‘We need to connect the water agenda with the agenda on climate change’

With the world not being on track to meet Sustainable Development Goal 6 on water by 2030, Anil Mishra, Chief of Hydrological Systems, Climate Change and Adaptation in UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme, explains in this interview how UNESCO will be contributing to the mid-term review, from 22 to 24 March 2023, of implementation of the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development to 2028.
Ala Kul in Kyrgyzstan

What was the objective of the Dushanbe conference last June and what is its connection to the Decade for Action on Water?

The world is not on track to achieve the sixth Sustainable Development Goal on freshwater management (SDG6). Some 2.2 billion people around the world still lack safely managed drinking water and 4.2 billion people lack safely managed sanitation. The current rate of progress will need to quadruple for the world to reach its targets to 2030 for SDG 6!

We need to reposition water at the centre of the political agenda – and we need to connect the water agenda with the agenda on climate change because the effects of climate change are largely being delivered through changes in the water cycle.

Anil Mishra

UNESCO is part of the Water and Climate Coalition co-ordinated and hosted by the World Meteorological Organization, another United Nations body. This coalition supports the implementation of the United Nations’ SDG6 Global Acceleration Framework, which is striving to improve scientific data and information and build capacity to reach this Goal.

However, to do that, we shall need to improve co-ordination between United Nations agencies, as well as between the different stakeholder groups in water management, such as public utilities, basin organizations, financial organizations, the private sector and civil society.

About 30 United Nations agencies are involved in water management to some extent. The United Nations systems is striving to improve co-ordination of its work in this area through different mechanisms, one of which is the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development from 2018 to 2028. The high-level conference in Dushanbe from 6 to 8 June this year was the second in a series designed to mobilize different stakeholder groups to accelerate progress towards SDG 6. The first conference took place at the start of the Decade in 2018. The mid-term review of the Decade in March next year will be the next step in this process[1].

It is very important to have all stakeholder groups on board. It is, thus, encouraging to see that the Dushanbe Conference was attended by 75 official delegations from countries and more than 600 international, regional and national institutions. Over three days, about 2,500 high-ranking officials and politicians, scientists and experts representing governments, various United Nations agencies, financial institutions, universities, civil society and the private sector discussed the most critical water issues in today’s rapidly changing world. Another 500 or so participants joined the conference online.

What was the main outcome of the Dushanbe conference?

The main outcome was a Final Declaration which recognizes the role that open science, citizen science, youth, gender and indigenous knowledge play in the adoption of more effective climate-resilient approaches to water management. Since UNESCO is active in all of these areas, it will be playing a leading role in the next conference next year, which will conduct a mid-term review of the Decade’s progress thus far towards SDG 6.

There is a paragraph in the Declaration which cites UNESCO’s role in the run-up to next year’s conference on water through the Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme’s Ninth Phase (2022–2029), which is focusing on Science for a Water-Secure World in a Changing Environment.


What role did UNESCO play in Dushanbe?

As a member of the International Advisory Committee of the Dushanbe Water Process, UNESCO was involved in developing the conference programme. Participants discussed what further steps were needed to implement the Decade Action Plan at global, regional and national levels.

UNESCO co-led two panels. The first panel focused on Promoting Science-Based Water Solutions, Tools and Technology. One of UNESCO’s priorities is to support new frameworks and tools to underpin good water governance and build climate-resilience. One concrete example of this approach is the development of early warning systems for floods and drought that UNESCO has been putting in place with local communities in Africa and Latin America, in particular. One example is the project in Chimanimani Biosphere Reserve in Zimbabwe, where UNESCO has been working with local communities since tropical Cyclone Idai devastated the area in 2019, to help them make the transition from disaster recovery to long-term climate resilience.

Another example of an innovative solution are smart water systems which improve efficiency through the use of digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data analytics, blockchain, machine learning and the Internet of Things.

These technologies, combined with citizen science and open science, can reduce the cost and complexity of future water monitoring, characterization, assessments, planning, management and policy development to achieve a more water-secure world in a changing climate. For instance, open science can make scientific information, data and outputs more inclusive and more widely accessible. This, in turn, can enable scientists, policy-makers and citizens to engage more actively in harnessing these resources. It is important that innovation in science and technology be trusted by all members of society. Innovation must be delivered on time and communicated in a way that is understood by experts and non-experts alike.


About 40% of the world’s available water is transboundary. Since 2017, the Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme has strengthened ties with all 153 countries around the world that share river basin and aquifer systems. This is because UNESCO is the co-custodian agency, along with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, for SDG indicator 6.5.2, which is tracking cooperation over transboundary waters. Last year, we published a progress report on this indicator which shows that many countries still lack substantial knowledge about their aquifers. This knowledge gap, combined with the lack of cooperation, is creating the conditions for mismanagement and conflict.

UNESCO also organized a Forum on Water and Mountains: towards Sustainable Development. Glaciers in Central Asia are melting at a rate of 0.2–1% per year. As the ice melts, it is forming high-altitude lakes which can burst their banks, sending vast quantities of water ploughing down the mountainside towards villages and other human settlements. There are already more than 1,000 glacier lakes in Central Asia that are considered dangerous, so this is a very real hazard for the region. Science Programme Specialist Ms Kristine Tovmasyan from UNESCO’s Almaty office in Kazakhstan presented a multiyear project in Dushanbe which began developing an early warning system for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan last year, with funding to the tune of US$6.5 million from the Adaptation Fund.

A second project, this time funded by the Global Environmental Facility, is getting under way this year in these same four countries, plus Turkmenistan. Over the next four years, the project will be assessing the impact of climate change on snow, glacier and water resources, including as regards the availability of water to downstream countries. The aim is to foster scientific collaboration and provide a scientific basis for the development of national and regional strategies for climate adaptation.

In Dushanbe, UNESCO also hosted a half-day Forum of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities on the Decade for Water Action, along with UNDP, FAO and UNEP. The forum initiated the development of a roadmap which will channel the concerns of indigenous peoples about the state of water resources, as well as their insights and wisdom with regard to the peaceful coexistence of nature and society, into the mid-term review of the Decade.

What will UNESCO bring to the table next year at the United Nations Water Conference marking the mid-term review of the Decade?

UNESCO’s input will have four thrusts. We shall be reporting on progress made by the UN-Water SDG6 Capacity Development Initiative, which is seeking to accelerate progress towards SDG6.

Through this initiative, the United Nations is putting together an implementation plan which will support countries in undertaking an assessment of the gaps in their capacity to manage their water resources. This work will form the basis for the preparation of national water capacity development plans.

UNESCO is co-coordinating this initiative, which builds on existing activities, with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The initiative is being implemented in partnership with interested governments, academia and organizations from the private sector and civil society.

UNESCO will also be conveying the key message from the UN-Water Summit on Groundwater, which UNESCO is hosting at its Paris headquarters in December this year, in partnership with the International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre. This summit will reflect the overriding message of the World Water Development Report on Groundwater: Making the Visible Invisible, namely that groundwater will be central to food and water security, as well as to socio-economic development and adaptation to climate change, but that, to take full advantage of this bounty, we shall have to learn to protect and manage groundwater better.

UNESCO will also be presenting its Call for Action: Accelerating Progress towards Gender Equality in the Water Domain. UNESCO’s World Water Assessment Programme launched this call in mid-2021, together with an international Multistakeholder Coalition. Through this Coalition, 14 countries from Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia have officially supported the Call, as well as more than 140 individuals from a wide range of institutions.

UNESCO’s fourth contribution to the mid-term review of the Decade will be a ‘scientific blueprint’. By this, I mean that UNESCO will be developing a roadmap based on scientific evidence, in coordination with its scientific network, to help countries accelerate their implementation of SDG6, including as concerns interlinkages with all other SDGs. This scientific blueprint will consist in two papers, one entitled Science to Support SDG 6 and other Related SDGs and a second paper on policy issues with a focus on the interlinkages between SDGs.

Why such a strong focus on the interlinkages between all 17 SDGs?

The United Nations water conference in 2023 will be looking at freshwater from a transversal perspective. This is logical, as the SDGs overlap. During the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in New York last July, the five interactive themes were proposed by the countries which will cohost the conference, namely the Government of Tajikistan and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. These themes will be finalized later this year. Each will examine several SDGs. The first theme will be water for health. It will cover those parts of SDG6 related to access to safe drinking water, hygiene and sanitation but also SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing), SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 5 (gender equality) and SDG 17 (partnerships).

The second conference theme on water for development will look at valuing water, the water–energy–food nexus and sustainable economic and urban development. These themes correspond to SDGs 2 (zero hunger) 6, 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and 12 (responsible consumption and production).

The third conference theme will be water for climate, resilience and environment. It will examine SDGs 6, 7 (affordable and clean energy), 11, 13 (climate action), 14 (life under water) and 15 (life on land).

The fourth theme will be water for co-operation. This will concern SDG 6.5 and 6.b on transboundary water cooperation and SDGs 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) and 17 (partnerships).

Last but not least, the conference in 2023 will be examining how to accelerate implementation of the Decade through the United Nations Secretary-General’s Action Plan  – so you can see that there will be a certain continuity between this year’s conference and next year’s.


Interview by Susan Schneegans

[1] See the Resolution adopted on 20 November 2018, by which the United Nations General Assembly decided to convene this Midterm Comprehensive Review of the Implementation of the Objectives of the International Decade for Action, “Water for Sustainable Development”, 2018–2028