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Whither Water? UN Dialogues Highlight Divergent Themes

Charging ahead into a new Decade for Action, urging strong cooperation and possible institutional change, the United Nations met for the second of its Working-Level Water Dialogues on May 30th to continue the discussions from the first dialogue which took place March 22, World Water Day. These dialogues, mandated by the General Assembly resolution 71/222, are in addition to the creation of the “International Decade for Action: Water for Sustainable Development 2018-2028.” The UN challenged the delegates to respond to the revelations with current feedback from their home nations and recommendations for future policy and enforcement.

United Nations Secretariat Building in New York

The coming decade’s objectives as set out in Resolution 71/222 build on current water issues and call for a critical focus on management of water resources for “social, economic, and environmental objectives” as well as programs and project implementation to further these goals, including the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs). The UN urges cooperation at all levels of water use and management, and participation from all stakeholders in the world’s water, calling on all world citizens to work towards the fruition of benchmarks like SDG #6 - ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Delegates raised deep concerns about the devastation of water scarcity and significant health impacts caused by rampant, worldwide dumping of untreated wastewater. To address these dire and timely issues, there must be policy coherence between national and local water management plans. Many delegates believe the current UN-Water system will not be able to accomplish this collaboration because of a need for central water leadership and lack of priority for water policy in individual UN agendas. Individuals made many proposals for problem solving mechanisms such as a “World Water Fund” and new international water bodies. Most delegates settled on an incremental approach, focused on strengthening the efficiency and coordination of the existing UN system.

These concerns were revisited at the second water dialogue on May 30th, where the delegate from Kyrgyzstan argued for a compensation-based system to reward those who practiced sustainable water use and ensure water resource management, especially in the developing world. This system would be established by a new UN council, a similar proposal to the new international water body that was decided against in the first dialogue.

Taking the opposite approach, the United States delegate argued that the existing groups within the UN, including the Security Council, have an interest in furthering water security and can efficiently create international water policy without the need for new groups. He argued the “fragmentation” of water policy between these different groups is unavoidable and can be productive as they evaluate water in the context of their current functions. The US delegate also argued that a water council will not do much to compel private citizens, using a farmer as an example, but a program implemented in partnership with other UN bodies can be more well-rounded and is likely to address the concerns of private business and water users alike.

During the dialogue, these proposals seemed inherently opposite, but the Kyrgyzstan compensation system can still reward developing nations that practice sustainable water use while keeping the incremental institutional approach that the United States, and many other nations, support. A new UN council is not automatically needed to implement this program or enforce water regulation. Furthering the US delegate’s point that existing groups have an interest in water policy, the UN Security Council discussed the peacemaking nature of water in international relationships on June 7th. Secretary-General António Guterres stated that the 270 river basins that fall on international borders make up forty percent of the world’s drinking water, illustrating the need for international water agreements and the link between “water, peace, and security.” Detailing his own agreement on behalf of Portugal with the Spanish government, regarding shared waterways and flood control, Mr. Guterres urged for leaders to have political will to use cooperation and preventative diplomacy in the future of water disputes and shared resources.

Following both of these dialogues, and the the Secretary-General’s remarks to the UNSC, it is clear that water scarcity is a concern worldwide. But with such different approaches coming from different delegates, can there be an efficient medium for cooperation and agreement? It might be a more practical approach to encourage the existing UN bodies to assess water policy and tailor it to their niche areas of concern, but with a central water committee where these policies can be discussed and compared to address overlap and possible cooperative partnerships. The US delegate’s point about using the existing councils to compel private business owners and other reluctant stakeholders is workable, in theory. However, if policy and message were centralized in a single body, there would be greater cohesiveness and impact overall.

As major decisions on international water policy are made in the coming months, the measures that the UN takes as part of the current “Decade for Action” will be critical. The Center for Water Security’s efforts to develop more impactful and responsive laws will help stakeholders navigate the changing waters ahead.

Videos of the Working-Level Water Dialogues can be found here:

The official summary of Dialogue #1 can be found here:

UN Resolution 71/222 adopting the International Decade for Action: Water for Sustainable Development 2018-2028 can be found here:

More Information on Sustainable Development Goal 6 can be found here:


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