By Annika McGinnis

More than 10,000 participants gathered at the United Nations headquarters and online to push for global attention to the world’s escalating water crisis during the UN 2023 Water Conference that convened from 22-24 March in New York.

Co-hosted by the governments of Tajikstan and the Netherlands, the first UN Water Conference in 46 years drew strong parallels between the water crisis and the climate crisis, as the world is facing a surge of unprecedented water-related disasters including floods, droughts and polluted water systems. 

Around the world, about two billion people still lack access to safe drinking water and 40 percent are affected by water scarcity. Pressure on freshwater is also projected to increase by more than 40 percent by 2050, according to the UN Water agency

Co-hosted by the governments of Tajikstan and the Netherlands, the first UN Water Conference in 46 years drew strong parallels between the water and climate crises. Photo by Annika McGinnis

Climate change, migration and conflicts are all linked to the need for water. The Horn of Africa is under the longest and most severe drought on record, with more than 1.75 million people internally displaced in Ethiopia and Somalia and more than 180,000 Somali and South Sudanese refugees who have fled to Kenya and Ethiopia. Parts of Europe and China have also been affected by drought, while calamitous floods have recently struck Pakistan, southern Africa and California in the U.S. 

An analysis of 20 years of satellite data published in February by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) found that the total intensity of extreme weather events was strongly correlated with increases in global mean temperature – more so than with El Niño or other natural weather occurrences. This suggests that the planet’s continued warming will cause more frequent, more severe, longer and larger droughts and floods, the researchers concluded. 

In sub-Saharan Africa, rainfall events have generally intensified over the years, compared to large swaths of Europe and China that have become drier, the study found.

Access to water goes hand in hand with sanitation and health. But access to safely managed sanitation in urban and rural areas in most developing countries is lacking and is being worsened by climate change, water sector leaders presented at the UN meeting. 

At the same time, insufficient regulation of sanitation can increase emissions. In Kampala, Uganda, the sanitation service chain accounts for 50 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2022 study, presented by Engineer Felix Twinomucunguzi, Assistant Commissioner at Uganda’s Ministry of Water and Environment. 

WASH advocates urged for upscaling innovations to develop sanitation supply chains that are resilient to climate disasters and other impacts.

While about 90 percent of climate impacts are related to water, only 3 percent of current climate finance goes to water resources. At the water conference, there was a plea to include water in the formal negotiating tracks at COP28, the next UN Climate Conference slated for November 2023 in Dubai. The last UN climate convening in Egypt was the first COP to include a dedicated day for water.

Conference participants walk past some of the photographs that Water Journalists Africa and InfoNile exhibited at the UN Water Conference in New York. Photo by Annika McGinnis.

A push for innovative financing for water

During the conference, member states, multilateral banks, NGOs and the private sector made more than 700 commitments toward advancing water security, called the Water Action Agenda. However, the conference’s commitments are non-binding, and there were few definitive pledges for finance.

Current world financing needs for water are between US $182-600 billion annually, according to UN Water. But funding for water and transboundary water cooperation – pivotal to achieving the 6th Sustainable Development Goal of Clean Water and Sanitation – is currently severely lacking. While governments have increased expenditure for WASH, insufficient WASH funding was still reported by 75 percent of countries in a recent report by the World Health Organization.

Several compounding reasons contribute to this financing gap: including underfunded national WASH plans; a lack of human resources; a lack of budget or expenditure data disaggregated for drinking water and sanitation – leading to poor decision-making; and a perceived high risk of investing in both transboundary water cooperation and national water utilities

During the UN meeting, the African Union Commission reiterated its ongoing investment program, launched in 2021, that aims to mobilise at least US$30 billion a year for water investment in Africa by 2030 – still only a contribution to achieving the Africa Water Vision 2025, which requires US$64 billion a year, according to the African Development Bank.

Last year, this program established a high-level panel composed of current and former African heads of state to mobilise political commitment and leadership on water investments. The program also aims to support countries to de-risk water investments through mobilising a range of blended financial instruments. 

In New York, several UN agencies, banks, international donors and West African nations rallied around creating more innovative financing mechanisms that allow public and private capital to jointly finance the water sector. While the current financial ecosystem prioritizes funding sovereign states, management of water resources is often done at a regional or local level – hindering access to finance by the actual water managers and users, according to the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF).

UNCDF seeks to change that. Its Blue Peace Bonds blended financing initiative targets to provide public-private capital and capacity building to local and regional entities that manage water services, including in transboundary ecosystems like river basins. 

During a donor’s dialogue, Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the European Commission also pledged innovative financial instruments to decrease risks of investing in the water sector in Africa, including the EFSD+ investment scheme that sandwiches EU grants alongside bank loans, guarantees, and technical assistance.

“It’s all about trust. Trust is linked to de-risking,” said Dr. Tania Rödiger-Vorwerk, Deputy Director General of BMZ. “This is why we have innovative instruments that try to de-risk and promote trust. Very clear and transparent reporting. Clear enabling environment with clear rules that do not change in the long run. If the regulation is changing then the market will not develop; they will move on. Support water utilities in their financial performance.”

Springs, open sources and protected wells experience large declines in functionality during drought seasons. Photo By Fredrick Mugira

Conference presenter Elsam Abdein Mohamed, a member of youth advocacy group Sudan Youth Parliament for Water, said there were “optimistic steps” toward financing for water projects in Africa, but corruption needed to be managed for the funds to have the desired impact.

“Recently I noticed good steps, especially in WASH, but the problem is that – according to my experience in Sudan – most projects are not sustainable enough and the funds are poorly managed,” she said.

Mohamed advocated for the increased representation and attention given to youth actors, who make up the majority of African populations. The Sudanese group was one of the only youth organisations to be allocated its own side event in the UN headquarters, but few people came, she said.

“Our side event was not fully attended and that made another question… is youth advocacy in water still in its beginnings, and yet seniors do not consider youth experience on the ground as a priority to pay attention for?”

Private sector taking action

In the world’s financial ecosystem, the conference also highlighted how the private sector is changing how they use and conserve water resources. The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) verifies companies globally that comply with standards for ‘water stewardship’: defined as the use of water that is socially and culturally equitable, environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial. 

In 2020, just 58 percent of companies globally participated in Integrated Water Resources Management, according to the Global Water Partnership.  But more are getting on board: At the conference, global corporate leaders including Apple, Diageo and H&M presented their AWS-certified strategies to produce their products with less water, while taking action to conserve local watersheds and support communities. 

Apple’s ambitious ‘Water Roadmap’ strategy, for example, includes minimizing the use of water in the design of its products while increasing efficiency at its sites; supporting local watershed conservation; improving water availability, quality and access for local communities; and supporting leadership and advocacy in water management.

For multinational alcohol company Diageo, its current ‘water stewardship’ priority companies in Africa include Uganda Breweries in Port Bell, Uganda, Serengeti Breweries Limited in Moshi, Tanzania, and East African Breweries in the Upper Tana basin in Kenya. 

A “great advance” during the conference was the private sector’s commitment to taking into account the rights of indigenous people, preservation and the sustainable use of water in their business decisions, said conference attendee Kouassi Sébastino da Costa, the scientific committee president at the National Association of Seed Companies of Côte d’Ivoire.

However, he said financing especially for water use, preservation and biodiversity conservation remained limited in Cote d’Ivoire and across the continent.

“Now all these water basins are hit by mining exploitation, pollution, industries which are a threat for water resources, and also for the aquatic resources which are the main source for food for different communities, fish, aquaculture and so on. So I think the UN should have an attachment to Africa for increasing programs, maybe several regional and at the level of country programs, for preservation of all the water resources and resources connected to water,” the farmers’ leader said.

According to Marjeta Jager, a Deputy Director General at the European Commission, investing in water and WASH is a “long-term investment” that will move the world far along its path toward sustainability. “The train is unstoppable now,” she said.

“We all owe Mother Earth and water is a source of life. This will not be a reversible process,” said Jager, who works in the Directorate-General for International Partnerships. “I’ve been talking to the World Bank today, and they said you’re doing something that we tried and we failed. This time, we are not going to fail.”

This story was produced by InfoNile

Water Journalists Africa (WJA) is the largest network of journalists reporting on water in the African continent. It brings together some 700 journalists from 50 African countries. It was established in...

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