Putting water at the centre of the global agenda


Remarks by Angel Gurría,

OECD Secretary-General

New York, 24 April 2017

(As prepared for delivery)



Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are here today because we think it’s time to put water at the top of our global agenda. It’s time to get our water act together. I want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting us as we launch this call. And I thank in particular PJ Simmons for introducing this discussion. 

Water is a global strategic issue

Water is at the centre of some of today’s biggest challenges. Half the world’s population suffers from polluted water, while 1.8 billion people still lack access to a safe and sustainable supply of fresh drinking water. More often than not, the poor are most affected by water-related risks and disasters: 89% of the deaths due to storms occurred in low-income countries, even though only 26% of the storms occurred in these countries. Recent work by the OECD and the Global Water Partnership estimates that globally, water-related risks cost more than USD 500 billion every year. 

But water-related problems are not the preserve of developing countries. For example, at the global level, the expected annual impact of floods is estimated at USD 120 billion per year from property damage alone; with almost half of that being felt here in North America. A recent study on 27 mega-cities revealed that the mega-city with the largest use of water per capita is New York. Los Angeles and Tokyo came fourth and fifth.



To paraphrase the famous saying in Tip O’Niell’s book about politics in the late ‘90s, I would say that “All water is local”. And this is true in many ways. But it is dangerous to dismiss water as only a local concern. We do not have to stretch our imagination too far to realise how rapidly local water issues can become regional, then national, then international, and then global.

The links between water challenges and increased migration, as well as the potential even for military conflict, are easy to discern. Tensions about the Tabqa dam in Syria, or transboundary water management in Central Asia, for example, underscore the importance of water diplomacy as an integral part of foreign policy today.

We also know that drought in key agricultural regions can affect food markets and prices globally. And climate is changing, amplifying the water resource challenges and risks for many. The availability and distribution of freshwater has already changed dramatically for some. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) identified water as a major driver for sustainable growth and development.

The policy challenges underlying the issues I have just described are numerous. Governance is one of them: how do we ensure the right decision-making systems are in place for the management of water resources, including at different levels of government? Financing is another major challenge. While investing in water security makes economic sense, this doesn’t necessarily result in the financial flows that are needed.

At the OECD, we have been working on these policy challenges: our recent OECD Council Recommendation on Water provides guidance on many of these issues. Our Principles on Water Governance and our Second Meeting of the Roundtable on Financing Water are other examples of how we’ve tried to distil best practices from a wealth of evidence, and put them at the disposal of OECD Members and non-Members alike.

A deficient global water architecture

But one thing is clear: the efforts of individual organisations – although important – are not sufficient to tackle the scale of the challenges ahead. We need a global response. We need a new global water architecture. Today’s such global architecture is simply not fit for purpose. Let me give you three reasons:

  1. We are failing to sustain the priority of both water policy and water politics. I was surprised to see, for example, that only three months after water was acknowledged as a distinct SDG, it failed to appear in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Moreover, we have failed to secure financing commensurate with the challenges we face and the goals we have set. The world failed to meet the Millennium Development Goal target on sanitation by a wide margin. As a former Minister of Finance, I know that lack of finance signals a failure to keep water high enough on the political agenda.

  2. The water community has no fixed focal point where it can meet, discuss issues of common interest, and engage in concerted and cohesive action at scale. It is fragmented and diverse. It coalesces regularly around specific interests in meetings in Amsterdam, Budapest, Daegu, Dushanbe, Singapore, Stockholm, Tel Aviv. We also have the World Water Forum that takes place every three years. But there is no cohesive engine behind these conversations, ensuring that words translate into actions.

  3. We are not organised to produce and share the knowledge on water needed at the global scale. Decision-makers need tools that allow them to develop robust policy responses at the appropriate scale. However, knowledge on the state of water is fragmented and patchy. No global network tracks water quality. We know too little about groundwater availability, or about the interactions between surface and groundwater in most parts of the world. Climate change will deeply affect water availability and water-related risks, but in ways that are still deeply uncertain at the local and regional scales. 

As a consequence, the attention we collectively pay to water is episodic and unstable.

With a new Secretary-General at the helm of the United Nations, it is time to put in place a more effective and inclusive global water architecture. I applaud the initiative of the UN General Assembly to discuss the integration and co-ordination of the UN on water-related goals and targets.

But today, even the UN is not equipped for the task – at least not yet. The 32 UN agencies that deal with water are loosely connected, approaching water from the perspective of their respective agendas. UN Water is not equipped to reconcile the sometimes conflicting mandates and instructions given to agencies by member states. The lack of attention to the water SDG has already been noted by the General Assembly, as well as in the assessment made by the then-UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB) in November 2015.

A new global water architecture

Our role is to support the UN, and to work with and for the UN to build a new and effective global water architecture. Let me conclude by highlighting three key elements that we have to take into consideration while building this new structure:

First, any effective response must be sustained and stable over time. We need to see the right expertise and capacity, as well as strategic political leadership. For cost reasons, we need to build – as far as possible – on existing institutions and capabilities, while recognising that in their current configuration they are inadequate.

Second, any approach to water must be coherent both across geographical scales and levels of government. While national governments will play a key role in delivering the 2030 agenda, there are limits to what they can achieve. Cities and regions must be key players in policy development and implementation.

Third, the global water architecture should not be limited to water: sectoral approaches to other challenges – such as food, health, urbanisation, resilience and energy – also need to embed water concerns more effectively. 

Ladies and Gentlemen:

In the 20th century we lost close to 50 per cent of our inland water systems; we cannot afford to lose the other 50 per cent in the 21st. We urgently need a consensus on a "good enough" global water architecture, avoiding the twin pitfalls of either over-ambition or a lowest common denominator response. Let’s step up our efforts, let’s push our boundaries further, let’s get our act together. The water clock is ticking. In the words of Bob Marley: “You ain’t gonna miss your water until your well runs dry”. Thank you very much.

See also 

Putting water at the centre (pdf)

OECD work on water

OECD work on the environment


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