Once in a generation gathering mobilizes water action, highlighting need for stronger accountability system for business

Published: 29 Mar 2023
Author: Una Harcinovic, Manager Water, WBCSD
Type: Insight

For the first time in nearly 50 years, the United Nations convened a conference dedicated to water that attracted thousands of attendees. While the UN Water Conference was not intended to have a negotiated outcome, representatives from member states, civil society, business and NGOs made over 700 voluntary commitments to the Water Action Agenda aiming to accelerate progress toward Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 and other water-related SDGs. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ opening statement reflected the urgency of the water crisis: “Water is in deep trouble; we are draining humanities lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use. And evaporating it through global heating, we have broken the water cycle…”. He continued by emphasizing the importance of governance and finance, two themes that were picked up by the Global Commission on the Economics of Water, in their pre-conference publication Turning the Tide: A Call to Collective Action, which puts forward a seven-point call to collective action, including the need to manage the water cycle as a common good, stop underpricing water and phasing out US$ 700 billion of subsidies in agriculture and water each year. 

Only 12 heads of state were present at the conference, which together with a lack of any binding conference outcomes demonstrates that there is still some way to go for water to be prioritized on the political agenda. However, business was well represented with numerous sessions addressing private sector collective action on the Water Action Agenda. A Joint Statement from the International Water Stewardship was put forward to demonstrate alignment amongst a number of organizations (including WBCSD) that support corporate water stewardship activities.  

WBCSD focused its contributions on accelerating corporate accountability, ambition and action for water and provided opportunities for member companies to showcase their commitments and actions. 

Corporate accountability for freshwater 

While government action to enact the policies necessary to drive progressive business action is often slow, companies must set ambitious water targets, demonstrating progress and disclosing water-related risks and opportunities in a robust and transparent way.  

To guide companies in navigating this emerging accountability system, WBCSD launched the Freshwater Accountability Accelerator ahead of the Conference, set up to guide companies through this emerging accountability system for water.  

During a side event convened by WBCSD, the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA) shared water insights from their recent Nature Benchmark, which assessed the performance of over 400 companies. The analysis revealed that a mere 13% of companies have set time-bound targets to reduce water withdrawal in their operations and reported against them, only 16% have disclosed their dependency on water-stressed areas, and less than 5% have disclosed the proportion of withdrawals made from these water-stressed areas.  

This highlights the importance of tools such as the Freshwater Accountability Accelerator, which can help companies take action. With the release later this year of the first Science Based Targets (SBT) for nature methods and the Taskforce for Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) recommendations, both of which include water in their scope, an accountability system for water is starting to emerge. 

Greater ambition for water quality  

Water quality issues often receive less attention than water quantity in public policy and corporate action. For this reason, in 2020, WBCSD launched a new initiative called “Wastewater Zero: A call to action for business to raise ambition for SDG 6.3”.  This initiative highlighted the impact of untreated wastewater on biodiversity (being a key driver for biodiversity loss), climate (7-10% of human induced methane emissions come from untreated wastewater) and water security (insufficient reuse and recycling of wastewater).  

At the Conference in New York, WBCSD launched two new tools to support business action on water: the Wastewater Impact Guidance and the Wastewater Impact Assessment Tool. Together, these tools will help businesses assess and identify high-impact locations for action and prepare them for the water quality methods of the forthcoming SBTs for nature.  

Public-Private partnerships driving local action 

In contrast to the low number of heads of state present, Mayors and local leaders were present at the Conference in high numbers, signaling the urgency for action at a local level. The 50L Home Coalition announced a new phase for initiatives to accelerate water innovation in cities. This included funding a pilot program in Los Angeles, California to demonstrate water and energy innovations in homes, and collaboration in tactical pilots to drive water conservation and policy updates in Phoenix, Arizona. Coalition co-chair Kate Gallego, the Mayor of Phoenix, Arizona said: “We are proud to collaborate with 50L Home Coalition members to advance the innovations needed to prepare for our future, and to partner with other cities to quickly scale emerging solutions.” 

In his closing remarks, Csaba Kőrösi, the President of the General Assembly, reaffirmed the nine outcomes of the conference. These include the need to integrate water and climate policy at national and global levels by 2030 and the development of a Global Water Information System to support water, climate and land management. Following calls for action from the Secretary-General, the UN also committed to create the institutional architecture for the support of the required transformation, under the SG, which will be managed by a UN envoy for water and supported by an independent scientific and practice panel. 

Progress and next steps 

In 2022, a significant development occurred as inland waters were included in the final text of the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), and water was included in the UNFCCC CoP cover decision for the first time.  

The progress achieved so far is set to continue through this year, with events such as the UN High-level Political Forum in July and the SDG Summit in September driving momentum and action.  

Looking ahead, the next UN Summit on water is scheduled for 2025 and will evaluate the implementation of the Conference and Water Action Agenda outcomes. We are undoubtedly seeing some progress in water moving up the political agenda, albeit slow and patchy. Against this backdrop, we need to ensure that business actions are driven by science-based targets and progress is reported in a consistent and transparent way to give confidence to governments, civil society and investors that business is making a clear contribution to sustainable water management.  

Throughout this year, WBCSD will continue to develop the Freshwater Accountability Accelerator, ensuring alignment with emerging frameworks such as SBTs for nature and TNFD. Additionally, the Wastewater Zero initiative will aim to address important water quality components that are currently not included in the scope of the SBTs for nature freshwater methods.  

To find out more and engage in these initiatives, please reach out to Una Harcinovic at harcinovic@wbcsd.org  

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