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Improving water coordination and integration in the UN system

13 Jun 2017 - 11:00

By Josh Newton: Independent consultant on global water political processes, governance and stakeholder engagement

In December 2016, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted UN Resolution A/RES/71/222, which proclaimed the period from 2018 to 2028, the International Decade for Action, “Water for Sustainable Development.” The purpose of UN International Decades is to promote and mobilise action around the selected focus, using the means of the United Nations system.

What was interesting about this Decade was that there was a paragraph in the Resolution (12) that asked the President of the General Assembly to convene a series of two dialogues to discuss an issue that has become more and more a topic of debate within UN circles: “integration and coordination of the work of the United Nations on the water-related goals and targets under its sustainable development pillar, with a particular emphasis on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (the Sustainable Development Goals; SDGs).” The problem is that the UN lacks a strong mechanism with a mandate to force the 31 different UN agencies that deal with water to optimise their activities in a coordinated manner to avoid duplication and overlap. While there is no “global water policy”, nor a UN agency dedicated to water (nor is either politically or practically feasible), coordinating the efforts of the UN system as it addresses water issues will help in the achievement of the water-related goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Integration and coordination of water-related activities in the UN system need to be improved, but Member States are still not in agreement as to how best make that happen.

In the UN system, sovereignty still rules, and any talk of global coordination mechanisms, especially on water, raises red flags for many Member States who are intent on controlling the water that falls within their borders. While customary international law and even a UN Convention exist for principles on water sharing, it can’t be said there is consensus on issues around sharing transboundary waters. In addition to issues around sovereignty, competition exists between the agencies responsible for different aspects of freshwater, who are always jostling for mandate and budget. Water has long been fragmented at the national government level, residing in various departments and ministries, and this is reflected in the UN system as well, where water does not have a centre of gravity, or a home, which complicates coordination around the issue.

The two dialogues convened by the President of the General Assembly took place on 22nd March and 30th May 2017, and showed there is much work to be done, both in terms of examining the functional gaps that exist in the UN system with regards to water, and determining the best, and most politically feasible, options for moving forward.

The lack of coordination evident across different UN sectors is reflected at country levels (between different government departments), at different levels of governance (from national to local), and in communities, where different water users come into conflict in rural and urban areas.