IISD Experimental Lakes Area at sunset

Source to Sea: Integrating the water agenda in 2023

By Sofia Baliño on March 22, 2023

As the first months of the new year give way to the full-fledged pace of international meetings, projects, and conferences, it is increasingly apparent that 2023 could prove to be a definitive year for facilitating an integrative perspective on water issues, from fresh water to the marine environment.

Issues related to water are featured throughout the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development—reflected both in specific goals, such as SDG 6 on water and sanitation and SDG 14 on life below water, as well as in dedicated targets within other goals. The biodiversity that is an essential part of the water cycle, and that is fed by this cycle, brings many additional SDGs and targets into view. 

Work on these SDGs and targets happens in a range of forums—including intergovernmental organizations with mandates on environment or trade policy, environment ministries, and scientific research facilities—and in separate, distinct communities, operating under very different timetables.

This year is bringing high-level attention to several related targets, with a new high seas treaty concluded in early March, a once-in-a-generation UN freshwater conference this week, and active talks among UN and World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiators on new treaties and policies that will affect the marine environment. 

Set against a backdrop of the ever-intensifying impacts of climate change playing havoc with weather patterns and introducing new threats to our water supplies, it is looking like 2023 could and should be a critical year for water and the marine environment.

UN 2023 Water Conference: Eyeing a Water Action Agenda

Governments, civil society organizations, scientists, and a host of other actors working on water and water governance will come together from March 22 to 24 in New York for the UN 2023 Water Conference, an event that arrives nearly 50 years after the last such United Nations Water Conference, held in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 1977.

This year’s event comes at the midway point of the Water Action Decade, aimed at tackling challenges ranging from sanitation to water scarcity. It also comes at the mid-point of the 2030 Agenda and immediately prior to the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development’s focus on SDG 6 progress. The deliberations will also continue in September, when heads of state and government will participate in the SDG Summit. 

Participants at this month’s talks in New York have been encouraged to announce commitments that will be compiled in a Water Action Agenda that will seek to reinvigorate efforts at making the Water Action Decade a success. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for the Agenda to be bold and ambitious, one that can "[give] our world's lifeblood the commitment it deserves." The discussion forums for this meeting will focus on cross-cutting issues, bringing a focus to interlinkages between water and health, sustainable development, and climate change.

"Across the globe, we seem to be experiencing fresh water’s endlessly evolving vicissitudes firsthand, from unprecedented flooding to old and new pollutants in lakes and rivers across the world. And thanks to the ever-intensifying impacts of climate change, it doesn't seem like our fraught relationship with that which sustains us will be improving any time soon. That’s why this conference matters," said Dimple Roy, Director, Water Management at IISD, writing in the South China Morning Post

Crucial within those conversations, she added, is natural infrastructure, which can help provide crucial services like flood mitigation or wastewater treatment. "When it comes to working with governments, we need to encourage all levels—at events just like the UN 2023 Water Conference—to appreciate the benefits of and thus adopt more natural infrastructure projects."

WTO Fisheries Subsidies Deal: Governments set sights on ratification, new wave of talks

Follow up on a key decision in June 2022 that affects the marine environment could also bring a focus to interlinkages on the global agenda. In that decision, the World Trade Organization’s 164 members struck a deal that had eluded them for over 20 years: a new treaty setting binding, enforceable disciplines on harmful fisheries subsidies. 

The agreement is only the second WTO-wide treaty since the organization first opened its doors in 1995, and it is the first WTO agreement that is focused specifically on achieving an environmental objective. The treaty includes disciplines on subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, disciplines on subsidies to the fishing of overfished stocks, and subsidies to fishing activities that occur on the high seasin other words outside the national jurisdiction of any memberand do not fall within the mandate of any regional fisheries management bodies.

Delivering on this deal’s potential means ambitious implementation, and soon. For that to happen, a minimum of 109 WTO members need to submit formal acceptance of the deal, allowing the treaty to enter into force—though members can also start implementation at the domestic level beforehand. Since the start of 2023, Seychelles, Singapore, and Switzerland have submitted their acceptances, with 106 WTO members still to go at the time of this writing. 

This treaty is not the end of the line for the WTO fisheries talks. WTO members are now in a so-called "second wave" of negotiations, aiming to address topics that had proven too politically contentious for the deal reached last June—namely, those subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.

Negotiators are pushing to wrap up these talks in time for the WTO's Thirteenth Ministerial Conference in February 2024 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. If that deadline proves unfeasible, they have until 4 years from the current agreement’s entry into force to reach a deal or see the existing treaty lapse unless they decide otherwise.

"The Fisheries Subsidies Agreement was a necessary step in the right direction, but the work does not stop there. WTO members must now ensure that current disciplines are complemented by broader rules on subsidies that incentivize the overcapitalization of fleets and excessive fishing pressure," said Tristan Irschlinger, IISD Policy Advisor, Fisheries Subsidies.

New Treaty for the High Seas: A long-awaited deal crosses the negotiating finish line

March opened with big news for ocean and biodiversity governance: after 20 years of talks, UN member states have clinched a new deal for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ).

This new high seas treaty builds on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and revolves around four major areas.

The treaty establishes provisions for “fair and equitable” benefit sharing for marine genetic resources, eyeing concerns involving the overexploitation of these resources and the fear that their benefits might otherwise be limited to those with the greatest ability to make use of them. These provisions are crucial as governments, businesses, and scientists alike explore the potential that these resources have for both commercial applications, like pharmaceutical products, and for achieving environmental goals, like enabling climate change adaptation.

The treaty sets out how governments can establish area-based management tools, including marine protected areas, in the high seas, which will help make it possible for governments to achieve the “30x30” target of protecting 30% of ecosystems, including inland water and marine ecosystems, under the new Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. That framework was adopted by governments at last year’s 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP 15).

The BBNJ agreement also establishes when environmental impact assessments would be required before governments can undertake certain activities on the high seas—and the steps they should take to mitigate and report on any harm that these activities may cause, should the project involved continue after the assessment. The BBNJ accord also features a section on capacity building and marine technology, as well as outlining plans for a financial mechanism to support the treaty’s implementation.

Looking ahead, the treaty will need to be formally adopted by delegations when the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) tasked with the talks reconvenes. After that, the treaty requires ratification by a minimum of 60 UN member states before it can enter into force.

Tackling Plastic Pollution: Next steps for UN, trade talks

One year ago, UN member states at the resumed fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly adopted a resolution agreeing to begin negotiations for a legally binding treaty tackling plastic pollution—including pollution affecting the marine environment.

Talks for this new treaty are now underway in an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC). The first INC meeting took place in late 2022 in Punta del Este, Uruguay, to weigh questions over the treaty’s scope, along with how it will be put into practice, with the next INC, known as INC-2, taking place in late May and early June. Negotiators are currently aiming to clinch a deal next year.

"Just as for water governance, 2023 is a big year for chemicals and wastes. We’re closely watching the talks towards a new plastics treaty, as well as parallel negotiations on a possible post-2020 platform for chemicals and waste management. A new science-policy panel on chemicals is also under development," said Elena Kosolapova, Senior Policy Advisor for IISD's Tracking Progress team.

Meanwhile, in Geneva, Switzerland, over 75 WTO members are looking at how trade and the trading system can also serve to tackle plastic pollution and encourage a move towards more sustainable plastics trade. This process is known as the Informal Dialogue on Plastic Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade. 

Guided by a December 2021 ministerial statement, this group is looking at crafting outcomes they can share in time for next year’s MC13, with ideas so far falling under the categories of "cross-cutting issues," "reduction and circularity to tackle plastic pollution," and "promoting trade to tackle plastic pollution."

Charting a course forward

These are just a few examples of the myriad efforts underway to help bring SDGs 6 and 14, as well as the other water-related targets across the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to fruition. They are efforts involving people ranging from scientists to policy-makers, Indigenous leaders to international lawyers, and many more. The level of activity underway across these forums is a testament to the value placed on water-related issues—and a reminder of the important work that still lies ahead.

The international community is now approaching the midway point of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with the above-mentioned SDG Summit this upcoming September marking a valuable opportunity to take stock of the work thus far and the road ahead for the SDGs, especially at a time of converging crises. Now is the time to look across the different forums and conversations that affect fresh water and the marine environment and consider what an integrative perspective on these issues could look like.

The author would like to thank Lynn Wagner, Vanessa Farquharson, and Sumeep Bath for their invaluable editorial suggestions and feedback, as well as the experts quoted in this article for their thoughtful contributions.