The United Nations had its first freshwater meeting in over 50 years during the World Water Conference, which took place from March 22–24, 2023. It took place against a backdrop of grave environmental problems, including drought, flooding, the severity of climate change, and an impending food crisis. A midterm review of the Water Action Decade 2018–2028, which aims to advance the water agenda by reviving ongoing programmes and projects and inspiring water action to realise the goals of the 2030 Agenda, particularly Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6), which calls for the sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, was also held at the conference.
The international Water Action Agenda, to which over 670 promises to address concerns with water security were made by governments, multilateral organisations, companies, and non-governmental organisations, was the conference’s main output. 75 international organisations and nearly 164 states have pledged support. The Water Action Agenda contains optional pledges, which are not legally enforceable. Nonetheless, the voluntary commitments are anticipated to spur the collective political will required to address the numerous water-related issues.
To determine if the conference’s promises would result in universal, safe, affordable, and equitable access to water that is consistent with SDG 6, they must be carefully examined. It will cost $114 billion annually in capital to reach this goal by 2030, as per the SDG. The World Bank predicts that by 2030, the annual cost of ongoing operations and maintenance for basic water and sanitation services (WASH) would increase from around $4 billion to over $30 billion, greatly exceeding the construction expenses for these services. The World Resources Institute (WRI) believes that although the state pledges showed rigour, scope, and ambition, they lacked enough funding and quantifiable goals.Water must be valued in order to justify investments of this magnitude, which calls for accurate water measurement and accounting. Our understanding of the quantity, flux, and quality of water in lakes, rivers, soils, and aquifers is seriously limited. The data on water use is quite incomplete. India to Ireland have all expressed opposition to water metering due to worries about fair access and affordable water services.
New water infrastructure is prioritised above water maintenance services in order to get funding from regional, national, and international sources (World Bank study). Customers that use water have reduced service as a result. According to World Bank projections, the annual cost of recurrent operations and maintenance services (WASH) would increase from roughly $4 billion to over $30 billion by 2030, greatly exceeding the capital expenses for the most fundamental WASH services. As financing for water is not seen as being as urgent as it is for climate change, it does not meet the criteria to be a global public benefit.Through its grants and low-interest loans, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) is the only international financial instrument to have been able to cover more than 300 watersheds and many more aquifers that straddle the political boundaries of two or more nations.
At the meeting, India pledged to invest $240 billion in the water industry and work to raise groundwater levels. A 2021 CAG study claims that groundwater pumping in India went from 58% to 63% during 200417. This has been further worsened by climate change leading in inconsistent rainfall, which further impairs the recharging potential.
State groundwater boards are given authority to make legislation, manage water allocation, and handle other pertinent matters under the 2017 Groundwater Law revision. The State boards have a shortage of staff, knowledge, and resources when it comes to prioritising social and political disputes involving groundwater resources.
According to international law, governments have the power to voluntarily agree to take action on matters of interest to the entire world. Since they are not created in accordance with a consensus agreement to which the parties have agreed, these promises differ from those made in other legal forms. They often operate independently from other parties’ obligations. Even in the lack of a legally non-binding document, nations have made voluntary promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take actions to promote sustainability as part of efforts to combat climate change and promote environmental sustainability.This is supported by the promises made by governments during the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December 2009. But, in the case of climate change, these voluntarily made pledges are part of a larger framework of legally enforceable accords, including the Paris Agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The UN Water Convention of 1997 and the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Water Convention of 1992, the two legally binding legal documents on the control of transboundary river water courses, are not relevant to the 2023 Water Conference, which takes place within the context of SDG 6. The Water Conference and the two conventions share a shared goal, which is expressed in SDG 6’s objective 6.5, which is the “implementation of integrated water resources management (IWRM) at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as necessary.”
Voluntary agreements are a key component of the environmental legal landscape, but they bring up challenging questions of responsibility. Monitoring the adherence to each promise presents difficulties due to the varying formats and contents of the commitments made by the governments. In the face of inactivity, voluntary pledges could well be a vital first step.