What to expect from the first world water summit in half a century?

The last time was at Mar del Plata (Argentina)in 1977… It has been forty-six years since the United Nations dedicated an international summit to fresh water, a resource that is nevertheless essential to life and far from being accessible to all.

The shot will be rectified from March 22 to 24 in New York. Sandra Métayer, coordinator of Water Coalition, federation of French NGOs, warns immediately: this conference will not result in any binding agreement for the 193 participating States. “We’re not there yet on the water,” she says. This does not detract from the fact that this summit is crucial. » 20 minutes outlines what to expect.

What water crisis are we talking about?

We open the tap, and it flows… “In many developed countries, we hardly asked ourselves any more questions about water”, points out Marie-Hélène Aubert, president of the French Water Partnership (PFE), which brings together public and private players in the sector. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how crucial this resource is and climate change how scarce it is, even in our temperate climates. And France is not immune to usage conflicts. Christophe Béchu, Minister for the Ecological Transition, is also due to present a “Water Plan” this week, while the rainfall deficit at the start of 2023 once again portends a difficult year.

A water crisis without common measure with that experienced by a large number of countries in the South for decades. Before even talking about uses, Dr Jean Lapegue, “water” referent ofAction against Hunger, recalls that “2.2 billion people – a quarter of the world’s population – do not have access to drinking water, and 3.6 billion – half – are deprived of adequate toilets”. Another striking figure: “27% of children who die before their 5th birthday die of waterborne diseases (cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, etc.).

However, access to drinking water and sanitation was recognized as a human right in 2010. “Providing it to all is the sixth of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 agenda adopted by the United Nations in 2015″, continues Jean Lapegue. We are far from it. “107 countries are not on track to achieve this goal,” says Sandra Métayer. The aggravation of the pressures on water and climate change even raise fears, in certain regions, that we are moving away from it.

Why hadn’t water had its dedicated conference for forty-six years?

That doesn’t mean that we haven’t talked about fresh water for almost half a century in international bodies. Marie-Hélène Aubert even has about fifteen UN organizations dealing with her issues. “From the World Health Organization (WHO) to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), via the united nations environment program (unep) “, she lists.

But that’s the whole problem with fresh water: it is treated by everyone, but by no body in particular. “There is no dedicated UN agency, any more than there is a binding international treaty or regular summits such as the COPs on climate change or the erosion of biodiversity”, regrets Sandra Métayer. Result: the subject is rarely up to the challenge. This is also the starting point of this upcoming conference. “Since the adoption of the 2030 agenda, countries have reviewed four to five SDGs each year to take stock,” says Sandra Métayer. The one dedicated to water dates from 2018, we only spent four hours on it. Several representatives, including the European Union, were moved by this. »

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So what to expect from this New York summit?

“The official purpose is to make a mid-term review of the implementation of the major global objectives on water”, recalls Marie-Hélène Aubert. Not just access to drinking water and sanitation. “It will also be an opportunity to come back to the management of this resource in this context of climate crisis and erosion of biodiversity”, illustrates the president of the PFE.

Be that as it may, this summit will perhaps result in new voluntary commitments by States, recorded in the Water action agenda. But nothing binding. Despite everything, these three days in New York could go down in history. In any case, Marie-Hélène Aubert and Sandra Métayer see it as a unique opportunity to reform global water governance… And thus prevent the next conference of its kind from taking place in 2069.

The hope is that this conference will at least act on the creation of a post of United Nations special envoy on water, as ithere are already some on other key issues. “He would have this essential role of ensuring that water is treated as it deserves in all UN bodies and summits”, explains Marie-Hélène Aubert. “We would also like this special envoy to have a strong political mandate to convene the States to regular intergovernmental meetings and ensure that they fulfill their commitments”, adds Sandra Métayer. “150 States support this proposal”, she specifies. Rather well, then.

What role should France play?

The Water Coalition, Action Against Hunger and Islamic relief from France list their demands in the campaign “S-Eau-S: commitments, not absent subscribers”. “The first is that Emmanuel Macron will go there, which we have no guarantee to date,” begins Laura Le Floch, from Secours Islamique de France.

In addition, France has undertaken to organize with Costa Rica, in 2025, a United Nations Ocean Conference. “It would be a very good thing for Emmanuel Macron to announce the addition of a “fresh water” segment to this event”, continues Laura Le Floch. And then there are the “One planet summit”, these environmental summits bringing together a wide range of actors – State, banks, NGOs, companies -, which France has organized regularly since 2017. The last one was held in Gabon in February, focusing on the preservation of forests. Again, Laura Le Floch would see a variation on fresh water soon.

These NGOs not only expect France to instil international momentum, but above all to set an example. “We have not yet achieved SDG 6, recalls Jean Lapegue. In mainland France, 400,000 people living in precarious housing are not connected to a drinking water or sanitation distribution network. It is even more so in Overseas”.

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