Tomorrow marks the start of the United Nations water conference, co-hosted by the Netherlands and Tajikistan, at the UN headquarters in New York.

The three-day event is the first dedicated to water in almost 50 years.

Despite progress in providing safe water and sanitation to more people worldwide, sub-Saharan Africa still has more people without safe drinking water services than in 2000. Millions of people globally rely on contaminated water supplies or open defecation.

The conference aims to make a difference by addressing these issues. The first UN water conference took place in Argentina in 1977, but water has not been a high priority on the international sustainable-development policy agenda until recently.

The 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals set a 2030 target for providing clean water and sanitation to all, but as of 2020, 2 billion people still lacked safe drinking water in their homes, and progress is still needed to meet the deadline.

According to Henk Ovink, the special envoy for international water affairs in the Netherlands, previous UN conferences on food security and climate change did not prioritize water. Water needs to be a firm part of any future UN process, including the UN Food Systems Stocktaking Moment, the SDG Summit, and COP28.

The water crisis is most severe in low-income countries, especially sub-Saharan Africa, where around 70% of the population lacks safe drinking-water services.

Providing access to safe water for healthcare and sanitation is an urgent priority, as too many people rely on contaminated water supplies. The conference will also focus on improving communication and cooperation among countries that share water resources, which is especially important for countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that around half of the world’s population is currently at risk of severe water scarcity for some part of the year, and this number is expected to increase due to climate change-related events such as flooding, droughts, wildfires, and heavy precipitation.

The risk of extreme agricultural droughts is predicted to double in many parts of the world if global temperatures rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Although the conference will produce a water action agenda, it will involve voluntary commitments, and there is no leading UN body responsible for implementing and monitoring progress for all water-related Sustainable Development Goals. The conference will instead call for water to be prioritized in existing treaties and the UN system.

Some countries will request more funding, particularly in the form of grants, to support projects such as seawater desalination or wastewater treatment. UN secretary-general António Guterres is also expected to increase fundraising for his plan to create climate early-warning systems in all UN member states.

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