What needs to happen at COP28 with water security?

Back in March, the UAE’s Minister of Climate Change and the Environment, HE Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri, announced that water security and sustainability will be placed front and centre at COP28. But what does this mean in practice? What do the nations of the world’s most water-stressed nations need to do to secure the best possible outcomes from the conference?

Essentially, what needs to happen at COP28 to make a sustainable water future for everyone?

Getting ideas flowing: Forward momentum on three top priorities for COP28

Late August saw COP28 hosts the UAE announce the top three water priorities for this year’s conference. These three areas marked for exploration say a lot about the current hardships and risks faced by the host nation and its regional peers. With limited freshwater resources and a growing vulnerability to climate-based disasters, every ME nation needs COP28 to produce heightened ambition and tangible progress on each of the following:

Conserving and restoring freshwater ecosystems: While the GCC leads the world in desalinated water production, overreliance on this approach is not a viable long-term solution. Conservation and restoration of groundwater reserves, aquifers, rivers and other freshwater resources is a fundamental necessity for creating a sustainable climate future.

Nature-based solutions: Although technological wonders are essential in providing rapid progress on water security, the most cost-effective and scalable solutions are often found in nature itself. These range from replanting forests to improving soil resilience against flooding, to the vital conservation and extension of mangroves, a superb barrier against coastal erosion, tidal waves and more. The UAE has even vowed to plant 10 mangroves in Abu Dhabi for each visitor attending the Cop28 climate change summit this year.

Enhancing urban water resilience: From installing smart water infrastructure to consumption reduction efforts, urban areas are prime targets for water sustainability boosts. Governments need to work with their citizens to raise awareness of water waste and promote better usage habits, while also giving everyday people access to the right infrastructure and support to better manage their consumption.

Bolstering water-resilient food systems: Agriculture is still the number one water-consuming industry in most of the Middle East by a large margin. Since water security and food security often go hand in hand, making agricultural sectors less water intensive is a solid win-win outcome. For example, Egypt is currently building 17 new desalination plants to help improve its arable land for growing wheat to make up for the shortfall caused by the deficit from Ukraine. However, even this major push may not be enough to secure resources sufficient for the task. Accordingly, smarter agricultural methods and infrastructure must be promoted alongside added water production capacity.

What will progress look like at COP28?

With these agenda priorities and past commitments in mind, the stage is set for COP28 to deliver some genuinely world-shaping outcomes on water security and resilience. Not just for the Middle East, but for the whole world. In terms of concrete progress, when the talking ends there needs to be forward momentum across three key areas.

Responsive water policy: Water is the connector for integrated solutions to global climate challenges ranging from biodiversity to food security. COP28 needs to produce internationally workable guidelines and commitments on smarter water management and conservation. Ideally, water will become a much greater focus of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) for individual nations’ climate policy, with tangible, intelligent provisions to conserve freshwater resources, while reducing consumption and wastage rates.

Easing technology proliferation: A routine criticism of past COP agendas is that they lacked the political will to forge genuine international collaboration on water outcomes. Every month, we report on groundbreaking new technologies that boost water sustainability in their localities, but wider adoption of suitable solutions is frequently slow and piecemeal. COP28 should point towards new political provisions for easing cross-border access to water-based technologies, while also making it easier for governments and private sectors of different nations to collaborate on water projects.

Greater commitments on financial outcomes: The Bonn Climate Change Conference in June pointed out that while plenty of integrated water and climate solutions are readily available, financing remains a critical issue to get these vital measures in place. This applies especially to low-income countries where climate-induced disasters are pushing them into a debt trap, delaying future progress while making their societies even more vulnerable. In short, the money tap needs to be turned on, and nations with water security ambitions must lead by example with significantly greater financial commitments.


As COP28 rapidly approaches, all eyes will be turned towards the host nation for further clues on exactly how – and to what extent – water security can be achieved in the shrinking window of opportunity to stave off global climate disaster.