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2023 UN Water Conference: How can the US capitalize on the momentum?


This week, the U.S. pledged a commitment of up to $49 billion to support climate-resilient water and sanitation infrastructure and services. This pledge — non-binding though it may be — is one of many such national responses to the UN Water Conference held in New York City last week, the first conference of its kind in nearly 50 years. 

With the Water Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6) far from being achieved, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that globally, “water is in deep trouble” from over-use, insufficient drinking water and sanitation along with climate change. While the worst of these challenges are often framed as impacting developing countries, the U.S. is hardly immune. In light of this warning, what actions can our country take? How should we invest the U.S. pledge to best serve our interests at home and abroad? 

Unprecedented droughtrising utility costs and inequities in water access are just some of the quandaries American communities and policymakers face. Good science and its effective integration with policy is critical to the necessary understanding to address complex, emergent water challenges. We therefore call for strengthening science-policy integration across all levels of decision-making — a major theme of the UN Water Conference. 

The good news is that there is no shortage of exceptional water-research capabilities in the United States. Our country has many water-research centers of excellence across the academic, public and private sectors developing cutting-edge science and technology. For example, the US Geological Survey (USGS) is a global innovator in monitoring, assessing and researching surface and subsurface water. 

A large suite of funding organizations nourishes our country’s water expertise, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Ford Foundation, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and many others. The funding provided by these institutions covers virtually every aspect of water, including geology, hydrology, health, drought, use, administration and management.

While water science in the U.S. is well-funded and world-leading, it is less impactful than it could be. Its weakness is the connection with policy, which is confounded by our decentralized federal system of water governance. Water has been historically managed by sector — with agriculture, energy, food and quality all siloed into distinct government agencies at federal, state and even local levels. This has resulted in a maze of laws, policies and programs that work in isolation, or worse, in conflict with one another.

We have seen this play out close to home in the troubled Colorado River Basin. Decisions are made through a complex web of disjointed and piecemeal authorities and mechanisms. No single venue exists to manage water issues comprehensively. Over time, a patchwork of institutions has tackled each new issue as it arises, from salinity problems to Indigenous water rights to dam management. The governance patterns in this one basin mirror a broader U.S. trend of governing water in discrete, fragmented units. We have argued that it is time to think more creatively about shared problem-solving, providing clearer pathways for science to inform critical decisions.

In this vein, the UN Water Conference has highlighted opportunities for better science-policy integration that could improve water policymaking in the United States. From the UN Water Conference, we take away three potential pathways forward:

1) Supporting implementation of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Water Sustainability (ISPWAS)

2) Drawing more upon the UN’s global coordination opportunities

3) Reasserting U.S. leadership in UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization — which promotes peace

The ISPWAS initiative springs from the recognition that the science-policy gap that prevails — in the U.S. as elsewhere — must be closed so that policy and regulations remain relevant and based on state-of-the-art science. 

ISPWAS was proposed by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme (UNESCO-IHP) and Future Earth’s Sustainable Water Future Programme (SWFP). As the IPCC has done with climate, ISPWAS would share world-class, science-based, solution-oriented knowledge to support UN member states such as the U.S. in their policymaking. A science- and place-based global water assessment that recognizes the complexities of sustainably managing water resources such as those in the Colorado River Basin would provide actionable solutions and identify capacity development, implementation and infrastructure needs. Validated by an intergovernmental mechanism, ISPWAS can be a major “game-changer” by transforming water governance. 

We recognize that the U.S., with its decentralized tradition, is unlikely to act nationally as a single entity. But key federal agencies involved in water management such the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the International Boundary and Water Commission, as well as the International Joint Commission could benefit palpably from endorsing and participating in the sort of science-policy bridging mechanism intended by ISPWAS. 

While encouraging our country to consider seriously the opportunities available by participating in ISPWAS, we see in this initiative as a microcosm of a larger imperative. The strength of U.S. research capabilities has often led us as a nation to ignore or even reject the valuable resources offered by the United Nations, its mandates, agencies, member states and affiliated networks. These are all potential mechanisms to strengthen the integration of science and policy from the international to local levels, as well as develop a more cohesive U.S. water strategy to confront the diverse challenges we face.

Finally, we suggest that reasserting U.S. leadership in UNESCO would strengthen the flow of resources and information to bridge the growing science-policy gap. One way to achieve this is by reconstituting and reenergizing the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO — a federal advisory committee to the Department of State  —which has been moribund since our exit from UNESCO. Going even further, we believe that our government should rejoin UNESCO, which it left in 2019 for international political reasons unrelated to that agency’s mission. 

In the face of a global water crisis, it is imperative to maximize the impact of our investments in science. The ISPWAS initiative and the multiple governance tools afforded by the UN present an opportunity to close the science-policy gap that the U.S. cannot afford to ignore.

Robert G. Varady is a research professor of environmental Policy with the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona. He has written extensively about global water initiatives and their influence on governance.

Gemma E. Smith is a Ph.D. candidate in environment and resources at Stanford University. She specializes in collaborative and transboundary water governance. She will join the faculty in the School of Government and Public Policy and the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona in the coming academic year.

Andrea K. Gerlak is director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy and a professor in the School of Geography, Development and Environment at the University of Arizona. She is a Tucson Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project. 

Tags Antonio Guterres Climate change Drinking water IPCC Water water crisis

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