The UN’s 2023 Water Conference — the first freshwater conference held by the international organization in nearly 50 years — concluded on March 24, 2023 with hundreds of water action commitments from governments, businesses, NGOs and others. These pledges, while voluntary, form an international Water Action Agenda designed to address the many water challenges the world currently faces — from floods and droughts to lack of clean drinking water and sanitation.

WRI analyzed the 719 water commitments the UN had received as of March 28, 2023 (the UN will continue to register additional commitments). We found that while more than one-quarter of the commitments are potential game-changers, the rest may not be strong enough to create substantial change in the world.

While hundreds of commitments deserve praise for their scope, rigor and ambition, many lack the proper finance, quantifiable targets and cross-border action needed to truly overcome water challenges. Still others failed to consider climate change or address industry and agriculture, some of the biggest water consumers.

Countries, multilateral organizations and others should look to the game-changing commitments submitted so far and step up with similarly ambitious pledges. Without bolder water management plans, the Water Action Agenda will fall short in its goal of “giving the world’s lifeblood the commitment it deserves.” 

Indigenous women carry water in southern Ethiopia
Young women from the Borana tribe in southern Ethiopia carry jugs of water back to their village. Parts of Ethiopia are experiencing drought, creating food shortages. Photo by hadynyah/iStock

This Is the Moment to Tackle Global Water Challenges

While water is one of the most vital resources — essential for energy, food, security and human survival — water systems around the world are under stress.

The World Health Organization estimates that as of 2021, 2.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, while 4.2 billion don’t have adequate sanitation. One-quarter of the world’s population lives in countries facing extremely high water stress, where demand regularly outpaces available supply. Floods and droughts are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change, exacerbating existing water risks.

Water also acts as a threat multiplier, precipitating or escalating political conflicts. For example, lack of access to water has exacerbated political tensions in many countries throughout the world, including MaliSudanKenyaIraq and Iran.

What Does Ambitious Water Action Look Like?

Overcoming these complex, interconnected challenges won’t be easy. It’ll take bold commitments with innovative solutions, clear and measurable targets (and accountability for reaching them!), dedicated finance, and collaboration across national borders.

Most pledges submitted to the UN’s Water Action Agenda aren’t game-changers. But the ones that are offer major inspiration.

One standout is a joint commitment from the Niger River Basin Authority and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV).

The commitment includes strong financial backing and an ambitious timeline — $21.2 million through 2029 — to strengthen climate change adaptation and mitigation throughout all nine countries the Niger River runs through. The plan involves climate-smart agriculture, wetland restoration and other nature-based solutions to overcome the region’s increasingly erratic rainfall and desertification.

Transboundary commitments for water management are rare due to conflicting geopolitical, economic and social values of countries across affected watersheds. But they’re essential: Water is inherently a cross-boundary, cross-sectoral issue given its many users. Including all nine countries in the Niger River Basin offers an opportunity for progress, as well as critical knowledge- and data-sharing.

On the private sector side, CDP has included 1,800 companies in one of its Water Action Agenda commitments. These companies pledged to invest in 2,719 water-smart products and services by 2028, commercial opportunities worth at least $436 billion. This commitment is a game-changer because it leverages societal demands for corporate social responsibility and investor demands for corporate disclosure of water and climate risks and risk mitigation.

WRI’s Corporate Water Stewardship and Natural Infrastructure initiatives are working with dozens of these companies in setting voluntary plans related to water quantity and quality, implementing innovative nature-based solutions and prioritizing watershed health.

Two men travel by donkey cart on a flooded street in Karachi, Pakistan
A man drives a donkey cart through the flooded streets of Karachi. Pakistan experienced devastating floods in 2022. In some areas of the country, flood waters still hadn’t receded at the start of 2023. Photo by Tea Talk/Shutterstock  

How to Improve Commitments to the UN’s Water Action Agenda?

Small-scale, siloed, underfunded projects — even hundreds of them — are not enough to deliver changes the world’s water systems need.

We identified several ways existing pledges need to be improved, including:

Dedicated Finance

Only 28% of commitments identified a clear source of funding. Commitments are meaningless without the money to put them into action.

Luckily, solving water challenges is not as expensive as you might think, and water investments can yield significant economic benefits. A WRI report estimates that securing water for all communities by 2030 could cost just over 1% of global GDP — about 29 cents per person, per day from 2015-2030. Every dollar invested in water access and sanitation yields $6.80 in return, while failing to implement better water management policies could lead to regional GDP losses of 2-10% by 2050.

Quantified Targets

Only 22% of the 719 water action commitments submitted as of March 28, 2023 included quantitative targets for outcomes. This makes it difficult to evaluate projects’ success, both for those implementing them and those evaluating from the outside.

Commitments should include quantitative targets such as: additional quantities of water made available, improved water quality, increased amount of protected/restored landscapes, or increased percentage of the population with access to water, sanitation and hygiene services. It is important to have clear metrics of success, as well as ways to monitor progress and adjust strategies as needed. Targets should align with what the best available science says is necessary for achieving sustainable freshwater systems and curbing climate change.

The Science-Based Target Network’s emerging corporate freshwater science-based targets, part of the network’s first science-based targets for nature, will allow companies to prioritize watersheds and set measurable, actionable, time-bound and quantitative targets for water. 

A Bigger Emphasis on Climate Change

From deadly floods in Pakistan to drought-fueled food shortages in the Horn of Africa, it’s clear that water is one of the most acute ways people experience the impacts of climate change. Yet as of March 28th, only 23% of commitments address climate change.

Governments and others have treated water and climate change as siloed issues for too long. It’s time decision-makers realize that reducing emissions and undertaking adaptation projects is water management. Likewise, fixing leaky pipes, restoring mangroves and expanding access to sanitation and other water services is building climate resilience. These two agendas need to come together to create a water- and climate-resilient future.

Irrigating a field
Irrigating a crop field. Agriculture uses 70% of the world's freshwater withdrawals, yet most commitments submitted to the UN's Water Action Agenda do not target the sector. Photo by Alex Traveler/Shutterstock

Cooperation Across Borders and Sectors

Only 12% of commitments (as of March 28th) include cooperation, either across national borders or economic sectors.

That’s a problem, since water is inherently a cross-boundary, cross-sectoral issue. Transboundary waters comprise 60% of the world’s freshwater flows. When an upstream country uses water to irrigate crops, for example, that water is no longer available to downstream countries. It is therefore important that countries agree in advance on the quantity and timing of flows, what happens during low rainfall years, and myriad other decisions affecting the transboundary water supply.  

The EU’s Water Framework Directive, which aims to improve water resources management across the entire region, is a great example of collaborative water management. The directive requires EU member states to work together on river basin management planning and implementation, involving local communities, businesses, conservation organizations, wastewater treatment facilities and other various water stakeholders. According to the European Commission, the number of hazardous substances found in surface water decreased by 40% from 2007 to 2018 and the number of wastewater treatment plants complying with EU standards increased from 70% in 2007 to 98% in 2017.

More Commitments from Governments and Multilateral Institutions

About 43% of Water Action Agenda commitments came from NGOs. As of March 28th , only 26% of commitments are from governments and 11% are from multilateral institutions like the UN and development banks.

This level of effort from national governments and multilateral organizations is insufficient for addressing the world’s water challenges.

Governments control so much of how water is managed and allocated through their water policies and regulations. They also have access to sizable funds, either of their own or through international grant or lending programs.

Multilateral organizations also have the power to shape policies and control large pools of money that can be dedicated to improve the provision of water services and water resource management.

Plans Targeting Agricultural and Industrial Water Users

Only 13% of plans target agriculture, and 5% target industry. This is a major oversight, since these two sectors are some of the biggest water consumers.

Agriculture is responsible for 70% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals. Industry — which relies heavily on water for cooling, washing, manufacturing and other processes — and energy consume 19% of freshwater withdrawals globally. The world can’t transform its water systems without focusing on its biggest water users.

Seizing the Moment for a Water-secure Future

With water, we know the problems and we know the solutions. What’s missing is sufficient financing and the political will to take action.

The UN’s Water Action Agenda offers an opportunity to build collective momentum and finally tackle the pollution, scarcity, flooding and other water challenges facing humanity. But its potential is only as strong as its commitments. Governments, businesses, organizations and others who haven’t yet submitted pledges should do so; those who have should ensure their plans contain the right components to create meaningful change.

These commitments are just the beginning. Longer-term, we need for water what we have for climate.

While the world is a far cry from overcoming the climate change challenge, what it does have is a global target and committed actions. The international Paris Agreement for climate change, a treaty adopted by nearly all countries, sets a global goal to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F), underpinned by national climate action plans. We need a Paris Agreement-like treaty for water to address water resource management, sanitation, adaptation and mitigation, and transboundary cooperation globally and regionally. And this international agreement should be supported by rigorous national and regional water management plans to put it into action.

We simply can’t continue to let water solutions slip through the cracks.