Sander Meijerink samen met Corinne Vitale
Sander Meijerink samen met Corinne Vitale

'Lively discussions - yet an awful lot needs to be done'

UN 2023 Water Conference New York

Usually, they attend scientific conferences. Yet this conference was to be a governmental one and only the second one on water organised by the United Nations (UN), following on from the influential Mar del Plata conference in 1977. Water governance scholars Sander Meijerink and Corinne Vitale attended the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York and obtained an impression of the current water policy debate.

Portret Sander Meijerink

The UN conference was focused on universal access to clean water and sanitation. How do these matters relate to your research?

Meijerink: 'My work focuses on how water management is organised in relation to water safety and fresh water availability, for example for drinking water supply and an ecologically sound environment. I’m currently working on drought adaptation. How can we capture and store water when there is an abundance and use it when there is water scarcity and drought?' Vitale: 'My research focuses on urban flood risk management. By adopting an institutional perspective, I research how spatial planning can help cities cope better with floods. The spatialisation of flood risk management is only poorly implemented in practice. For instance, urban development continues, in flood-prone areas.'

To attend the UN conference, you got Radboud University accredited within a few months. Why specifically for this gathering?

Vitale: 'The previous UN water conference was almost fifty years ago, so the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York was an important milestone. The UN Water Conference is a global forum for multilateral discussions, a key policy-oriented meeting bringing about ten thousand different actors and stakeholders together in one place. This means you have the opportunity to interact with important stakeholders and policymakers'. Meijerink: 'Also, the previous conference in 1977 turned out to be a very influential one where agreements were made on certain issues, so we felt we really needed to be present at this year’s gathering.'

Sander Meijerink samen met Corinne Vitale

What insights did you gain from the three-day conference?

Meijerink: 'There’s a lot of discussion on how to coordinate across policy sectors and levels of government when dealing with water scarcity, drought, and flooding. It was interesting to see that academic discourses on inclusiveness, justice, and fairness have influenced the water policy discourse. There was more emphasis on the need to involve minorities and vulnerable populations in decision-making on water issues. This is a positive development as the water sector is traditionally fairly closed and technocratic.' Vitale: 'One other striking observation was that the debate was primarily focused on governance. What I have learned is that water is as much a political, economic, and social issue and as such, it should be ranked high on the global political agenda. We do need to account for and empower all those actors who face the climate crisis every day, who struggle to access clean water or strive to cope with natural disasters on a daily basis.'

We should make more use of the natural characteristics of water systems such as restoring the natural water storage capacity of a river system.

Portret Corinne Vitale

From your perspective, what are the main points of attention in the current water crises?

Vitale: 'Flood management responses have traditionally been incidental rather than structural. The traditional approach to floods has been based on hard infrastructure; however, the expected increase in the frequency and severity of floods means that cities must be better prepared to deal with the consequences of floods. To start with, how do we limit developments on floodplains?' Meijerink: 'We should make more use of the natural characteristics of water systems such as restoring the natural water storage capacity of a river system. And redesign the landscape in such a way that we can retain and store water. As an example, in the Netherlands, we designed the water system to remove water as quickly as possible. Because of climate change and the increased frequency of droughts, we need to partly undo these measures.'

Will the UN Conference 2023 be as influential as the 1977 conference?

Meijerink: 'I don’t know yet. What is certain is that water will play an important role in future UN discussions, if only because it was decided to appoint a UN special envoy on water'. Vitale: 'The discussions were very lively – yet an awful lot needs to be done. Where will it lead? The UN Water Conference has given all those involved in the water issue worldwide the opportunity to initiate a conversation. The result is that more than 700 commitments by stakeholders have been made. Yet the problem is that these aren’t binding commitments. We need to make this conversation ongoing and we need to take action.'

Text: Annette Zonnenberg

Photos: Duncan de Fey