Originally written for Counterfire
The UN 2023 Water Conference that convened in New York at the end of March was a particularly disgraceful exercise in assembling ‘stakeholders’ to draft unenforceable pledges to tackle the impacts of environmental catastrophe. The bringing together of governments, business interests and ‘civil society’ in this way has become a kind of travelling road show that plays out across the world each year.
The conference organisers dutifully issued a ‘vision statement’ that declared their gathering would represent: ‘Our watershed moment: uniting the world for water.’ As is customary with these statements, the enormity of the problem being discussed was actually acknowledged.
‘Today, a quarter of the global population – 2 billion people – use unsafe drinking water sources. Half of humanity – 3.6 billion people – live without safely managed sanitation. And 1 in 3 people – 2.3 billion – lack basic hand washing facilities at home. Over 80% of waste water is released to the environment without being treated or reused. And, droughts could be the next pandemic. Almost three quarters of all recent disasters are water related, having caused economic damage of almost US$700 billion in the past 20 years.’
By any reasonable standards, the appalling situation that is described here would call for the most resolute international action, based on binding agreements reached by the most senior representatives of government. According to the UN itself, however, the gathering ‘saw the adoption of the Water Action Agenda, representing voluntary commitments of nations and stakeholders to accomplish the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their targets connected to water.’ These related to the public policies, government collaboration, investments in infrastructure and forms of innovation that might address the worsening water crisis – if they were implemented.
The UN acknowledges that: ‘Bold commitments are required to ensure the well-being and prosperity of both people and the planet, to achieve the SDGs and to meet biodiversity and climate targets.’ It also understands very well that: ‘Without enough water at the right time in the right quality, there is no sustainable development, including security, food and energy access.’ Despite this, it pretends, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that the non-binding assurances obtained at these international summits will result in meaningful action.
Acciona, ‘one of the world’s leading renewable energy firms,’ issued a statement in response to the conference that reinforced this mood of optimism. It tells us that the ‘Water Action Agenda’ that was adopted, ‘will try both to boost a set of actions with a future vision, such as the development of new, alternative, food systems to reduce the unsustainable use of water in agriculture, while launching a new global information system to guide plans and priorities to achieve the SDGs.’
The statement also points to a ‘promised’ USD 300 billion in funding to take the plan forward, which it claims has ‘the potential to unblock at least 1 trillion dollars in socioeconomic and ecosystem gains.’ With dogged enthusiasm, the company proclaims that the ‘result of this conference was not a legally-binding document, but it still turned a page in history by calling on governments and organizations across the world to move to action to protect water.’
A report in the Guardian points to some difficulties with the notion that the conference ‘turned a page in history’. It notes that the event ‘concluded with the creation of a new UN envoy for water and hundreds of non-binding pledges that if fulfilled would edge the world towards universal access to clean water and sanitation.’ When pressed as to the significance of the ‘hotchpotch of voluntary pledges’ that resulted from three days of discussions, even conference organisers conceded that ‘more was needed … such as a formal global agreement.’
The report notes that ‘with no internationally binding agreement, experts fear that pledges could slide as it will be hard to hold governments, industry and financial institutions to account.’ Indeed, even some NGOs that are generally supportive of summits of this kind were very unhappy with the Water Conference. Accordingly, ‘… more than 100 water experts from research institutions and civil society groups across five continents sent a letter to the UN secretary-general slamming the lack of “accountability, rigour and ambition” at the conference.’
The Guardian notes that: ‘Almost 7,000 people attended the conference, but the private sector and global north were far better represented than experts and water insecure communities at the frontline of the water crisis from the global south – many of whom were excluded due to visa and financial barriers.’
Nick Hepworth, executive director of Water Witness, candidly declared that the basis on which the conference was proceeding ‘simply isn’t good enough, and represents a betrayal of the world’s poor who bear the brunt of the water crisis.’ Charles Iceland, global director for water at the World Resources Institute, noted that: ‘Each voluntary commitment has a place where you talk about how much money is available, most of them left that blank.’
Summits of deception
It is important to address the shocking failings of the UN Water Conference but, as I suggested at the outset, its most fundamental deficiencies are by no means unique. Other summits that are convened around the intensifying manifestations of the climate and broader environmental crises play the same basic role as this one.
The fact that the agreements that emerge from these gatherings are not enforceable in any meaningful way is a very serious problem, but this only expresses the simple reality that they are not good-faith undertakings. The very notion that the capitalist interests who profit from environmental destruction, along with their political enablers, are ‘stakeholders’, with an interest in finding the solutions we need, is entirely false. The addition to the mix of some carefully selected voices of conscience doesn’t change this. These gatherings are called and dominated by those we need to challenge, if we are to avert disaster.
Had the UN done a better job of creating a credible conference on the global water crisis, it wouldn’t have changed its deceptive function one bit. More delegates from the worst impacted countries or a higher level of NGO participation wouldn’t have changed the fact that it was going to issue proposals that major companies will disregard and that governments won’t enforce.
If the conference had had an already established international agreement to work with, it would have made very little difference. The last gathering on the climate crisis, COP 27 in Egypt, produced similarly ‘historic’ proposals that will lie dormant. Shortly afterwards, COP 15 assembled in Montreal to address the critical loss of biodiversity that our planet is facing. It offered poignant comments and empty promises, but very little of value. Indeed, the corporate representatives on hand worked to ensure that the ‘solutions’ that were considered had much more to do with advancing their profit making than protecting life across the globe.
If we are to ensure that the right to clean water and sanitation becomes a reality and, if we are to prevent environmental catastrophe, we can’t possibly believe that this can be attained through a collaborative relationship with the architects of these massive problems. Mass social action directed at these destructive agents will be needed, if we are to make real gains. In this spirit, gatherings like the UN Water Conference must be treated as the summits of deception that they really are.