17 March 2023

UN 2023 Water Conference: an opportunity for international concerted action

From 22-24 March, the UN 2023 Water Conference will be co-hosted by The Netherlands and Tajikistan in New York. It aims to create a Water Action Agenda. For the first time in nearly 50 years, the UN devotes a Conference specifically to water.

2.3 billion people are living in water-stressed countries and three quarters of recent natural disasters are water related. In several river basins tensions over new dam building and water pollution are rising with climate change lowering the amount of water or increasing flood risks. Hence, it certainly is time to address water security at the international level.

The issue is even more pressing when looking into the future. The energy transition prompts new dam building, hydrogen and nuclear will require water at production sites. By 2050, 53% of the world’s population is expected to live in water-stressed countries. Climate change will further exacerbate the pressure on water resources. Increasing temperatures, a rising sea-level, prolonged droughts and flooding adversely affect water security and may get apocalyptic features in some parts of the world adding to a polycrisis.

Although we have improved our understanding of (global) water challenges, progress to tackle these threats has been alarmingly slow. Political momentum is needed to mobilise concerted action from a wide range of actors and establish a multilateral water agenda. The programme of the UN 2023 Water Conference consists of six plenary meetings and five interactive dialogues.

One of those dialogues (n. 4) will discuss transboundary and international water cooperation. As climate change heightens pressure on scarce water resources, such water disputes may spill over into ‘water wars’. However, most of the currently existing water conflicts are caused by a lack of adequate governance and water management rather than the lack of water itself. For example, unilateral irrigation altering the river flow as well as political tensions between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran have led to disputes on water management of the Euphrates-Tigris Basin. Because of the disputes and strained relations, there is no inter-basin cooperation on water management. Though there have been cooperation efforts, a formal agreement on water management of the Euphrates-Tigris basin is still lacking.

Transboundary rivers, lakes, and aquifers are particularly susceptible to population growth, migration, increasing demand, and climate change because of fragmented governance systems. Hence, water cooperation is imperative. In climate-security analysis, rising food and fuel prices are often depicted as conflict risk factors, whereas water is oftentimes found as a source for cooperation. Transboundary cooperation is of significant importance in the management of water resources as well as prevention of water conflicts. A major challenge in advancing cooperation at all levels is that of developing and/or improving connectivity across communities, sectors, and countries, which is ultimately a governance challenge.

While experts have engineered new technological approaches to improve water security (e.g.: desalination) there is a need to move beyond technological approaches, since water is inherently a political topic.

While the urgency of water risks is not new, the low level of political awareness calls for an overarching governance process that facilitates international cooperation. In the wake of the UN 2023 Water Conference, the Global Commission on the Economics of Water (GCEW) has published a report where they have formulated a seven-point call to collective action to achieve a sustainable and equitable water future. It requires the revaluation of water as a global common good by reshaping the economics and governance of water.

If the UN 2023 Water Conference is to contribute to concrete water action, it should prompt policy makers to rethink and update their existing approaches. The universality of water challenges requires a global response. The conference is a unique opportunity to advocate for an inclusive, cross-sectoral, and action-oriented approach to addressing water challenges.

The UN 2023 Water Conference will be held from 22-24 March in New York. The conference programme can be found here. The programme for the side events (both inside and outside UNHQ and virtual) can be found here.


PSI has previously published a policy brief on actions needed for the new government to improve Iraq’s water sector, and a policy brief on water governance in Iraq.

Author: Sarah Lokenberg, Planetary Security Initiative

Photo credit: Flickr/JuliaC2006