The world needs an Intergovernmental Panel on Water
Han Seung-soo

Editor's note: Decision Makers is a global platform for decision makers to share their insights on events shaping today's world. Han Seung-soo is former prime minister of the Republic of Korea, president of the 56th Session of the UN General Assembly, and special envoy of the UN secretary-general for Climate Change (2007-2008) and for Disaster Risk Reduction and Water (2013-2018). The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Water and climate change are two critical components of sustainable development. Air, that is climate, and water are no longer free goods as we were taught at the school. They are the twin of nature, inseparable but changing with a rapidly increasing cost to the humanity.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has greatly contributed to the global awareness of the gravity of climate change and played a leading role in awakening the humanity to the critical issue of global warming. IPCC's first report contributed to the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, the third report to the Kyoto Protocol in 1996 and the fifth report on the successful Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

On the other hand, despite of its immense impact on the humanity as much as climate change, there has not been such an intergovernmental panel on water.

Unfortunately, UN member states have never discussed potential action to accelerate progress towards water-related global targets. Sanitation and clean water are critical to sustainable development. About 1.8 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion to improved sanitation facilities. After the COVID-19 pandemic is over, water and sanitation would have to be the place to start "Building Forward Better."

To deal with water and sanitation, the United Nations Secretary-General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB) was created in 2004 but ceased to function in 2014. The UNSGAB had its 5th termination anniversary (UNSGAB+5) on February 12, 2021 and its chairman, HM King Willem Alexander of the Netherlands, and the honorary president, HM Emperor Naruhito, both attended the commemorative online meeting.

The negative impact of climate change mostly happens through water and the water-related disasters account for more than 90 percent of all natural disasters. Therefore, silos of water, climate, disaster and relevant sectors should be broken in full and be integrated as one.

Rising water caused by heavy rains is seen along the Kuma River in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture, southern Japan, July 4, 2020. /Reuters

Rising water caused by heavy rains is seen along the Kuma River in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture, southern Japan, July 4, 2020. /Reuters

To deal with the water-related disasters, the High-Level Experts and Leaders Panel on Water and Disasters (HELP) has been in operation since 2007. The HELP has had a biannual meeting as well as a biennial meeting of the UN Special Thematic Session on Water and Disasters (UNSTSWD) since 2013.

As regards to the disasters, the United Nations has had two important conferences on disaster risk reduction; the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 followed by the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. The conferences were held after the earthquake in Hyogo in 1994 and the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction identified four priorities – understanding disaster risk, strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk, investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience and enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to "Build Back Better" in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.    

In the recent UN High Level Meeting on the implementation of the water-related goals and targets of the 2030 agenda, I urged the United Nations to establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Water (IPW) as advised by the High-Level Panel on Water in March 2018. The High-Level Panel was co-convened by the secretary-general of the United Nations and the president of the World Bank Group in April 2016.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Water will be able to mobilize thus far diverse water efforts into one channel and enhance the visibility of water as a whole to the critical issue of sustainable development as much as what IPCC has done to the global issue of climate change.

The United Nations member states have decided to organize a UN Water Conference in March 2023 and that will be an exceptional opportunity to decide to improve the UN architecture on water. I strongly urge that by then at least, the global consensus should be built upon creating an Intergovernmental Panel on Water.

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