The Commission at UN 2023 Water Conference

Denise Young
Johannes Mengel

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“Ovid said that everything changes, nothing perishes,” said the UN President of the General Assembly Csaba Kőrösi, adding that “he could not have found better words to remind us that the global water cycle is a common good.”

The Global Commission on the Economics of Water just concluded an intense week of events and engagement at the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York. Its participation in the event contributed to the emergence of a new global narrative on water and strengthened political momentum, raising hopes with many delegates attending this once-in-a-generation conference that the moment for significant global progress on safeguarding the water cycle has come.

The Commission engaged across multiple fronts at and beyond the UN, via formal and informal sessions, events, interactive dialogues and press and broadcast engagements. Its key messages resonated across the three-day event, including in the closing plenary, where the President of the UN General Assembly reiterated the need to value water as a global common good.

The Commission’s presence kicked off on the first day of the conference with a standing room only launch event for its report “Turning the Tide”, in which the four co-chairs presented key messages of the report and took questions from participants, followed by a press conference.

On the following day, the Commission held a Special Event co-convened with stakeholder groups to invite feedback from a range of different stakeholders on the main recommendations of its 7-point call to action in “Turning the Tide”. Prior to the event, the Commission presented its work on a live TV talk show broadcast on UN TV that showcased a rich dialogue between representatives of the Commission and stakeholders representing Indigenous communities, Labour, Trade, Food & Agriculture.

The conference closed on Friday March 24 with delegates in high spirits and hopeful that a new momentum for action to safeguard the water cycle had been catalyzed. Across member states, broad agreement emerged to appoint a UN Special Envoy for Water, and a top takeaway message, as articulated by Csaba Kőrösi, President of the UN General Assembly, emphasized that the global water cycle is a common good that transcends cultures, borders and jurisdictions.

On Friday, Commission Co-Chair Tharman Shanmugartnam co-chaired the interactive dialogue on the Water Action Decade. He stressed that the starting point was bringing science and the knowledge of indigenous communities into the economics and governance of water.

Looking ahead, he emphasized the importance of an action plan, and endorsed the call for a UN Special Envoy on Water; a task force of willing member states, UN agencies and programmes and financial institutions, guided by the UN Water Envoy and supported by an independent scientific body with balanced representation from science and society. Another point of emerging consensus was the establishment of a data collection mechanism and the convening of regular global meetings on water.

For next steps, the commission will continue to work on analytics as well as stakeholder engagement via a series of societal dialogues. This dual track of work will be developed in the context of ongoing engagement with major milestones in the sustainability agenda, including the SDGs Summit (Sept 2023), COP28 (Dec 2023) in the United Arab Emirates, the Summit of the Future (Sept 2024) and the World Social Summit. 

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