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Who solves super wicked water problems?

The recent UN water conference convened almost 10,000 people focused on addressing critical scarcity, quality and inequity issues, but whether they can turn intentional into action remains an open question.

UN Water Conference 2023

LI Lifeng, director of the UN FAO Land and Water Division, at the UN 2023 Water Conference in the General Assembly Hall. Copyright by FAO/Andrea Renault


The last United Nations water conference took place March 14, 1977, in Mar Del Plata, Argentina. After 46 years, it was time to reconvene.

Those of us who attended the UN 2023 Water Conference last month in New York continue to reflect on the value of the event and its outcomes. We question if this was a milestone in increasing attention to our most valuable resource or one more convening where we all walk away with good intentions but wind up catalyzing less action than we had pledged.

It will take time to measure the impact of the event — which gathered about 10,000 people — when it comes to addressing critical economic, business, ecosystem and social impacts of water scarcity, poor water quality and inequity in access to safe drinking water. Overall, however, I am hopeful that this event will provide momentum in addressing these wicked water problems during the coming year.

Here are some of my reflections:

  • UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted key game changers: From "reinforcing water’s place as a fundamental human right and reducing the pressures on the hydrological system, to developing new, alternative food systems to reduce the unsustainable use of water in food production and agriculture, and designing and implementing a new global water information system to guide plans and priorities by 2030."
  • The Secretary-General also advocated for "integrating the approach on water, ecosystems and climate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen communities — from resilient infrastructure, water pipelines and wastewater treatment plans, to ensuring every person in the world is protected with early warning systems against natural disasters by 2027; and continued to press for climate justice and global action to limit global warming to a 1.5-degree [Celsius] rise."
  • Lastly, he called for a dramatic acceleration in resources and investment into the ability of all countries to reach Sustainable Development Goal 6, which is about clean water and sanitation for all.

During the week, I focused on events that aligned with the Secretary-General’s call for a “dramatic acceleration in resources and investment” to achieve SDG 6. For me, this translated into participation with the private sector-led events: sessions by Xylem, WWF, AB InBev and the CEO Water Mandate. These private sector companies are working on addressing water-related challenges as water risks impact business continuity and growth; they are also exploring potential opportunities for innovative technology solutions. The CEO Water Mandate is a special initiative established in 2007 by the UN Secretary-General and the UN Global Compact in partnership with the Pacific Institute to advance corporate water stewardship.

My key takeaways after participating in the above-referenced events can be distilled into three themes.

  • Inclusion matters: This was the most diverse group of stakeholders I have encountered at an event of this nature who are involved in the world of water. (Note that I didn’t reference the "water sector," which is too narrow a stakeholder group and poorly defined.) For me, this diversity of stakeholders was the most valuable aspect of the week. The challenges we face regarding water require all stakeholders to contribute to solving these challenges or at the very least taming these challenges.

    Why is this interesting? Solving wicked problems requires engagement and commitment from as diverse as possible stakeholder groups. The UN got very close to engaging with the most complete range of stakeholders who made commitments to solving water challenges. The only stakeholder groups that were underrepresented, based upon feedback from several of my colleagues, were local public sector officials (mayors, state officials, etc.). This is a lesson for other conveners looking to solve water problems.
  • Innovation abounds: Innovation was a cross-cutting theme of the week with sessions led by the private sector, NGOs and water technology startups. I facilitated several innovation-focused events and presented on the topic of innovation in partnerships. It was an opportunity to introduce the framework of "catalytic communities,” groups of diverse stakeholders that have a bias for action. Xylem led sessions on private sector investment in water technologies; WWF and AB InBev discussed scaling collective action initiatives; and the work of Fido Tech, Microsoft, Thames Water and FEMSA in building healthy watersheds in Latin America was also showcased. This theme of innovation will be echoed later this year at the 2023 Stockholm World Water Week. 

    Why is this interesting? While technology innovation is important, I believe we must focus on the redesign of collaborative platforms because collective action has not struggled to deliver water solutions at speed and scale. The WWF/AB InBev sessions were a call to action to "do better" with regards to collective action and consider how often disconnected initiatives can align and coalesce for greater impact. The Fido Tech, Microsoft and Thames Water project was a breakthrough partnership that combines the unique capabilities of a technology company (Microsoft), AI startup (Fido) and water utility (Thames) to solve the problem of water utility pipe leakage within a watershed.
  • Investment is increasing: A conversation about the increased engagement by the private sector with water tech venture funds such as Pureterra Ventures and Water Foundry Ventures (disclosure: This is my company) was facilitated by the CEO of Water Mandate Water Resilience Coalition. The objective of the session was to provide insights into how the private sector might invest in innovative technologies via venture funds to address water scarcity, poor water quality and inequity in access to safe drinking water.

    Why is this interesting? The CEO Water Mandate has historically approached water stewardship strategies by working with NGOs and the private sector. This changed with a recent initiative highlighted during UN Water Week designed to facilitate private sector investment in technology companies and infrastructure. Increased investment either in investment funds or directly into infrastructure is needed if we want to achieve corporate water stewardship goals and SDG 6.

The question now is what next? Does this event finally catalyze commitment to solving global water problems and get us closer to achieving SDG 6? We are not on target to meet this goal by 2030.

I don’t know if the 2023 UN water conference will be remembered as a unique opportunity to get together to discuss water challenges and solutions or if it marks the time we finally decided to elevate water to the same level of attention as climate change.

Time will tell.

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