Environmental Integrity

Partnerships and Cooperation for Water

The United Nations World Water Development Report 2023

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TITLE: The United Nations World Water Development Report 2023: Partnerships and Cooperation for Water

CORPORATE AUTHOR: UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme 

COPYRIGHT LICENSE TYPE: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/. The report text has been edited for readability.


Ecosystems play a central role in regulating wate ravailability and its quality. Different sectors of human activity can change the environment, positively or negatively, through water and land use. Partnerships, therefore, have always been at the heart of meeting environment-related challenges for water.

The three planetary crises of (1) climate change, (2) nature(or biodiversity) loss, and (3) pollution are at the center of the United Nations (UN) systems strategy on the environment. Water is a key dimension of each of the three crises and forges the strongest interdependencies among them.

Water was included in 75% of countries’ climate change National Adaptation Plans. The ‘Paris Pact on Water and Climate Change Adaptation’ is clear recognition of the importance of water and ecosystems in the climate change agenda.

The continuing rate of loss and degradation of freshwater ecosystems and the loss of freshwater biodiversity remain the highest among all ecosystem types. Key drivers include land and water use, and climate change. The proactive use of the nature–water relationship to meet water resources management challenges is the realm of nature-based solutions (NBS). The fact that NBS concepts are making their way into high-level policy and decision making, and the rapidly increasing deployment of NBS and attention in the literature, are among the few positive developments in an otherwise usually gloomy outlook for water. Although some commentators remark that the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is driven by information technology, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization argues that it is being driven by nature-like and convergent technologies in which partnerships based on NBS play a central role.

Water pollution is a large part of the third crisis (in addition to air and land pollution). Climate change exacerbates water pollution, as does the loss of nature. The restoration of nature is therefore a leading approach to reducing water pollution. These interdependencies result in water and environment interventions delivering co-benefits across multiple development goals. The water–environment relationship includes a potentially far greater diversity of stakeholders and potential partners than any other water domain.

Partnerships on environment and water, as other areas and interests, operate at multiple levels. These include at the level of policy, between institutions and sectors, and at both national and international levels. The most important are partnerships among or with those stakeholders on the ground, as they can directly implement land and water resources interventions that lead to tangible progress. These are usually individuals and communities that are owners, leaseholders or stewards of land or water or whose activities directly impact these, including their representative bodies. Many are outside the ‘water sector’, according to its narrow definition.

At the community and grass-roots levels, local partners, often represented by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), are in a position to give local stakeholders a voice. Local partners can also help provide more relevant data and information, including monitoring on-the-ground progress.

A fundamental role of government is to provide the enabling environment in which partnerships and cooperation can innovate and flourish. They are responsible for establishing and overseeing regulatory frameworks, and are often expected to contribute with financial, technical and institutional support.

Regional, and particularly basin-level partnerships, such as river basin organizations, are the heart and soul of transboundary water resources management. While cooperation over transboundary basins and aquifers has been shown to deliver multiple benefits, the vast majority of the world’s internationally shared aquifers do not yet have any formal cooperative agreement.

As might be expected in a report developed through UN-Water, many partnerships operate at the international level among UN agencies (including all who have participated in the writing of this report), or between UN agencies and international NGOs. These partnerships provide platforms to deliver on the UN-Water Global Acceleration Framework accelerators of financing, governance, capacity development, innovation, and data and information, to “deliver fast results at an increased scale.” Partnerships among UN agencies and others are also a conspicuous feature of efforts to monitor and report on progress.

The business value of adding water-related environmental, social and governance (ESG) and water stewardship, through strategic partnerships and cooperation, has become increasingly embedded in corporate models by the private sector. Partnerships have supported local and national governments in protecting human rights, realigning business and environmental goals, creating efficiencies in administration and service delivery, improving the fairness and transparency of regulation, and advocating for increased quantity and quality of donor aid to developing countries.

Research and academic institutions are often relied on as knowledge generators and brokers, and help to underpin science- and evidence-based decision-making. They also play prominent roles in education and capacity development through partnerships in developing countries.

Safeguarding water, food and energy security through sustainable water management, providing water supply and sanitation services to all, supporting human health and livelihoods, mitigating the impacts of climate change and extreme events, and sustaining and restoring ecosystems and the valuable services they provide, are all pieces of a great and complex puzzle. Only through partnerships and cooperation can the pieces come together.

And everyone has a role to play.