COP28: Parallel worlds uniting for action

A toilet shelter made of timber and woven leaves in a tropical rural village of Papua New Guinea with a winding river visible in the background.

Water, sanitation, hygiene and climate in rural Ngariawang, Papua New Guinea, inextricably linked (World Vision PNG)


The 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) took place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from 30 November to 12 December 2023.  While meaningful gains were made, including through the outcomes of the first ever Global Stocktake (GST) of progress on the Paris Agreement and the renewed Global Goals on Adaptation (GGA), there remain deep and justified concerns that we are still not moving fast enough to tackle this global crisis.

Water for Women was represented on the ground in Dubai by Dr Alison Baker, Fund Manager and Envoy for the Water for Climate Pavilion, Turea Wickham, PNG WASH Consortium Coordinator, and Juliet Willetts, University of Technology Sydney – Institute for Sustainable Futures Professor and Research Director. After a hectic end to 2023 and the benefit of some reflection time, below they share insights on their experience of COP28 and its influence on future priorities. 



Much has been said and analysed about the outcomes of COP28. In short, it was certainly a time of sharing new successes, and exchanging emerging ideas and approaches, along with developing new partnerships and ways of working. It was also a time for meeting friends and colleagues old and new, and together feeling both overwhelmed and inspired at the commitment, and the breadth and depth of knowledge being shared, as well as touched by a diversity of voices across the globe who experience first-hand the daily impacts of climate change. All of this in parallel to the meeting of world leaders and climate change negotiators with the power to shape our collective future.


Paul Polman, a Dutch businessman and author, expressed these conflicting sentiments perfectly:


“To the outside world, it may seem like the COP is a travelling circus featuring a few world leaders doing a few speeches. When in fact, it is the culmination of the relentless and tenacious work of thousands of individuals and organisations from across society, including the private sector, public sector, Indigenous representatives, youth leaders, NGOs and academia driven by their shared ambition to ensure a habitable and prosperous world. These people are the true leaders of our time.”


This quote also resonates with respect to the valuable work of Water for Women partners and the ability to exchange learning with others through our active participation.   


Water's essential role in development and climate change


Through concerted efforts of the water sector, including the strategic activities of all the partners supporting the Water for Climate Pavilion, as well as other global groups such as the Climate-Resilient Sanitation Coalition, there is growing acknowledgment of the role of water resources, water security, and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in climate resilience.

One notable shift in perspective at COP28 was greater recognition of the indispensable role that water  plays in both development and climate change. Acknowledging that water is the lifeblood of energy and food systems, delegates underscored the need for integrated solutions that address the interconnected challenges of water scarcity, sanitation, food security, and renewable energy.


Climate resilience through WASH


A robust WASH sector is fundamental to communities’ ability to adapt to and recover from the impacts of climate change, including crises like floods and droughts that jeopardise infrastructure, services and systems, and people’s access to them. Ensuring clean water and safe sanitation facilities are available at all times is essential to building resilient communities.

Through the collective hard work and advocacy of water and sanitation organisations across the globe, both water and sanitation were finally acknowledged in the climate agenda after COP28 — from a mitigation and adaptation perspective. This is evidenced by water and sanitation’s prominent inclusion in the wording of both the first GST and the GAA.  


"A pivotal accomplishment is the inclusion of water resilience in the negotiated text on the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) and the Global Stocktake (GST) acknowledging the importance to protecting, conserving, and restoring water-related ecosystems in delivering climate adaptation benefits and co-benefits while ensuring social and environmental safeguards. It also urges Parties and invites non-Party stakeholders to increase their ambition and enhance action in support to significantly reducing climate-induced water scarcity and enhancing climate resilience to water-related hazards towards climate-resilient water supply, climate-resilient sanitation and access to safe and affordable potable water for all."


An aerial view of a water system in rural Bangladesh.

Read more: Water at the heart of climate action

A joint press release from UAE, Tajikistan, and the Netherlands


One world, differing realities


While words and phrases like ‘collaboration,’ ‘inclusion,’ ‘sustainability,’ and ‘climate financing’ were used prolifically during COP28, it became evident that their meanings differ across contexts. The words themselves may sound the same, but the sentiments behind them and the implications of putting the concepts they represent into action can be worlds apart.

Throughout the Global North, we know that transformative change is required to minimise the impact of our current lifestyles on the global environment – technology and actions that reduce emissions, effectively use and reuse water, minimise waste, and deliver better health outcomes, to name but a few.

But in the Global South, effectively implementing ‘collaboration,’ ‘inclusion’, ‘resilience’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘climate financing’ are critical for the survival of peoples, culture, lands, waterways and the fragile ecosystems that sustain millions of people.  This includes entire nations such as Kiribati, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu in the Pacific, all of which are at extreme risk from the impacts of climate change. Bridging these conceptual gaps must be a focal point to foster effective global partnerships.

Each country has its own priorities, which will be actioned in very different but locally appropriate ways. By way of example, the launch of the Government of Australia’s National Health and Climate Policy on 3 December was celebrated for its role in guiding Australian communities to maintain healthy outcomes in a changing climate.  This policy also acknowledges the important part Australia plays globally as a development partner funding programs like Water for Women to improve access to climate-resilient, inclusive WASH for millions in the Indo-Pacific region. 

While water and sanitation systems are largely taken for granted in a country such as Australia, this is not the case for many countries around the globe.  During informal discussions with representatives from civil society and the Government of Congo this was brought to the fore.  For the Congo, WASH is not only important to their communities, but at the heart of their country’s health and climate response.  

Two different countries, two different contexts, and therefore two different responses. This need for locally led context-specific actions was heard many times over at COP28.  Water for Women is demonstrating examples of these localised approaches in the Asia-Pacific, but we need to continue our efforts to identify ways these successes can reach more communities. 


An elderly man fills his bucket at a handpump in rural Sarlahi, Nepal, while others await their turn.
An elderly man fills a bucket at a water handpump in Sarlahi, Nepal, as others await their turn (IWMI / Onion Films)


Traditional Knowledges drive locally led solutions


Globally, we need to work harder at valuing, raising and listening to the voices, knowledges and capacities of women, Indigenous people, and marginalised groups, who have unique understandings and perspectives of water systems and are at the forefront of the devastating impacts of climate change, as Turea Wickham so astutely highlighted:


“There is a misconception that traditional knowledge is archaic, it’s stagnant, it is still. It is not. It is a valued piece of our culture, it is a valued piece of our history and it responds to our needs as well today as it did in the past…”


Enabling diverse voices is critical in shaping locally led, sustainable solutions that ensure equitable access to clean water and sanitation for all (SDG6), healthy ecosystems and a climate-resilient future. But no one can do it alone – locally led solutions need support, and can often be further adapted with other data sources. SDG6 and the goals of the Paris Agreement can only be achieved with a concerted effort by governments and their communities, in partnership with development partners, NGOs, researchers and scientific bodies, to put more emphasis and resources towards inclusive water and WASH for the health, well-being, and resilience of all communities. 


“Our call is to say thank you to those who recognise that there are things that we can do in our communities using our traditional knowledge, using the strengths we have in our communities and not just looking elsewhere. When we talk about local solutions for global problems, that is basically what it is… let’s all be part of the solution.”

– Turea Wickham


Gender transformative approaches


It was clear during COP28 that the work of Water for Women is contributing to the development of gender-transformative approaches. The need to challenge gender, social, and cultural norms and move beyond mere participation was emphasised throughout our presentations, underlining the importance of integrating context-specific gender equitable, disability and socially inclusive (GEDSI) programming into all climate initiatives. There is a lot of work to be done in this space, as many remain focused on participation rather than moving beyond just a ‘seat’ at the table with limited voice.

At the Monash University Pavilion, Water for Women hosted a session where we shared practical tools that have been developed and successfully applied by Fund partners in local contexts.  These tools cover a range of purposes, but collectively they contribute to unpacking existing norms and behaviours, so individuals, communities and institutions understand both the strengths and barriers that accompany them.  Addressing the barriers that exist helps to create a more inclusive environment.  With new and innovative approaches required to address climate risk and build climate resilience, inclusive approaches are critical for a just transition.

Turea Wickham conveyed the experience in Papua New Guinea, emphasising the need to recognise the important role that women play in conflict resolution — conflict that is arising due to the impacts of climate change. Women are at the forefront, brokering peace, driving sustainable agriculture for food security, and understanding the important role of WASH for the health and well-being of their families. Their experiences and wisdom must be mobilised for a safe, just and climate resilient future.

As our partner SNV reflected:


“The huge elephant in the room remains that of equitable transition. In its simplest terms, that means wealthier nations, societies and individuals being prepared and willing to change their high-consumption lifestyles and habits substantially and rapidly. Only then will we enable more equitable growth and development within marginalised communities and less developed countries. The crux lies in accelerating the transference of power, leading to transformative changes in our systems. The resounding message is unequivocal: without a commitment to justice and inclusivity, there can be no genuine energy transition. “


Women in rural Lao PDR carry buckets of water on both their shoulders across a dry field.
Women collect water during the dry season in Savannakhet province, Lao PDR (SNV / Bart Verweiji)


Pacific voices - putting faces to statistics


What really inspired us, above all, were the women from around the Pacific and other vulnerable nations, who fought back tears as they told their stories, with steely determination to rise to the challenges they face – once again. They implored others to help them in their fight.

During an Australia - Water Partners for Development session at the Australian Pavilion, From sea to source: Stories of climate resilience connected by water, Turea Wickham was passionate and steadfast in her messages to delegates, exemplifying the significance of a Pacific woman not only involved in the climate change conversation at events such as COP28, but on the ground, driving change at the community level.


“This is my first COP and sometimes it feels like we are a really small voice, trying to get everyone to listen. And that is painful in a lot of ways because we don’t do a lot to contribute to the warming climate…we’ve had some of the biggest king tides in our country in the last three years and what does that mean?

While we are busy regurgitating statistics at global conventions such as this, children are not able to go to school, simply because a parent cannot sell the crops that are now impacted by climate change… so there is decreased economic livelihoods…Unless you have that lived experience, it is difficult for you to understand that.

It’s hard for anyone here [to understand the feeling of] putting a dying child in the grave because they haven’t got access to healthcare, they haven’t got access to good water.“

- Turea Wickham


Turea highlighted the reality of the far-reaching impacts of climate change for the 85% of rural communities in Papua New Guinea, not only impacting water access , groundwater contamination, and agriculture, but also health, livelihoods, peace and stability - and it is all getting more difficult every year.


“It comes down to lives and livelihoods… abuse… rape. These are the realities when you are sitting with women and they are telling their stories. In the Global North, these things are taken for granted…We have to recognise that we play a part. If we are contributing to the problem, what is our solution?

Small Pacific Island countries don’t need to come and beg. “Nogut Tru” - in Tok Pisin that means “Not at all”. “Enup now, Enup now” – “This is enough.”


Financing the future


How can nations in the Global North balance the scales and support communities suffering from the impacts of climate change through no fault of their own?  And how can we all learn from Indigenous communities around the globe who have lived in harmony with the land and waters for thousands of years? Actions that address these questions must operate in parallel and each support the progress of the other.

A historical outcome of COP28 was the operationalisation of the Loss and Damage Fund. The fund recognises the responsibility of Global North nations to partner with and support those in the Global South that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, with several nations making financial pledges. This is an important milestone in the sprint towards climate resilience, but it must empower and deliver locally led solutions that harness the diverse knowledge and experiences of those on the frontlines of climate change, including women, people with disabilities, from sexual and gender minority groups and Indigenous communities.

Discussions on climate finance and different financing models were prevalent throughout COP28. Delegates explored innovative approaches to funding projects in the WASH sector, recognising the need for diverse financial mechanisms to ensure the successful implementation of climate-resilient water and WASH infrastructure.  Identifying approaches to create more inclusive funding models - such as channeling additional funds to support women-led initiatives - was raised in numerous panel sessions, including by development partners, but also central banks and investment players. The call for more and faster funding was a common thread across sessions.

As our partner WaterAid also reflected:


“Finance Day saw several climate adaptation pledges from rich country governments, but nowhere near enough to meet the shortfalls that adaptation requires. As low- and middle- income country governments reminded richer nations at CoP28, funding for adaptation if far too little, and trickling down far too slowly… we have demonstrated the power of water as a low-regrets adaptation solution, helping communities to address the immediate threats of the climate crisis, and to build long-term climate resilience…”


The guiding North Star


The COP President consistently referred to the North Star as the guiding direction for global climate efforts. This metaphorical North Star serves as a reminder that, despite the challenges and divergent perspectives, there is a shared goal — a collective commitment to navigate toward a sustainable and resilient future.

COP28 marked a significant milestone in mobilising the pivotal role of the water and WASH sectors in climate action. As the world grapples with the multifaceted challenges of climate change, integrating water-centric solutions into global strategies is not just prudent but imperative for a sustainable and resilient future.


Moving forward collaboratively and inclusively


There is no doubt that the challenges we face are immense, but throughout COP28 we were continually inspired by the new and innovative approaches emerging across the water, energy, agriculture and health sectors, and the willingness of all stakeholders to collaborate and bring their relevant strengths to address the challenges ahead.

Outside the COP negotiation rooms and regardless of any political consensus that was to be reached there, COP28 highlighted the many around the globe who are committed to creating a future that we can all be proud of and that provides for us all. We must collectively rise to the challenge by mobilising this shared commitment. It is not an easy challenge. Success will take all of us bringing our strengths to the table.

This encouraging trend translated into an increased number of sessions that looked across sectors. Breaking down silos and fostering collaboration was emphasised as essential to achieving holistic and sustainable solutions to the challenges posed by climate change, and this year there was a noticeable uptick in sectors walking the walk on this.   

These reflections from COP28 underscore the need for continued collaboration, innovation, and coordinated efforts to address the complexities of water, climate, and development on a global scale. To effectively advocate and amplify the crucial role of water management and WASH in climate action, we must work together to facilitate better understanding and clearly communicate our key messages. 

Water for Women commits to collaborating globally and locally to contribute to a climate-resilient future, and will continue to demonstrate that through our actions.  We compel others around the globe to do the same.

Holding fast to our vision and purpose, pushing the status quo, we remain optimistic that humanity will prevail — that regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, age, Indigenous, gender, or other social characteristic, we will collaborate across country boundaries, bringing together all. It is because of our differences, and deeply valuing them, that we have so much more to gain through our collaborations. There is so much more to learn, understand, and share as we work towards solutions for a more peaceful, equitable and climate-resilient future. 

The details may still be unfolding, the priorities in the Global North and Global South tracking in parallel, but the direction is clear. Our lives are inextricably linked and so must be our actions.



The COP28 UAE logo

Read more about the COP28 outcomes: 

COP28 UAE - United Nations Climate Change Conference




This insight was co-authored by Dr Alison Baker, Water for Women Fund Manager, Turea Wickham, Water for Women PNG WASH Consortium Coordinator, and Professor Juliet Willetts, University of Technology Sydney - Institute for Sustainable Futures Research Director.


The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Water for Women, the Australian Government or our partners. 




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