‘Left me with hope’: Virginia Tech researchers reflect on watershed United Nations conference
May 1, 2023
The river otter propels downstream past the kayakers gently paddling in the same direction.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds zoom across the gulf, migrating to fresh nectar in their spring home.
Spinner dolphins leap toward the sun, corkscrewing in the sky before diving back below the ocean surface. Spring breakers on the shoreline twist bottlecaps and sip drinks as the cool, salty waves glide atop their feet.
All of this exists because of water. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms combine to give life to the millions of species that inhabit Earth.
For most people, acquiring water means turning on a faucet. But for more than a billion, access is far from easy amid a global water crisis. Climate change continues to harm quality and access across the globe.
As stewards of the natural world, how can humans protect and improve access to the planet’s most precious resource?
Answering this question and more is the mission of dedicated researchers at Virginia Tech.
A cohort from the university joined world leaders, scientists, activists, and fellow scholars at a historic United Nations Water Conference.
Held at its headquarters in New York, the United Nations called the conference “the most important water event in a generation.” According to the World Economic Forum, the conference supported “game-changing solutions” for multifaceted crises, from droughts and pollution to floods and storms.
Virginia Tech was one of only 22 academic institutions in the United States to earn accreditation to attend the March conference in New York.
Six faculty, one postdoctoral researcher, and two graduate students from across the university attended the three-day conference.
Yugasha Bakshi, a Ph.D. student in the school’s Planning, Governance, and Globalization program, took the initiative to apply for accreditation after the United Nations secretariat opened the conference to accredited institutions.
“Our university has an excellent mix of scholars from different colleges researching aspects of water,” said Bakshi. “I thought Virginia Tech should be a part of this milestone event.”
Bakshi has six years of experience in the water sector and is studying models of city-level water governance for her dissertation. In her time at Virginia Tech, she’s met several faculty members who work on water in the United States and internationally. Ralph Hall is one of them.
Hall is an associate professor and the director of undergraduate studies in the School of Public and International Affairs who specializes in providing sustainable water supply services in developing countries. Bakshi approached Hall and Stephen Schoenholtz, professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, for support in the accreditation process.
The university received approval in January, greenlighting Virginia Tech to send representatives to the first United Nations conference of its kind in over 45 years.
“Yugasha opened the door for Virginia Tech faculty and researchers working in the water space to attend this important conference, helping to form stronger connections between the work we are undertaking here at Virginia Tech,” said Hall. “Her impact for our university will be resonating throughout the networks she’s helped create and strengthen both within and outside the institution.”
For 15 years, Hall’s water research has revolved around one simple question: How do people in rural communities and developing regions use water?
He’s led fieldwork in Colombia, Senegal, Mozambique, Kenya, Burkina Faso, and Malawi. All of his research points to the same general answer — people use water to support their livelihoods, which means they need water for household and productive uses such as raising livestock and growing crops.
“However, much of the emphasis given to rural water services provision focuses on providing safe drinking water to households, often excluding water for productive uses,” said Hall. “Rather than providing single-use systems, communities need multiple-use water systems that support domestic and productive uses.”
Hall called the United Nations conference a career-affirming experience. “I was able to see the influence of this body of research shaping an element of the global water agenda,” he said.
For example, Hall learned that the government of Nepal cited a research article he co-authored with School of Public and International Affairs alumnus Raj GC on the importance of multiple-use water systems. The Nepalese government document outlines efforts to enhance water security.
Hall also attended a session highlighting the need to bridge the gap between the human right to food and the human right to water. Hall said the desired outcome can be achieved precisely through multiple-use water systems.
Bakshi, whose prior research in India focused on universal access to water and sanitation, called the conference experience “invaluable.”
“As someone who is pursuing a Ph.D., it was great to interact with leaders of various organizations, share ideas, receive feedback, and continue the dialogue of what matters most,” said Bakshi.
She noted promising outcomes with global implications, including an agreement to appoint a special envoy and scientific panel for furthering the Water Action Agenda.
The conference yielded a new United Nations panel on water and nearly 700 commitments totaling billions of dollars to a new Water Action Agenda from local and national governments, nonprofits, and corporations.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the commitments “will propel humanity towards the water-secure future every person on the planet needs.”
But conference organizers “conceded that more was needed than a set of voluntary commitments such as a formal global agreement, like the 2015 Paris climate accords and the 2022 Montreal biodiversity pact, as well as better data and an international finance mechanism to safeguard water supplies,” according to The Guardian.
Bakshi pointed to similar “missed opportunities" from the conference.
“I wish the nation governments and private sector representatives had presented stronger commitments backed with scientific data and commitment to bring systemic transformations,” said Bakshi.
The second-year doctoral student said she hopes to see more discussion on localizing sustainable development goals and linking global goals with local actions at upcoming Virginia General Assembly sessions or at the UN Sustainable Development Goals Summit this September.
As for her key takeaway from the conference, Bakshi said it’s clear everyone – including the Virginia Tech community – has a role to play in how water is used, managed, and valued.
“Hokies can and should contribute to Virginia Tech’s Climate Action Commitment goals through efficient and sustainable use of water,” she said.
In addition to Bakshi and Hall, the Virginia Tech delegation included:
- Sunil Sinha, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of sustainable water infrastructure management (SWIM)
- Madeline Schreiber, professor and associate head of the Department of Geosciences
- Alasdair Cohen, assistant professor of environmental epidemiology in the Department of Population Health Sciences and the Virginia Tech Public Health Program
- Peter Vikesland, the Nick Prillaman Professor and associate head in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
- Durelle Scott, associate professor and assistant department head for undergraduate studies in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering
- Daniel Smith, postdoctoral associate in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences
- Alexander Miele, master’s student in the Department of Geography
The opportunity came for the Virginia Tech delegation thanks to the diligence of a doctoral student in the School of Public and International Affairs.
Each scholar shared key takeaways and reflections from their experience.
“Climate change and land-use change critically affect water resources through extreme events and environmental degradation around the globe, but countries are approaching these challenges in a different way based on their governance and management structures.
"Many of the SWIM board members from Xylem, Arcadis, IBM, and others presented at the UN Water Conference.
"I was invited for the ‘Water Innovation and Business high-level plenary, network, and matchmaking event.’ I met New York City Mayor Eric Adams and many high-level officials.
"Also, I am working on a new PBS documentary related to climate change and water crisis. The UN Water Conference and the New York Water Week events helped to connect with key people for my new documentary and storyline.
"We need transformative actions and solutions that drive the change we need for sustainability and resilience of water security.”
“I was amazed by the breadth of people from around the world who came to the UN Water Conference to talk about the critical influence of water on health, food, poverty, and conflicts. People from government, NGOs, academics and the private sector met in sessions to talk about opportunities for collaboration to address the pressing issues of water that we face.
"Hearing from people in countries where climate change and mismanagement of water are destroying their communities due to sea level rise, saltwater intrusion and lack of safe sanitation was especially heartbreaking. I greatly enjoyed being part of the VT group. We all have different research interests but greatly enjoyed sharing our daily experiences with each other."
“I believe this conference helped further increase awareness around water supply and access challenges and inequalities. Among the events I attended, I was particularly impressed with the Global Commitment to Stop the Flow of Lead in Drinking Water side event, and associated efforts to reduce exposures to lead by replacing and preventing the use of pipes and other water supply components that can leach lead into drinking water."
“The conference was an incredible bringing together of the global community to discuss the myriad issues associated with water — spanning topics as diverse as water supply, water pollution, water treatment, the economics of water delivery, equity, climate change impacts, and so many more.
"While the diversity of ideas and people was impressive, it was less clear how much was actually accomplished by the meeting. Extensive discussion of the general problems associated with water delivery, supply, equity, etc. occurred, but less discussion of specific actions – at least in the sessions I was able to attend - there were so many to choose from – to address the issues. Ideally, this meeting should spark future, frank discussions about specific problems and potential approaches to address them. Water issues are inherently ‘wicked’ and thus it was not surprising that solutions were hard to come by.”
"The experience left me with hope for reaching our sustainable development goals among our growing population and climate extremes. Nature-based solutions that harness the ebb and flow of a river and the local cultural knowledge are part of the solution, and our research across Virginia Tech will continue to contribute to meeting the sustainable development goals for our global society."
"The UN Water Conference was a fascinating experience. I was exposed to water issues from a global perspective and believe this will help me grow as a scientist throughout my career. Also, seeing firsthand how commitments and agreements could be negotiated in the hallways and over coffee is something I will never forget."
“My main takeaway: less talk, more action.”
Written by Andrew Adkins