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Reporting from the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York

Clarissa Brocklehurst, PLOS Water Section Editor, writes about the preparation of the thematic concept papers for the UN Water Conference

In the preparatory phase of the UN Water Conference (the first time one has been held, unbelievably, since 1977), members of UN Water, the mechanism to coordinate UN activities in the sector, were asked to lead on the preparation of five thematic concept papers. WHO and UNICEF were asked to prepare the paper on Water for Health. I had helped the two agencies prepare three major publications – State of the World’s Sanitation, State of the World’s Hand Hygiene and State of the World’s Drinking Water – and so they asked me to lead on drafting the paper. 

In the first draft, we drew heavily on these “state of” reports, using the data that had been compiled from a variety of sources to paint a picture of the current situation of the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector, both in terms of what has been achieved in the last decades, and how far we still have to go. We explained the implications of poor water, sanitation and hygiene on health, and also on gender equality and development. 

We then went into consultations with a wide range of stakeholders based on the initial draft. This consultation revealed that stakeholders wanted a much more comprehensive look at the human rights aspects of WASH – this had been added as a bit of an afterthought to the scope of the paper we had been asked to write, but stakeholders suggested we bring it to the forefront. We also heard from stakeholders that they wanted us to look far beyond health to the transformative nature of WASH in terms of development (and in fact the need for transformative WASH that interrupts all disease pathways and provides holistic protection). 

We were only too pleased to redraft the paper this way, and the resulting final version situates WASH as an enabler – of health, of the realization of rights, of equality and of development. We talked about the success of countries that drove dramatic progress on WASH in order to build the foundation of modern nations, and which recognized the provision of WASH services as part of the essential social contract between governments and their citizens. 

The five key messages that can be pulled from the paper are:

  1. Drinking water and sanitation are human rights, and access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services is vital to health, development and social and economic progress. However, in 2020, 2 billion people still did not use safely managed drinking water, 771 million did not use even basic drinking water services, and almost half of the world’s population, 3.6 billion people, used sanitation services that leave human waste untreated, threatening human and environmental health.
  2. There are examples of significant progress on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Many of the countries that have made rapid gains in improving WASH have done so as part of nation building, committing to sustainable and safe WASH as part of the social contract between governments and people.
  3. Globally, at least a quadrupling of current rates of progress on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is needed to meet the SDG targets and ensure people have access to WASH services no matter where they are – home, healthcare facilities, schools, workplaces, places where food is prepared, markets, refugee camps and prisons.
  4. Government leadership and willingness to drive change is key to improving water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). There is an urgent need to dramatically increase political commitment to safely managed drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, to strengthen the governance and institutions required to deliver these services, and significantly increase the financial resources available. Governments should develop clear policy objectives to guide funding and financing decisions, develop costed funding and financing strategies, and increase public spending on WASH, recognizing its value as a public good. 
  5. It is critical to strengthen the national and local systems required to deliver reliable, resilient and inclusive water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services at scale; services that can attract funding from users, government budget allocations, and private finance. Working in partnership with governments, development partners should increase investments in the WASH sector, seeking ways to build systems, capacity and institutional strength.

The concept paper is informing Interactive Dialogue 1 on Water for Health which will take place on the first day of the UN Water Conference, which is March 22nd (World Water Day, appropriately). I am looking forward to assisting at the dialogue, which will feature statements and commitments from UN Member States, UN agencies, NGOs, civil society and the private sector. 

It was an honor to be involved in the preparation of the thematic concept paper, and I hope its focus on the possibility of dramatic progress, its message of the need for leadership and collaboration, and its strong call to action on WASH will resonate through the conference. I look forward to continuing this blog during the conference to let readers know what transpired during the interactive dialogue and any of the side events I manage to attend!

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