The UN 2023 Water Conference – Committing to Groundwater

WCI Director Karen Villholth giving the opening keynote at the UN high-level side event on “Groundwater: An Invisible Cross-Sectoral Fundament for Implementation of the Water Action Agenda”, organized by Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, UNESCO, UN-WATER, and may others (Photo credit: Renée Martin-Nagle).

The UN 2023 Water Conference, acclaimed as the watershed moment for raising global attention to the critical and ongoing global water crisis since the first of its kind in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 1977, was successful in raising the attention to groundwater at the highest international and political level. Several high-level side events with support of a multitude of governments emphasized the need to specifically focus on groundwater as part of solving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – in particular SDG 6 on Water, but also the broader range of SDGs, as an underpinning resource for both environment, people and a stable climate.

WCI participated in several events playing a reporting and supporting role through UNESCO. The culmination of these events was through the side event led by Namibia, Botswana and South Africa entitled ‘Groundwater: An Invisible Cross-Sectoral Fundament for Implementation of the Water Action Agenda’, where commitments and previous achievements were showcased by more than fifty international, UN, government, and research institutions. The framing of the event was fuelled by the outcomes of the UN-Water Summit on Groundwater that took place in Paris, France in December 2022, where the Joint Message and Call to Action as well as the subsequent Highlights synthesizing the outcomes brought forward the state of affairs and great progress while also highlighting the still pervasive gaps in adequately addressing groundwater in water management and governance across scales globally. While this side event targeted specifically groundwater, the trend is increasingly to integrate groundwater into various programs and initiatives. Examples are the Transboundary Water Cooperation Coalition, explicitly taking the more than 460 transboundary aquifers globally into their agenda, as well as the Global Water Analysis Laboratory (GloWAL) Network, where isotopes and tracers are key tools in assessing groundwater dynamics and climate interactions and vulnerability. Also noteworthy, the World Bank soft-launched their forthcoming flagship report in a side event on ‘The Hidden Wealth of Nations: Groundwater in Times of Climate Change’. The key and presently most tangible output of the UN 2023 Water Conference is the 2023 Water Action Agenda, consisting of a wealth of commitments, presently counting around 800, from various coalitions around the world, identifying concrete avenues and gamechangers to attack our present water problems across the globe.

Good progress in Africa was celebrated, as illustrated by the institutionalized cooperation on the Stampriet Transboundary Aquifer between Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. Similarly, early collaboration on the groundwater resources of the KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area, shared between Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe is worth mentioning, highlighting the role that transfrontier conservation areas can play in bringing groundwater more to the fore as supporting sustainable transboundary ecosystems and tourist destinations in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The challenges and opportunities in transboundary aquifer cooperation were further highlighted at the 43rd annual IAH Conference of the Irish Chapter on ‘Groundwater & Planning’ in Tullamore, Republic of Ireland, April 18-19, 2023, where WCI gave the keynote presentation on ‘Transboundary Aquifers – What Do We Know and How Can these Water Resources Bring Cooperation rather than Conflict?’ Sharing lessons across continents proved a valuable outcome of the conference. In particular, the issue faced by the Republic of Ireland that their aquifer neighbor Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, left the European Union in 2020, and hence the European Water Framework Directive no longer forms the common basis for the collaboration around their shared aquifers.

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