise awareness for global water needs.
She ran 40 marathons across seven deserts in seven continents in seven weeks in 2016. When the world hadn’t received her message by World Water Day in March 2022, she embarked on the Run Bluecampaign of 200 marathons to highlight the role that water plays in the climate crisis.
“I ran because I wanted to go to the frontlines to tell this story, not just in numbers on a page but in real stories from real people in real places from all across the world,” said Guli. Currently, three out of four people live in water-insecure countries, according to the Global Water Security Assessment.
The intent of the U.N. Water Conference, the first in 46 years, was to establish an international Water Action Agenda that will inspire the collective political will to reach the 2030 goal. The conference had received more than 700 voluntary water management commitments from governments, businesses and nongovernmental organizations. However, the World Resources Institute said that most of these commitments are not strong enough to lead to substantial change.
Still, Charles Iceland, interim global director on water at WRI, said that he saw an increase in “gamechanging” commitments over the course of the three day conference. Ahead of the first day, Iceland found that only 24 percent of the commitments addressed climate change. “I think we’re having better and better submissions, but I’m still not convinced that we’re moving the needle enough on the ones addressing climate change,” he added.
Conference participants, for example, identified a lack of accurate data on how climate is affecting the availability of water that is stored in aquifers.
Despite the last-minute commitments, the overall ambition of the conference had decreased since its conception due to the complexities of working with so many governments, according to Mark Smith, director general of the International Water Management Institute.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Republic of Tajikistan, the nations co-hosting the conference, said that the Water Action Agenda is meant to unify member states and stakeholders across all sectors to get the world on track to meet the goal of universal water and sanitation rights.
During a statement made Wednesday on the floor of the General Assembly, Deb Haaland, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, said that the Biden administration would commit up to $49 billion in investments to support climate-resilient water and sanitation infrastructure. She also announced the U.S. Agency for International Development’s plan to allocate $700 million to support 22 high priority countries under its Global Water Strategy.
Her statement followed the release of a report from the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, which found that the water crisis is increasingly intertwined with global warming and the loss of biodiversity, with each reinforcing the other.
Johan Rockström, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and a co-author of the report, emphasized water’s critical role in climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. He said that climate change is rapidly shifting the global water cycle.
For each degree Celsius that the planet warms, the atmosphere can hold seven percent more moisture, which would lead to less freshwater falling as precipitation. The decrease in freshwater supplies hinders freshwater ecosystems’ ability to store carbon, which drives more warming.
While the world lags behind its Sustainable Development Goals at the half-way point to the 2030 deadline, the movement of youth water advocates continues to increase. Sarah Dousse, executive director of the International Secretariat for Water and Solidarity Water Europe, said that approximately 500 young people from 68 countries came to New York to attend the conference.
Established in 2022 at the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar, the Global Youth Movement for Water combines 370 youth-led organizations representing over 110,000 young people from around the world. They delivered five demands ahead of the conference that include the increased inclusion of decision makers who are under 30 years of age.
5 Demands of Global Youth Movement for water
ensured as a basic human right, especially for young women and girls.
young people gain access to dedicated funding to implement innovative community-based water solutions, and that those investments be made public to promote transparency and accountability.
young leaders and entrepreneurs, especially youth and women, receive adequate education to acquire knowledge and skills necessary to better tackle water and climate issues.
young people be included in water-related mechanisms, negotiations and decisions so that they can be part of the solution. By 2030, youth below 30 years old must represent at least 30% of stakeholders.
an inclusive and permanent body be created within the United Nations to address water challenges. with a UN Youth Envoy on Water and a Youth Advisory Group on Water, representing different regions.
The Global Youth Movement for Water also demands that an inclusive and permanent body be created within the U.N. to address water challenges. “Right now there are 32 agencies in the U.N. that are in charge of water,” said Dousse. “There is a lack of political leadership on water and this is why they are demanding that water has a unique home in the U.N.”
Smith, of the International Water Management Institute, said that creating a special envoy for water would be an ideal outcome of the conference. However, he added, it would be quite difficult to reach a unanimous agreement across governments to create one.
“For some countries, water is explicitly a national security issue so it’s really difficult to agree internationally on water,” said Smith. “The likelihood is that there won’t be a breakthrough on international relations on water.”
Throughout the conference, data presented from the World Water Development Report was paired with striking visual imagery of drought, flooding and dilapidated water infrastructure. In addition to a video of Mina Guli’s marathon exploits to call attention to the world’s water crisis, video was incorporated into many conference sessions, including videos shown during the open and closing ceremonies created by the Global Youth Movement for Water.
Video clips were also shown from the inaugural World Water Film Festival, an event hosted by the Columbia Climate School at the beginning of New York Water Week, which started on March 18 and coincided with the conference. Robert Strand, executive director and CEO of the World Water Film Festival, said that he created the event to foster an emotional connection to the water crisis through storytelling.
One of the feature films, River, will hit theaters in the U.S. for Earth Day, April 22, and showcase the importance of river ecosystems across six continents with voiceover from Willem Dafoe and music by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Radiohead. The film depicts the sheer power of human activities on nature—how the world’s dams, for example, have changed the tilt of the axis of the Earth.
Both Strand and Guli sought to inspire more of the Earth’s inhabitants through the distinct mediums of film and marathon. From outside the U.N. at the end of her 200th marathon, Guli said that she considers the water conference to be her 201st, “not by feet but by heart, mind and soul.”
“We’re going to need the biggest dose of courage we can possibly find from everybody in that building,” she said while glancing at the hundreds of people waiting in line to enter the U.N.