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Report from the 2023 UN Water Conference

May 10, 2023

by Caitlin Kim L’23

“There is not a single person on Earth who doesn’t need our work to succeed.”

A ripple swept through the UN Headquarters as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Monica Medina uttered this truth at the 2023 UN Water Conference. Delegates, representatives from NGOs and industry, academics, and observers alike sat for a moment, absorbing the impact of her words.

Human life depends on access to clean, potable water. The United Nations called on the world to act in 2015, when it designated access to water and sanitation as Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6. But progress toward achieving SDG 6 by its 2030 target has lagged far behind its timeline. The 2023 UN Water Conference, co-hosted by Tajikistan and the Netherlands at UN Headquarters in New York, brought together governments and stakeholders to encourage voluntary commitments and facilitate global action to address water challenges.

UN Water Conference 2023 I had the privilege to attend the UN Water Conference as a member of the University of Pennsylvania delegation, led by Penn’s Water Center. The Conference, which occurred over three days in March, consisted of plenary sessions at the General Assembly, interactive dialogues between delegations, and a plethora of side events that viewed water through various lenses.

My interest in international water issues began at my undergraduate university, where I majored in environmental science and policy with a concentration in economics. I wanted to gain an understanding of both the scientific and economic impacts of climate change. As an intern at the World Resources Institute, I worked with the water team to promote Aqueduct, a global data-mapping tool for water risk, which taught me the importance of creating scalable solutions to address global issues. While at Penn Carey Law, I focused my coursework and extracurriculars on international law and arbitration, international investment, and public finance. I also completed the International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise (ISCNE) at the Law School in partnership with the U.S. Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership, and I was excited for the opportunity to see international diplomacy take place in the real world.

Drawing on my background, I selected a mix of the Conference’s plenary sessions, interactive dialogues, and side events relating to financing water solutions. In the plenary sessions, observers could listen as leaders from UN member states addressed the General Assembly. It gave me a big-picture idea of the actions that states have taken so far, the most salient issues they face, and the solutions that are important to member states. In the interactive dialogues, member state delegations discussed specific issues relating to water. Other stakeholders and participants hosted the smaller side events. It was an incredible experience to sit mere feet away from the leading government officials, NGO representatives, and industry experts in the world as they discussed ways to collaborate across borders and direct money to where it could have the greatest effect.

In addition, there were bountiful networking opportunities at the conference, both with the members of the UN Water Conference delegation Penn delegation, who over lunch would share notes from the various events they had attended, and with members of the other delegations from around the world.

At the closing plenary session, delegations and participants gathered to assess the impact the Conference had had. Over the course of the Conference, 700 pledges totaling $300 billion dollars had been directed to the water agenda. The General Assembly approved the creation of a UN Special Envoy for Water and decided that the next Water Conference would take place by 2030.

This experience gave me insight into the diplomatic process and showed the importance of providing a forum in which stakeholders can gather. It was also invaluable in illustrating the dialogues that lay the foundation for international collaboration on issues that have intersectional intricacies and critical impacts on lives around the world. It affirmed my interest in solving issues through a mix of science, diplomacy, and law.

I am grateful to have made connections at Penn’s Water Center and plan to stay in contact after graduation. I will be heading to work at a law firm in the fall, where I hope to work on matters relating to international dispute resolution and public international law.