Catalyzing youth voices at the UN2023 Water Conference

Through the empowerment and amplification of voices of hundreds of civil society groups (CSO) and youth organizations from around the world, the International Secretariat for Water (ISW) catalyzed CSO and youth priorities at the first global summit on water in almost 50 years.

Empowering civil society and youth to influence change has been a central element of the ISW strategy for over 30 years. For the UN 2023 Water Conference, ISW mobilized and promoted the voices of changemakers, particularly those most affected by water issues, including women, youth, and indigenous communities. Given the unique role of the ISW in the world of youth in water, the organization was invited by the United Nations to be the umbrella organization for youth for the conference.

Over the last decade, youth water actors have multiplied, at all levels, giving more and more volume to youth water engagement. However, youth advocacy, engagement groups and network associations in the water sector have too often been fragmented, diminishing the collective voice and influence of young people in global processes such as the UN Water Conference.

The Global Youth Movement for Water (GYMW) was thus launched by the International Secretariat for Water with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the Senegalese Government during the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar to enhance the recognition, role, and impact of youth in triggering and supporting the necessary societal transformation for a water secure future for all. The Movement brings together over 370 youth-led organizations and allies from over 70 countries across the world who share a common objective: the desire to harness commitments, political will and action to ensure a sustainable and peaceful world for all. 

In the lead up to the UN 2023 Water Conference, the ISW worked collectively with the hundreds of organizations of the GYMW to maximize the influence and impact of youth on the outcomes of the process. After years of significant fragmentation of the youth in water, the ISW successfully brought together the voices of youth organizations and allies, enabling them to convey common messages at the highest level.

Before and during the conference, and with the support of the ISW, the Global Youth Movement for Water made its presence known through a number of activities, processes and dialogues. 

The “#FillUpTheGlass” global communication campaign aimed at sharing the main priorities of youth. This campaign was designed for, by, and with young people, highlighting their perspectives and advocating for their voices to be heard. Influential actors such as the UN Youth Envoy, UN Water, UNICEF Water, Mina Gulli and YOUNGO shared the campaign on social media. The campaign was also published in over 15 traditional media outlets. Such outlets include Corriere Della Sera (Italy), National Observer (Canada), Adadolu Ajansi (Turkey) and Inside Climate News (United States). The total outreach of the campaign can be estimated at +200 000 people. 

The efforts led to significant youth participation and the presentation of youth priorities throughout the UN Conference on Water. The two messages that were particularly well conveyed by the young people at the conference were related to systematic youth inclusion in water-related mechanisms, negotiations, and decisions (#303030) and the request of creating a permanent body within the United Nations to address water challenges, inclusive of diverse youth representatives such as a UN Youth Envoy on Water.

Despite efforts to promote youth engagement in global fora, several challenges persist. Barriers such as limited access to funding, arduous visa procedures, difficulties in skill recognition, and complex bureaucratic processes hinder the meaningful participation of young individuals. Moreover, there is a growing concern regarding the phenomenon of “youthwashing,” where young people are merely used as tokens for appearance rather than being genuinely heard and valued. While governments and event organizers may encourage youth representation during such events, it remains essential to examine whether they are actively supporting policies and programs that prioritize the concerns and needs of young people at local and regional levels, beyond the immediate event.

The next milestones for the water sector include the global review of SDG 6 during the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), the UN General Assembly ministerial week, the 10th World Water Forum, the SDG Summit, and the Summit of the Future.The roadmap and key recommendations that follow are critical in ensuring a water-secure future for all and building the capacity of young people in their role as actors of change:

  1. Strengthening the Global Youth Movement for Water
  2. Increasing awareness and water advocacy
  3. Monitoring and accountability
  4. Bridging the local to the global
  5. Enhancing participation of youth in global and national processes

The UN2023 Water Conference was an important milestone for youth in water,coming together as a united movement and empowering the voices of the unheard.That said, the real impact of this conference will be measured in the actions done by all actors in months and years to come. The ISW commits to standing by, for and with the youth movement for water. Youth are not only the ones that will bear the impacts of the choices that we make today but they are the changemakers that are inspiring everyone to do their part in preserving a blue planet for all.

The UN2023 youth mobilization program of the International Secretariat for Water was financially supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Netherlands Government and the Agence de l’eau Artois-Picardie.