We need a unified water movement. Here are 5 ways we can achieve it

Published on 20 March 2023

Janine Shaw

Senior Project Support Officer

Ben O’Donovan-Iland

Communications and Impact Officer

There must be a unified water movement if we are to avoid the global water crisis getting far worse. The 2023 UN Water Conference in New York City is our opportunity to reimagine a new form of global collective action – but it’s taken 46 years of waiting to get here. ‘We will need a more political and engaged approach going forward’, says Dr Alan Nicol, IWMI Strategic Director for Water, Growth and Inclusion.

Despite decades of development, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that 829,000 people die each year as a result of unsafe drinking water and two billion people still lack access to basic sanitation facilities. People living in poverty have inadequate access to water and sanitation, whilst overconsumption and appropriation of the resource by the rich and powerful, extreme weather events and declining water quality all raise the potential for massive impacts on the world’s most marginalised and vulnerable people.

Ahead of the conference, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and water management experts discussed the achievements and missed opportunities of the past 46 years at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). The message was clear – we do not have another 46 years to wait for the goal of universal water and sanitation coverage to be reached.

Here are five calls to action from the event to realise water for all.

1. We must build a new social narrative around resilience and adaptation

In the face of unprecedented climate impacts and risks, future action must be rooted in a more collective response to the water crisis.  This includes expanding the current narrow view of the right to water to include livelihood, climate and food and also finding locally-appropriate ways to tackle growing uncertain extreme weather events like floods and droughts. Water and sanitation are critical in realising food and energy security, and climate resilience. Water actors from the local to the global need to be embedded in and reach out to these other sectors, including in SDG discussions.

‘We need to think about how we learn to unlearn and rewire our thinking to re-establish our narratives in a very different light’ says Professor Naho Mirumachi, professor of Environmental Politics at Kings College London and co-director of the Kings Water Centre. The long-standing command and control approach largely based on engineering and economics is no longer fit for purpose. We need to capture different and non-market ways of valuing access and allocation beyond economics. It is essential that we push to ‘reclaim water and sanitation as social and public goods’ says Professor Lyla Mehta, Institute of Development studies and Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

It must be emphasised that the climate crisis and water are directly linked. The conversation surrounding WASH must include discussion over environmental stressors and the ability to deal with climate uncertainty. Solutions need to be responsive to ‘climate change and resource variability without desiccating nature in the name, of efficiency’ says former Executive Director, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, Switzerland, Mr Gourisankar Ghosh.

2. We need to focus on both global and local levels – and link them up

The importance of including local and regional conversations leading up to the UN Water conference and other large international conferences is key, says Mr Ghosh. Ensuring that emergent interventions and models take into consideration the needs of the people using them must be included. Solutions should avoid being solely top-down and involve local communities.

With this in mind, a multiscale approach from local to regional and global is necessary and we must avoid privileging one lens at the expense of others. For example, the new report of the Global Water Commission and the anonymous concept notes for the 2023 conference focus very little on local dynamics of access, exploitation, control, inequity, and exclusion.

3. Governments, international organisations and corporations must be held accountable

Accountability is key, and the conference must hold powerful governments, organisations, and corporations accountable. ‘Despite the continued injection of some newspeak, there is little observable coming to grips with the multi-level politics of water governance!’ says Dr François Molle, Senior Researcher at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) and co-editor of ‘Water Alternatives‘. Interventions need to be evidenced and have the qualitative analysis to back them up – often problems are highlighted but there is not enough deep analysis on the how to overcome them.

A lack of cross-sectoral collaboration continued issue that stunts progress. We need to find a way of communicating effectively with the decision-makers and communicate beyond our own echo chambers. Different sectors tend to work in silos: ‘Water experts talk among themselves and preach to the already preached’ says Mr Ghosh.

4. Equity and inclusion are core beliefs

Water and Sanitation should be considered from an intersectional, particularly feminist lens to examine how gender, race, class, and caste shape access to and exclusions from water as well as challenge power structures that perpetuate inequality. It is also important to break down conventional divides between domestic and productive water.

There needs to also be a focus on sustainability and the interests of the poor and marginalised, but it is also important that when looking at community-based approaches we fully consider dynamics within communities, such as exclusion and heterogeneity.

5. The UN needs a strong water champion

We cannot wait another 46 years to enact change. Global decision-makers and water sector practitioners have a key opportunity at the 2023 UN Water conference to deliver strong actions. The UN should urgently consider creating a stand-alone entity or Commission that focuses solely on water and sanitation issues and their cross-linkages with climate, food and social development. This commission should convene bi-annually to assess progress and hold actors to account, in addition to committing to a regular evaluation of countrywide progress.

The time is now to deliver and realise a water secure future for all.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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