The Role of UN-Water as an Inter-Agency Coordination Mechanism for Water and Sanitation

Today, 2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed water services, and 4.5 billion live without safely managed sanitation services. This crisis costs the lives of around 340,000 children every year, with other impacts deeply affecting entire societies and economies. By 2050, the world’s population will have grown by around 2 billion people and demand for water will increase up to 30 per cent. Water is finite, so we must ask: how are we going to balance all of the competing demands on water resources while meeting our obligations to fulfil every person’s human right to water and sanitation?

At UN-Water, answering that question is the central challenge of every working day.

 The United Nations has always recognized that because of water’s intrinsic value to so many sectors, collaboration is essential to avoid fragmentation of efforts. Although the United Nations system does not have a single entity dedicated exclusively to water issues, water and sanitation are important to all of the main focus areas of the Organization, reflecting their critical role in everything from health and nutrition, to gender equity and economics. Efforts to coordinate the work of the United Nations on water issues began in 1977 with the Intersecretariat Group for Water Resources, later subsumed under the Subcommittee on Water Resources of the United Nations Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC).

This year, UN-Water celebrates 15 years of formal existence. With 31 United Nations entity members and 39 external partner organizations, UN-Water strives to ensure that the United Nations family delivers as one in response to the water-related challenges.

There are three main thrusts to our work: informing policies, monitoring and reporting, and inspiring action.

 1. Informing policies

Ensuring that everyone has access to sustainably managed water and sanitation services poses complex challenges that can only be met by partnerships and collaboration. Our Members (United Nations entities) and Partners (external organizations) work together to identify emerging issues and develop effective, coordinated responses.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), have taken account of the interlinkages between water and sanitation and all other development sectors. The result is that water and sanitation not only have a dedicated goal (SDG 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all), but they are woven throughout the SDGs in order to build a truly integrated and mutually reinforcing approach to sustainable development.

UN-Water contributes to the SDG review processes, including the high-level political forum on sustainable development, and our Members and Partners provide input into other key reports. It also works to increase recognition of the direct impact of climate change on water resources, and some of our Members and Partners have offered innovative solutions. Central to this work is our regular engagement with the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, exploring the links between climate change and adaptation and mitigation through water resource management.

UN-Water has also advocated for the inclusion of water issues in other recent landmark agreements, such as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, and the 2015 Addis Ababa Action Agenda of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development. These efforts have helped ensure that water and sanitation are an integral part of all major international development efforts.

2. Monitoring and reporting

Using data and evidence to inform decision-making can ensure that investments are effective and well-targeted, and also help raise awareness of the issues. We do this by providing coherent and reliable data and information on key water trends and management issues.

In recent years, several initiatives both inside and outside the United Nations system have been collecting information on the various components of the water cycle. To meet the needs of the 2030 Agenda, UN-Water has launched the Integrated Monitoring Initiative for SDG 6, which brings together all the custodian agencies of the SDG 6 global indicators and includes the work of the World Health Organization (WHO)/United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (JMP), UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS) and the inter-agency Global Environmental Management Initiative (GEMI).

In November 2017, at a workshop on integrated monitoring organized by UN-Water and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management of the Netherlands, 120 participants from 75 countries came together to review results from 2016-2017 baseline data collection efforts and to share their experiences. Activities like this prepare the way for greater collaboration to improve future monitoring.

At the time of writing, UN-Water is working on the production of the SDG 6 Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation, and has just launched an Advance Briefing to present the early findings that are emerging. The full report will articulate a common position from the United Nations family, building on the baseline data, and will be published in June 2018, ahead of the high-level political forum on sustainable development.

3. Inspiring action

Every year, UN-Water coordinates the international observances of World Water Day and World Toilet Day to raise awareness of key issues and inspire action to tackle the related crises facing billions of people.

Every year, we release the World Water Development Report (WWDR) in March. By speaking with one voice on a water challenge of strategic global importance, WWDR provides reliable information to help improve the way we use water to pursue sustainable development objectives. The WWDR theme is carried through into the public campaigns for both World Water Day and World Toilet Day.

For example, in 2016 the theme was water and jobs. WWDR started a global conversation about the fact that three out of four jobs globally are water-dependent. This dialogue continued through World Water Day and World Toilet Day with events, virtual meetings and social media engagement all drawing on the WWDR findings. The Wash4Work initiative was launched on World Water Day 2016 to mobilize business to improve access to water, sanitation and hygiene in the workplace, in the communities where workers live and across supply chains.

Last year the WWDR theme was wastewater, and in 2018 we will be focusing on nature-based solutions. Responses from audiences, ranging from schoolteachers to Facebook users, to NGO staff and policymakers, have shown that the campaigns help to engage and influence the global discussion around water and sanitation and sustainable development.

The road ahead

There has been remarkable progress in sustainable management and expanding coverage to safe water and sanitation. Those achievements, combined with an increasing political priority, have created great momentum behind the drive to reach everyone by 2030.

As we all know, the challenges are immense. Health, education, food, energy, gender equality, economics, the environment—the success of all of these sectors of sustainable development is intrinsically linked to the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

As water is integral to every aspect of life, the world’s response to water-related challenges must be integrated. With SDG 6, this need is becoming ever more urgent. Countries are seeing a greater need to harmonize and align work on local, national, regional and global levels. Reducing the reporting burden on countries is therefore one of the immediate priorities of UN-Water and the Integrated Monitoring Initiative for SDG 6.

With the launch of the International Decade for Action, “Water for Sustainable Development”, 2018-2028 on World Water Day, 22 March 2018, we will continue to support thousands of organizations and individuals on the ground by providing information and engagement opportunities that enable them to take action to accelerate progress on water and sanitation. In furthering the goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and promoting global health, UN-Water is helping to build a fairer and more hopeful world.