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Accelerating Change – the 2023 UN Water Conference

Debora Walker, Executive Editor, PLOS Water

March 22 is the 30th anniversary of World Water Day, an annual event convened by UN-Water that aims to raise public awareness for the planet’s freshwater resources and global access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). This year also marks the beginning of the UN 2023 Water Conference, the second one of its kind after the first conference in 1977. It is therefore unsurprising that expectations are high for the event that has been promoted as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unite around water and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.

The first UN Water Conference created significant momentum around water-related topics such as drinking water and sanitation and set the groundwork for the creation of the water sector as it exists today. This year’s conference marks the halfway point to the United Nations’ 2030 SDG deadline. We’re currently quite off-track to meeting SDG 6 by 2030, so something needs to change, or change already underway needs to happen at a faster pace. The theme of this year’s conference is therefore, somewhat obviously, ‘accelerating change’.

The UN conference itself is very broad in focus and covers just about every water-related topic. It is organized around five Interactive Dialogues – four of them with well-defined thematic focuses, and the last one specifically addressing the progress on the International Decade for Action “Water for Sustainable Development” (2018–2028).

The exact program was not released much in advance and applications for speaking slots were still open a week before the conference. The concept papers around the five themes have been publicly available for a time though. They were written in collaborations between UN member states, UN organizations, and other stakeholders and contain long wish lists and suggestions for advancing sustainable development and addressing global water issues at scale (for a peek behind the scenes on how the reports were drafted take a look at PLOS Water Section Editor Clarissa Brocklehurst’s account). Much of the papers focus on necessary developments in financing, governance, capacity development, and innovation.

To which degree the conference will lead to an actual acceleration of actions in a field historically much overlooked and at the same time so fundamental to the entire planet’s wellbeing remains to be seen. Maybe there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic as the topics are getting more and more attention across all global regions and communities. Yet there are also voices already criticizing both the lack of transparent planning of the conference, as well as the unnecessarily bureaucratic accreditation, consultation, and registration processes that may not live up to the inclusive vision of the event. However, if the conference leads to a concerted global effort to advance all or even just most of the developments outlined in the concept papers, the event has the potential to be as transformative as the last one 46 years ago.

However, it is worthwhile to not only look ahead at the UN event and what comes out of it, but also sideways, to what’s happening simultaneously. New York Water Week is intended to bring water issues to the public at large. More than 40 in-person and virtual events are planned that engage with anyone interested through guided tours, conversations, games, hikes, plenaries, films, webinars, and more. Many more organizations in the water sector, both local and international, are using the occasion to increase awareness of not only the challenges, but the potential solutions to the water crisis. We’re among them; PLOS Water curated a collection of research articles, reviews and opinions of though leaders in the water field that address changes happening in the water cycle and how to tackle them (you’ll be able to find it on our Collections page on World Water Day).

Maybe this part of World Water Day will be just as transformative as the UN conference and precipitate lasting change through its engagement across communities – including researchers, policy makers, water professionals, corporations and organizations, farmers, local and Indigenous communities, and individuals. If sustained, the generated momentum has the potential to drive a more open and inclusive way to share and generate knowledge for a more co-creative way of discovery – so we can truly accelerate change.

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