Rio + 20

Rio+20 Wrap-Up

Even before it started, the global freshwater crisis was a focus of the 10-day Rio+20 summit that ended on June 22. In fact, UN-Water hosted “Water Day” on June 19, the day before the three-day high level UN conference that culminated the summit.

A subsection of the United Nations website is dedicated to all things water at Rio+20, and it outlines the four key water issues of the summit:

In other water-focused events:

      • The UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate held a presence.
      • The Friends of Rio joined forces under the umbrella of the World Economic Forum, promoting water and energy in their “multi-stakeholder” message.
      • U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the U.S. Water Partnership as one of “six signature initiatives” by the United States.

The United Nations also lists reports, statements and declarations, voluntary commitments, and sections of the outcome document (items 199-124) that speak to solving water issues. Two of the more specific water-related items in the outcome document, The Future We Want, were reaffirmations of older initiatives:

120. We reaffirm the commitments made in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation and Millennium Declaration regarding halving by 2015 the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation and the development of integrated water resource management and water efficiency plans, ensuring sustainable water use. We commit to the progressive realization of access to safe and affordable drinking water and basic sanitation for all, as necessary for poverty eradication, women’s empowerment, and to protect human health, and to significantly improve the implementation of integrated water resource management at all levels as appropriate. In this regard, we reiterate our commitments to support these efforts in particular in developing countries through the mobilization of resources from all sources, capacity building and technology transfer.

121. We reaffirm our commitments regarding the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, to be progressively realized for our populations with full respect for national sovereignty. We also highlight our commitment to the 2005-2015 International Decade for Action “Water for Life.”

Reiterations of old accords and generalized active verbs make up much of the U.N. documents. NGOs and corporations alike fought back against what they saw as inaction, and a trend emerged: the revelation that NGOs and other organizations cannot rely on government alone to conquer the global water crisis, let alone any other pressing economic or environmental issues. Instead, they’ve used Rio+20 to unite to push leaders in the right direction.

Outcome Document: Success or Failure?
The U.N. released the final draft of the outcome text document, The Future We Want, in six different languages. According to the International Institute of Sustainable Development, representatives from 191 U.N. Member States — including 79 Heads of State or Government — were in Rio for the talks. Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Angela Merkel stayed home, but social networks saw unprecedented traffic from the public and private sectors.

Generally, reviews of the summit reflected disappointment in its outcomes, even as the number of Voter Dialogues participants, YouTube uploads, and Twitter mentions indicated strong global interest.

Friends of the Earth, (a nonprofit organization that advocates for environmental policy worldwide), released an “initial analysis” of the outcome document text that the group will expand upon in the coming weeks. Representatives of other leading environmental organizations explain an ongoing need for more specific action:

“The final outcome document is in support of everything, but doesn’t commit to anything … There will be no legally-binding outcomes from this conference. It was effectively an exercise in public relations by the industrialized nations … Numerous promising ideas were proposed in the draft text only to be cut during the negotiating process due to lack of consensus and pressure from vested interests, including regulation that would curb food speculation, a tax on financial transactions that could contribute to poverty eradication and climate change adaptation and mitigation, and clear deadlines for ending fossil fuel subsidies … Rio+20 represents 20 steps back for both the multilateral UN process and global sustainability.” – Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch and Food & Water Europe, “The UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio Takes 20 Steps Back” (June 22, 2012)

Kumi Naidoo, international executive director of Greenpeace, was more critical. He garnered attention for a tweet in which he labeled Rio+20 a failure and said The Future We Want is the “longest suicide note in history.”

Rio+20 Greenpeace Future We Want Kumi Naidoo tweet suicide note sustainability food water energy outcome text

Greenpeace’s international executive director tweeted his negative thoughts about the outcome text.

Partnerships and Coalitions
The level of investment that “civil society” members displayed has called into question the need for such international conferences. They noted that the United Nations meeting model is an antiquated one. Some who arrived at this realization labeled Rio+20 a failure.

Yet others view Rio+20 as a learning opportunity.

G. Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice, reflected this view in “We Have Met the Solution and It Is Us,” an op-ed in The New York Times on June 22.

“But what we must remember is this: Rio+20 is not just about a document. Rio+20 is a catalyst. It is the starting point for change, not the finish line. It is a call to action for all of us who now realize that we can’t just rely on government negotiators or verbose and hyper-compromised documents to save our planet.

“We must do it ourselves.

“But here’s what else we witnessed at Rio+20:

“We can do this ourselves.”

To achieve this goal, several alliances formed in preparation for Rio+20. From the U.S. Water Partnership and the United Nations Global Compact CEO Water Mandate, which released a “Communiqué,” to Future Earth and the World Economic Forum’s “Friends of Rio.” Such specialized groups united, forming initiatives that call upon the expertise of businesses, institutes, and the general public with the goal of holding governmental leaders accountable dismissing politics, and analyzing economic and environmental needs.

Issues and Implementation
Rio+20 gave stakeholders and individuals an event around which to emphasize their main issues of concern, from a Greenpeace petition to “Save the Arctic” to’s Twitterstorm to #EndFossilFuelSubsidies. Yet, there has been frustration that conversations about some issues were too limited.

The banner at the top of the Rio+20 website has a ticker measuring the current number of “voluntary commitments” to affect change. Of the 719 total, the U.N. lists eight that focus on water.

Rio+20 voluntary commitments UNCSD sustainable development United Nations 719

As of July 6, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development website listed a total of 719 voluntary commitments promised by governments and organizations as a result of Rio+20.

The most important thing to remember is that the end of Rio+20 does not mean all solutions must be set in stone. In the meantime, the world must continue to act and advocate, to wait and see.

“The negotiations are over, the leaders are speechmaking and the NGOs are unhappy. Two and half years of a (at times painful) multilateral process to chart the future of the planet and its people has resulted in a mixed bag. At best the Rio+20 document is a series of mediocre steps forward, at worst it is failure to deliver on many of the things we need most. But it is too simplistic to declare Rio+20 an utter failure or a roaring success.” – Farooq Ullah, Stakeholder Forum Editorial Advisor, “Rio+20: Dig deep, prepare to act and have hope,” Outreach: A Multistakeholder Magazine on Climate Change & Sustainable Development (June 22, 2012)

Sources: Food & Water Watch, The Guardian

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