When are we going to decide to move full speed ahead?

Published on Monday 21 March 2022

By Gérard Payen, Vice President of the French Water Partnership and former Water Advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations (UNSGAB)

In September 2019, UN member states aiming to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 decided to speed up their efforts and dubbed 2020-2030 “the decade of action and results”.   Their resolve to pick up the pace did not concern water-related actions. On the contrary, citing relatively optimistic reports from UN agencies, states even patted themselves on the back for their progress in the area of drinking water.

Since then, however, UN-Water has made great strides in statistical reporting. Sector knowledge has improved, with reports—notably those from mid-2021—providing quantitative estimates on nearly all 10 SDG water indicators. This new data highlights more clearly than ever the vast extent of needs and the slow pace of progress. The days of downplaying and denial are over.

UN agencies have finally reacted. At a High-level Meeting in New York on 18 March 2021, they publicly hammered home the message that states need to “quadruple the current rate of progress” on water issues. “Quadrupling” these efforts is no small feat. We’re not talking a 5-10% change. We’re talking a drastic acceleration on a scale rarely seen in government actions. For this to happen, states will have to rethink existing public policies, draw up action plans with clear objectives and intermediate steps and, of course, deploy targeted resources on a much larger scale.

Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, since the SDGs were adopted in 2015, public policies governing water resources, access to water and sanitation, and water pollution management have seen only marginal changes. No one seems to be stepping it up. Global statistics point to slow and quite relative progress.

In 2020, the number of people with no access to safe water stood at 2.0 billion, a decrease of less than 0.2 billion over 5 years. If things continue at this rate for the next nine years, 1.4 billion human beings will still be without safe drinking water in 2030, the target date for “universal” access, meaning access for all to truly safe drinking water. Worse still, access to safe drinking water is declining in some parts of the world, including urban areas and sub-Saharan Africa.

Moreover, not a single country seems to be doing its part towards the collective goal of cutting pollution flows from urban wastewater by half between 2015 and 2030.

So, who’s going to step it up and when?

Water-related actions are, of course, implemented at the local level and thus often fall to local authorities. But in our interconnected world, these local actions must fit into a broader vision that transcends even national borders. Because global interdependencies are everywhere: from catchment areas to commercial imports, many countries profit from the water available in other countries. Accordingly, states have a key role to play, both within and across their borders.  At the international level they occasionally convene to discuss one specific aspect of water, but these meetings very rarely cover the full scope of water-related issues. As a result, for one thing, states have not yet found time for a serious discussion of progress towards the 20 water-related SDG targets.

However, as I wrote in last year’s Barometer, an exceptional sequence of diplomatic events that began in late 2019 is leading up to the landmark UN Water Conference to be held in March 2023. States have already convened twice—in New York City in March 2021 and in Bonn, Germany, in July 2021. Next, they will meet in Dakar for the 9th World Water Forum and then at least another 3 times prior to March 2023. When are they going to decide to move full speed ahead? Clearly not during these intermediate stages which don’t allow for decision-making. In March 2023, they will be at the UN conference—an event that does allow for decision-making. Will they seize this rare opportunity to move into action and hit the many accelerators within their reach? For that to happen, all water stakeholders and governments taking part in the Dakar Forum need to wake up to the need for drastic acceleration and specifically request that actions to “quadruple” progress be decided at the March 2023 UN Conference.


© Vincent Tremeau