And that’s a wrap on the UN Water 2023 Conference. Now let’s see the action

A 3D event sign that says #WATERACTION with the New York skyline in the background

Insights from UN Water 2023 Conference from Dr Alison Baker, Water for Women Fund Manager, Navara Kiene, Country Director-Programs for WaterAid PNG, and Joanna Mott, Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Advisor


Member states and water and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) representatives from across the world came together at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York to create an Action Agenda for Water. The three days of the Conference saw participants grappling with the multidimensional challenges they see ahead, particularly on how to accelerate the changes required for accountable and equitable water stewardship and ensuring access to water and sanitation for all in response to the ever-increasing climate impacts that the world is facing.

The conference was framed around five interactive dialogue sessions, culminating in the last which consisted of working towards global agreement of a Water Action Agenda. These were (with links to more detail and recordings):


  1. Water for Health: Access to WASH, including the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation (SDG 6.1, 6.2, 6.3 and SDGs 1, 3, 4, 5, 17)

  2. Water for Sustainable Development: Valuing Water, Water-Energy-Food Nexus and Sustainable Economic and Urban Development (SDG 6.3, 6.4, 6.5 and SDGs 2, 8, 9, 11, 12)

  3. Water for Climate, Resilience and Environment: Source to Sea, Biodiversity, Climate, Resilience and DRR (SDGs 6.5, 6.6, 7, 11.5, 13, 14, 15)

  4. Water for Cooperation: Transboundary and International Water Cooperation, Cross Sectoral Cooperation, including Scientific Cooperation, and Water Across the 2030 Agenda (SDG 6.5, 6.b and SDGs 16, 17)

  5. Water Action Decade: Accelerating the implementation of the objectives of the Decade, including through the UN Secretary-General’s Action Plan.


Through our involvement in a range of side events, Water for Women contributed strongly to the first Interactive Dialogue: Water for Health, but also, along with the Australian Water Partnership (AWP), supported Indigenous Water Leader, Dr. Phil Duncan, in his contributions and inputs to other interactive Dialogue sessions, particularly Water for Sustainable Development.

There were a multitude of side events that were directly linked to the interactive dialogue sessions. The Water for Women representatives (Dr Alison Baker, Fund Manager; Navara Kiene, Country Director-Programs for WaterAid PNG, and Joanna Mott, Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Advisor), along with Dr. Leslie (Phil) Duncan (Indigenous Water Leader) were directly involved in the following:

  • Co-convening a side event with the World Bank Gender and Social Inclusion Advisory Group and their partners on Empowering Women, Youth and Indigenous Persons to Accelerate Global Water Security in the Water Action Decade  
  • Co-convening a side event with UNESCO’s World Water Assessment Program (WWAP), as a member of the Multi-Stakeholder Coalition’s call to action on accelerating gender equality in the water domain, on Supporting gender equality in the Water Action Agenda with Global Multi-stakeholder effort.
  • Co- Presenting for side event organised by the Pacific Community (SPC) on Accelerating Water Security Action for Pacific Resilience
  • Navara Kiene was part of interview panel for the UN Media Zone side event on “Sextortion and Period Poverty”: The price of water, sanitation and hygiene for women and girls



A panel in discussion at a media zone at a conference with the colourful SDG goals as a backgdrop

WaterAid PNG's Navara Kiene (Director of Country Programs) taking part in the @SDGMediaZone discussion on WASH and MHH.

Additionally, Water for Women, the Australian Water Partnership (AWP) and the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology in Sydney (ISF-UTS), co-convened a virtual side event on the 22nd March to mark World Water Day and International Women’s Day to support Pacific voices and what Pacific women leaders see as the challenges and opportunities for their countries and region: Women at the forefront: Valuing diverse voices, leadership and action on SDG6 - Pacific voices for climate-resilient water and WASH.


Water for Women also had the opportunity to feed into and attend other side events and activities including:

  • Informal Special Event: Radical Collaboration for Water Resilience: Action with our greatest Allies in the Climate Crisis
  • Informal Special Event: Reducing inequalities – implementing Human Rights 
  • Inter-Governmental Seminar – Facilitating & Coordinating National Commitments for SDG6:  Road to 2028 (Ministry of Environment of the Republic of Korea)
  • Justice Begins Here (Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) and UN Foundation)
  • Devex’s WASH Works Summit


Our Reflections

Below we share some of our reflections and key takeaways from the various discussions and events we were involved in:


Water and WASH are critical connectors

Water and sanitation cut across so many dimensions of social and economic development, including its centrality to the health and resilience of communities being impacted by climate hazards. The importance of sanitation was especially highlighted in the interactive dialogue session of Water for Health, though less so in the other interactive dialogue sessions. Unfortunately, the message of the critical role that sanitation plays in community, environmental, public health and infrastructure resilience, did not appear to carry through as a key message in the closing session on agreed priorities to take forward for the Water Action Agenda. The lesser focus on sanitation (and hygiene) compared to water indicates the need for us as practitioners to continue to take a holistic and integrated approach to WASH delivery and use the evidence to advocate for a greater focus on sanitation at a political level


Gender equality as a key accelerator for the achievement of SDG6 by 2030

While there were some engaging sessions exploring how to accelerate gender, disability and social inclusion (GEDSI) in water and WASH, including the expression of equal access to water and WASH as a human right, a common understanding that the increased voice, agency and representation of diverse women leaders will provide more effective and more sustainable solutions was lacking and did not prevail into the closing Water Action Agenda session. As a general perception, GEDSI issues were articulated more as a way to address the specific needs of women and marginalised groups rather than seeing them as active decision-makers and solution generators in their own right. It felt like a missed opportunity in examining tangible solutions to tackling the big issues of our time. This perspective is also backed up by the complete absence of SDG10 (Reducing Inequalities) listed under any of the Interactive dialogue sessions, and SG5 (Gender equality) only listed once under the Water for Health interactive dialogue session (see SDGs listed above against each Interactive Dialogue), rather than mainstreamed across all. Furthermore, while youth rightfully enjoyed strengthened prominence in terms of the urgent need for increased access and participation, across the conference discussions, there was a notable absence of disability, as an issue that required further and urgent attention.


Indigenous voice and representation

This was definitely a highlight of the conference. There was a strong throughline on hearing from the diverse voices of Indigenous Peoples from around the world and their relationship with water – their strong connections to water and the critical knowledges that they hold in sustainable stewardship, governance and integrity of water systems. Strong links were made to the central role of Indigenous women as water resource managers, with their deep understanding of water, and the systems and benefits they bring to healthy communities. Indigenous speakers across the board talked about the need to start thinking about water from an eco-systems perspective, rather than simply a resource perspective, where the focus is on commodification of water.  Indigenous leaders argue that this allows for a more holistic, interconnected perspective that takes into account the important links between healthy water, food sources, environment and biodiversity.

Many of the sessions explicitly touched on these elements, and there was a sense that these conversations are hopefully paving the way for more visible and meaningful participation of Indigenous communities in decision-making processes in water and WASH. The challenge will be on how Indigenous perspectives and knowledge will be more purposefully integrated into water policy and actions, given the economic models that currently exist.


An absence of Pacific voices

Pacific representation, visibility and voice were limited in the conference. Considering the scale and frequency of climate impacts that impact water that many Pacific countries are currently experiencing, along with the sustained advocacy and leadership work of many Pacific civil society leaders about climate change over the years, this was a significant gap, and conference outcomes would be the poorer for not having had more exposure to Pacific learnings in this area.  Water for Women and AWP attempted to lessen this gap by having a focus on Pacific voices and leadership for its side event and World Water Day campaign. Navara Kiene (from Water for Women partner, WaterAid PNG) contributed significantly to giving Pacific voice and visibility where possible, through her involvement in the above event, as well as her contributions to the Accelerating water security action for Pacific Resilience side event that was hosted by Mary Alalo and Dave Hebblethwaite from South Pacific Community (SPC) and her interventions in other events, such as in the SDG media zone on menstrual health in the Pacific. A video produced by IWC and Plan International Solomon Islands on their Water for Women work also featured in this session.

A graphic featuring a toolkit promotion

Conference highlights

  • Indigenous voices were integrated throughout the process, and there were clear, tangible messages. A concrete outcome which was influenced by Dr. Leslie (Phil) Duncan and Associate Professor Brad Moggridge (part of the Australian Delegation) was the plan for creation of an International Indigenous Forum. Both were involved in the drafting of the declaration, which is a strong message from Indigenous people around the world to the UN about Indigenous leadership in water management moving into the future.

  • Another concrete outcome was the leadership and involvement of The Hon. Kessy Sawang (Member of Parliament in the PNG Government and the Deputy Minister for Industry and Trade) in our World Water Day side event. Through her own lived experience and her expert leadership, Kessy gave voice to the importance of WASH for community health and resilience, particularly for women and girls. After leaving the event, Kessy went into parliament and advocated successfully to the Prime Minister for significant budget allocation for improved WASH access in PNG. It is envisaged that through this intervention, there will be important opportunities for WaterAid and the other PNG Consortium members, Plan International, World Vision and Live & Learn Environmental Education operating through Water for Women, to build on the relationship to further support the PNG Government in WASH systems, policy and programs development, including for tracking and monitoring progress.

  • The continued emphasis throughout the conference that water and sanitation is a human right coupled with the reframing of water as a common good rather than a commodity provides direction for the shift that water management must make in order to achieve SDG 6 and to ensure a more inclusive, climate resilient future.
  • The amplified indigenous voices in the WASH (particularly water) space, with a rights-based focused (land and human rights) talks to the need to both consider and capture local voices in decision-making and our approaches.

  • Approaches to GEDSI in WASH and women’s empowerment and leadership is still broad with plenty of opportunities for practitioners to refine our approaches and learn from each other. It is also steeped in culture so contextual understanding is key especially around addressing harmful social and cultural norms which came out a few times in discussions on the theme.

  • Data also came out as a major need and gap (including emphasis on research). The importance of advocating with Government through partnerships and strengthening government systems was emphasised

  • Along the same vein, there is a need for localised, contextual data for strong and sustainable approaches to building climate resilience.


Concluding summary

In total there were 689 commitments registered under the Water Action Agenda, including Water for Women’s extension phase. In his concluding remarks, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, stated that USD300 billion have been pledged by stakeholders at the conference and the recommendation to have a UN Special Envoy on water, if implemented, will better ensure that water can never be left out of any of the UN's plans, policies and strategies in the future. Furthermore, water will be a central feature in the three upcoming summits: SDG Summit (2023), Summit of the Future (2024) and the World Social Summit (2025).

Sanitation remains a significantly less part of the discussions, in spite of the significant impact it has on community resilience, healthy people and healthy environments.  The emerging perspective that water and sanitation are for the public good and not just for individual benefits is important, but how this will be further addressed, including ensuring that no one is left behind with respect to access remains a significant gap.  There is a lot of rhetoric and verbal support, but the articulation of substantial actions required to meet the SDG 6 targets of WASH remains elusive. This is a concern, as it is vital for a climate resilient future.

Reflections offered by key stakeholders at the closing provided some salient points:

Without blue there will be no green – water is a collective action problem that needs partnerships. We need to power-charge our efforts. This next chapter for water needs a giant leap forward, it cannot be incremental.


The nexus of climate, food and water needs to be strengthened - The private sector needs to step up to the challenge, there is not much time until 2030. There needs to be more innovation around using less water and producing more food.


Water is a common good - and that is the role we have to play as local and regional governments. We really need to redefine the price of water. The economies of water need to change. We welcome a Special Envoy on Water, but do not forget to include stakeholders and partners in decision-making.


Indigenous people need to be part of solutions – this is our story. Water is life, water is non-negotiable, act now!


In closing, the final reflection is that while the UN 2023 Water Conference brought people from around the globe to exchange ideas and commit to an Action Agenda that would accelerate change towards SDG6, the true test of its success will be how these commitments are translated into action.  That is where programs such as Water for Women are so critical.  Fund partners are continuing to explore better approaches to taking inclusive WASH services and systems to scale, including empowering women, people with disability and other marginalised groups to become leaders and decision-makers.  It is important we continue to share our challenges and successes, learn from others, and collectively work towards achieving SDG 6. 



Water for Women supports improved health, gender equality and wellbeing in Asian and Pacific communities through socially inclusive and climate-resilient water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) projects and research. It is the Australian Government’s flagship WASH program partnering with civil society organisations, research organisations and local partners to deliver 40 projects in 16 countries from 2018 to 2024. 

Since 2018, Water for Women has directly benefited over 3 million people across 15 Asia-Pacific countries – including more than 1.3 million women and girls, 1.3 million men and boys, 73,000 people with disability, and those attending the more than 700 schools and healthcare facilities now with improved access to WASH.

Water for Women participated at UN Water 2023 Conference as part of Australia – water partners for development, a collaboration with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Water Partnership.


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