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More reporting from the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York

Clarissa Brocklehurst, PLOS Water Section Editor, about her experience at the UN Water Conference and involvement in Interactive Dialogue 1 on Water for Health

This is a follow-up to the earlier post about the conference’s preparatory process.

Well, it has been over a week since the closing of the UN Water Conference, and I have finally recovered from the bout of COVID I suffered after returning.  I suppose a calculated risk of attending such a large gathering!  Luckily, I am well vaccinated and otherwise in good health, and I did not have any severe symptoms.  But it did hold up my plans to complete part two of this blog!

The conference was huge and complex, with events that were both inside and outside the UN compound, and part of the official program and in addition to it. Many of us found trying to run between events exhausting, and sorting out the combination of passes needed to get into some events was frustrating.

I helped UNICEF and WHO prepare for Interactive Dialogue 1 on Water for Health, and was one of the official note-takers, so much of my focus was on that event. It was co-chaired by the Dominican Republic the United Kingdom, and moderated by Ms. Catherine Russell, Executive Director, UNICEF, and Dr. Maria Neira, Assistant Director General, WHO.

The co-chairs outlined the challenges facing SDG 6 and called on participants to build political commitment and establish professionally-run services that safeguard the natural environment. 

The session moderators, UNICEF and WHO, stressed that water, sanitation and hygiene are essential for survival and wellbeing, critical to economic development, and necessary for lifting communities out of poverty. They spoke of the role WASH services in ensuring gender equality, freeing women and girls from the dangerous work of water collection. Panelists and Discussants spoke of the problem of cholera  exacerbated by a lack of WASH, the complex relationship between water and displacement, the importance of political leadership and that we cannot address the climate crisis with fragmented approaches. Speakers recognized that water and sanitation are human rights and that access to WASH is essential for health, education, gender equality and development. The point was made that  WASH is a no-regrets investment.

There were many interventions from the floor, from Member States and stakeholders that had expressed interest in speaking. Commitments from Member States included a commitment from Uganda to inclusive services in both urban and rural areas which put women at the center.  UNFPA committed to support the critical role water plays in sexual and reproductive rights, menstrual hygiene and safe pregnancy. Zimbabwe committed to installing a borehole in every village, and at every school, and to ensuring robust governance. Benin committed a government investment of USD1.6 million, of which USD800 million has already been mobilized, and to professionalize service delivery in partnership with the private sector. Niger committed to address open defecation, and committed 7% of the government budget to WASH. Namibia committed to sustained budgetary support, leading to 100% coverage of WASH in all clinics, hospitals and schools by 2027.

The dialogue reinforced the need for action by all stakeholders, and for the commitments made to be trackable. Every speaker reinforced the message that the WASH sector urgently needs to adapt and evolve around three pillars – political leadership, government systems and smart financing – to achieve the ambition of the SDGs and reach everyone, everywhere, with sustainable, climate-resilient WASH services.

When, as notetakers, my colleagues and I went to write the short summary to be an input to the briefing for the Secretary General ahead of the closing ceremony, we summarised the key messages emerging from the Interactive Dialogue as:

  • Government leadership and willingness to drive change is key.
  • Funding and financing from the public sector, private sector and donors must increase dramatically.
  • Governments and development partners see the need to develop a capable and motivated WASH sector workforce, investing in people and institutions.
  • Data and evidence are key to progress, and must reflect the needs of all people, including the marginalized.
  • Governments and partners need to encourage WASH innovation and experimentation.

I heard many people articulate these messages, and similar ones, during the conference.  The call for political will and action from a high level of government leadership was clear – and the presence at the conference of heads of state, ministers and other leaders meant that it was heard.  Now the hard part starts – following up on the commitments, turning them into action, and tracking them to ensure accountability. 

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