Five questions about WUR’s contribution to the UN 2023 Water Conference

Published on
March 14, 2023

From 22 to 24 March, the UN 2023 Water Conference will take place in New York. The Netherlands is chairing the conference, together with Tajikistan. The aim of the summit is to draw up a Water Action Agenda. Catharien Terwisscha van Scheltinga, Karin Andeweg, Petra Hellegers and Marijn Gülpen talk about WUR’s role at the conference.

The previous summit was held in 1977. Why is there another UN Water Conference now, after 46 years?

Andeweg: Water is becoming an increasingly important theme as the effects of climate change are becoming more apparent around the world. We are facing sea level rise and flood risks, while other areas are getting drier. A global conference on water is more important than ever.

Hellegers: The conference shows that a new awareness is emerging around the need to take action. Climate change is reducing the amount of fresh water available. At the same time, the world’s population is growing, and our diets are changing, which only increases the demand for water. Water is also increasingly used in the energy supply chain, which places additional pressure on water resources, 70% of which are now used for agriculture. In more and more places, demand and availability are getting out of balance.

For example, we did some research in Jordan. By 2050, their demand for water will be four times the available amount. The available water is not even enough to cover household use, and their agriculture is becoming completely dependent on treated waste water. This kind of problem plays out in many more places. So we are facing huge challenges where water is concerned.

What will WUR focus on during the conference?

Andeweg: Water and agriculture are still often seen as separate worlds, both in the Netherlands and worldwide. At WUR, we want to change this and put water and food on the agenda together.

Terwisscha van Scheltinga: We find it important to not only look at water, but to take an integrated approach at the conference. WUR’s field of work is all about the connection between food, environment, and sustainability. We want to emphasise this same connection where water is concerned, since water plays a major role in global food security.

In arid areas, for example, different forms of crop irrigation can help save water, but such measures are even more useful if you can reduce food losses en route to the market. This kind of broader view can help us generate different kinds of solutions. So from the WUR perspective, we want to ensure that there is more connection between food and water at the summit.

How will WUR draw attention to this?

Hellegers: We plan to organise several workshops prior to the summit. There we can already talk about food and water challenges with as many parties as possible, including producers, traders, policy makers, researchers, and industry representatives, the World Bank, non-profit organisations, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

On Friday 24 March, during the conference itself, we will organise a side event at the UN, entitled Make water pivotal in food systems. This will allow us to highlight water challenges from different countries in which the food system plays a role, and discuss potential solutions. We are working towards including a chapter on water and food in the Water Action Agenda. Next, we hope for commitments from the participants so that they can act together after the summit.

How will WUR itself contribute to the Water Action Agenda?

Hellegers: WUR has not only committed to writing a chapter on water and food for the Water Action Agenda, but over the next two years, we are devoting €7.7 million to research needed to address water and food challenges.

What would it take for the summit to be a success?

Gülpen: This summit will not yet produce any rock-solid agreements. It is the first time in almost 50 years that the UN has organised a conference on water. We do hope for an agenda with concrete actions to take after the summit, so that it is not just talk. It would be great if as many parties as possible at our side event make a commitment to take action.

Andeweg: For WUR, the summit will be a success if food production is prioritised on the Water Action Agenda and the political agenda. And if we can make agreements with various parties to work jointly on the water and food challenges in the coming years.