The United Nations Water Conference 2023 is an important step towards addressing water insecurity, a critical issue in the face of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Following the United Nations agreement to protect the world's oceans, this conference brings together nations to address voluntary commitments to ensure equitable access to water for all. The right to water, which covers 70% of the Earth's surface, is a ‘contemporary’ human right (Karunananthan 2019). Fresh water, however, is considerably less abundant. Water availability, access to safe drinking water, hygiene and sanitation, the water-energy-food nexus, and water for the climate are no longer guaranteed. This scarcity and insecurity poses great risk (Goering 2023).

It is estimated that 800,000 people die each year from diseases attributed to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and poor hygiene practices, and many more do not have access to safe water (WHO 2022). The world's commitments on water thus need to be substantial, transformative, innovative, and future-oriented. The EU Commission recognises water as a human right and aims to address a list of 33 commitments, grouped into several priorities. These include ensuring safe access, protecting aquatic environments, promoting integrated management of water resources, promoting circularity for water efficiency and reuse in energy, industry and agriculture, promoting transboundary water cooperation, tackling river and ocean pollution, mobilising public and private finance, and committing 1.4 billion euros up until 2024.

To achieve commitments at the global level, partnerships and cooperation are essential resources. Societal stakeholders, such as civil society, have specific proposals and question the efficacy of water policies in which the involvement of the private sector is substantial. The Water Justice Movement has been critical of the privatisation of water and sanitation services and the accompanying market-based solutions that can put human rights at risk (Solano 2020). Concretely, Public Service International (PSI) calls for an improvement of regulation and social participation. One area that needs a concrete and sustainable policy response is big tech. Companies are highly dependent on thousands of litres of water per day – for example, for the management of data centres’ cooling systems, or for the production of semiconductors, which needs ultra-purified water (Multani 2020).

Water governance needs to have an all-inclusive perspective. The chairs of the Global Commission on the Economics of Water (GCEW) are advocating for a reshaping of the governance of water. They advocate a global strategy to govern water for the common good, with proper pricing and targeted support for the poor (Global Commission on the Economics of Water, 2023). Rethinking water governance should be forward-looking and avoid falling into the same old narratives.

The UN Water Conference focused on the strong involvement of a multiplicity of stakeholders. Their commitments will only work if broader societal issues are addressed. From a labour perspective, policymakers must act quickly on the following issues:

  1. Address the consequences of the lack of access to safe water and sanitation for working conditions. UNESCO reports that the demand for water is intensifying in agriculture, healthcare, energy, and industry. Many other sectors in the labour market are highly dependent on water too, such as farming, fisheries and forestry, and water shortages and droughts have resulted in long-term impacts on working conditions and health. These impacts need equally long-term governance responses.
  2. Ensure inclusive multi-stakeholder participation. Participation is recognised in the SDG 6 as a ‘mechanism by which individuals and communities can meaningfully contribute to management decisions and directions’. Governance mechanisms and new arrangements are needed to ensure that social actors and trade unions can participate as actors of change, as opposed to a traditional observer role.
  3. Ensure that technology and innovation do not generate future social inequalities. Digitalisation and innovative technologies can bring new solutions. However, there are certain issues that need to be addressed before implementing them. Policy and regulations should not focus on technological fixes that sidestep the core problems. If technological innovations are necessary, they should be proven to have lows levels of risk for people and the environment. To assess this, involvement of relevant stakeholders should be ensured. Moreover, when technology is ready to be implemented, it should be financially accessible to everyone.

The right to water is fundamental to everyone’s health, dignity, and prosperity. Governance measures and effective regulation is needed to ensure that this right applies to every worker without discrimination. There are high expectations that the UN Water Conference’s commitments will provide a collective approach to secure water for everyone.