Lessons from the UN 2023 Water Conference

Project Lead Oliver M. Brandes at first UN water conference in a generation

Published On: May 12th, 2023

In March 2023, POLIS’ Oliver M. Brandes joined the Canadian delegation at the United Nations 2023 Water Conference, which took place in New York City from March 22nd to 24th. The Canadian delegation was led by federal Member of Parliament Terry Duguid, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change and well-established water champion.

This conference was the first UN water conference to be held since 1977 and was organized as part of the UN International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development (2018-2028). The once-in-a-generation gathering offered opportunities for global leaders and water champions from around the world to network and share learnings around solving the global water and sanitation crises and to confirm the urgency and priority of water sustainability.

Oliver M. Brandes at the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York City.

The conference was formally opened by the President of Tajikistan and the King of the Netherlands, who encouraged the world to have a “watershed moment” to really begin turning the tide. This idea of needing a turning point that will change the way individuals, organizations, or governments approach water—its protection, management, and governance—runs through all the work we do at POLIS and these themes were a big part of the inception and creation of the POLIS Water Sustainability Project 20 years ago!

Overall, the conference emphasized water as the “common denominator” and a powerful integrator, given its close linkages to the most pressing issues of our time—including climate, energy, economic prosperity, reconciliation, cities, ecosystem health and function, food security, poverty, gender equality, community resilience and health, amongst others—as well as being the driving force of nature and all life, of course.

The Vision statement UN 2023 Water Conference offers more detail on the context and vision behind the gathering.

While there were literally hundreds of sessions and dialogues both on and off site, some of the most prominent topics of focus included:

  • Water for health, including massively investing in water infrastructure and sustainable development.
  • Indigenous perspective and emerging forms of shared and Indigenous-led governance projects.
  • Water for climate, resilience, and environment, with an understanding of climate action and a sustainable water future as two sides of the same coin, and an understanding that the climate crisis as a water crisis.
  • Water and cooperation, including closing the water management gap with an emphasis on transboundary water management and partnership.
  • Women in leadership roles to drive innovation and change.
  • Updates on the UN Water Action Decade (2018-2028) thus far, and identifying priorities for the coming years.
  • Youth perspectives and cultivating the next generation of leaders and champions.
  • … and of course many, many more.

At the reception at Canada House hosted by Bob Rae, Canadian Ambassador for the United Nations.

Oliver was also fortunate to be part of a powerful reception at Canada House hosted by Bob Rae, Canadian Ambassador for the United Nations. Over 50 guests, including champions, water experts, and leaders from all across Canada, were in attendance representing a wide range of backgrounds, including Indigenous leaders, NGOs, civil society, politicians, and federal government staff. They were there to celebrate, but also engage with the delegation that is leading important changes at the federal level, including the development of a Canada Water Agency (which was formally announced in Federal Budget 2023 just days after the UN Water Conference wrapped up); the $1 billion budget commitment around a federal freshwater action plan; and reforming the over 50-year-old Canada Water Act. This event was certainly a highlight of the whole week of activities, as it helped demonstrate the very best of the Canadian approach with an emphasis on collaboration, diversity, and the appetite and intention to once again become a global leader.

Coming out of the conference, a commitment was made to host another global water gathering in Tajikistan at the end of the UN Water Action Decade in 2028. This will be an opportunity to assess progress on specific commitments and actions that were made at the 2023 conference—and will ensure that it’s not another 45 years between these global water gatherings!

Even though the issues are serious—with real consequences globally and locally—and won’t be solved quickly, solutions do exist. And with the hard work and commitment of water champions and leaders from all over the globe, achieving viable solutions is possible. This conference confirmed that there are so many capable, energetic, intriguing, creative, and committed people who certainly aren’t scared of the hard work and are all leaning in.

Oliver returned to Victoria with renewed affirmation that our work at POLIS reflects the very best of the work being done globally. With our focus on catalyzing action at the more local (watershed) scale, we know first-hand how change can happen, and we believe that collective local change can ultimately address global challenges. This important link—from local action to global change, and back again—is a powerful approach. We will continue to create innovative models and ways of thinking and doing that have pragmatic and useful learnings and solutions, so we can inspire and drive the necessary local-to-global change.