U.N. hopes water meeting can create ‘rippling effect’ to stave off crisis

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United Nations’ first meeting on water in nearly half a century drew towards a close on Friday with hopes it would spur political momentum and fears that too little is being done to tackle chronic water stress globally.

There is no international binding agreement for water like the one reached for climate in Paris in 2015, or framework like that established to protect nature in Montreal last year, despite dire warnings of the risks humanity faces if water is not managed better.

Nearly 700 groups including state and local governments, non-profit groups and some companies submitted water-related plans before and during this week’s conference in New York. Projects ranged from investing in “climate-smart” agriculture and wetland restoration in the Niger River basin, to mapping the water system in the Hague, the Netherlands.

The U.N. will now review these plans ahead of another meeting in July, Dutch special envoy to the United Nations Henk Ovink said.

“Is that enough? No…. We have fragmented water governance across the world, fragmented finance and not enough science and data in place,” said Ovink, whose country co-hosted the conference. “This conference is the beginning of a rippling effect across the world.”

Around 30% of the plans submitted looked to be impactful and indicated funding, said Charles Iceland, acting global director of water at the World Resources Institute.

“Each voluntary commitment has a place where you talk about how much money is available, most of them left that blank,” Iceland said.

“Water is the main way that climate is going to impact society so we need to have at least a yearly discussion of it,” Iceland added, including a global binding agreement as well as national and regional agreements where water basins cross national borders.

Non-profit environmental reporting group CDP lamented the low turnout of 12 heads of state as well as the lack of a plan to hold another conference.

“This sends a loud signal to the businesses, cities and investors which have woken up to the water crisis that they are on their own,” CDP global director for water security Cate Lamb said.

During the conference, French waste water and management company Veolia pledged to spend $1.7 billion over the next five years on infrastructure, technology and research and innovation in water and sanitation, and global investor group Ceres said it had added 25 members to a campaign to press thirsty companies to address financial risks linked to water and protect resources.

(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Josie Kao)