First UN Water Conference in four decades includes a delegation from Penn

Events on campus last week kicked off the global proceedings, which will include representatives from the Water Center at Penn, Penn Carey Law School, and the School of Arts & Sciences.

Seven people stand in front of banner reader UN 2023 Water Conference with New York skyline in background
A Penn delegation is participating in this year’s United Nations Water Conference in New York City. Among those attending (left to right): Carey Law School’s Caitlin Kim, the Master in Environmental Studies Program’s Ivy Steinberg-McElroy, and the Water Center at Penn’s Emma Denison, Jazmin Ricks, Brenton McCloskey, Brianne Callahan, and Ellen Kohler. (Image: Courtesy of Brenton McCloskey/Water Center at Penn)

“Water is a human right,” said Howard Neukrug, executive director of the Water Center at Penn. But recognizing that, he said, “has a lot of consequences associated with it.”

Discussions about the challenges and opportunities for addressing those consequences are on the agenda this week at the UN 2023 Water Conference, the first United Nations event focused on water to be held since 1977. Ten members of the Penn community are part of an official University delegation in attendance, helping to mark progress toward water-related Sustainable Development Goals.

Person at podium and panelists speak to audience at event in large hall
Speakers from three watersheds, that of the Delaware, Colorado, and Danube rivers, came together on campus to discuss the necessity and challenges of cooperation when it comes to managing for drought.

The Water Center is leading the Penn delegation, with the Center’s Neukrug, Ellen Kohler, Brenton McCloskey, Brianne Callahan, Jazmin Ricks, and Emma Denison. Scott Moore from Penn Global, Simon Richter and Arwen Kozak from the School of Arts & Sciences, and Caitlin Kim from Penn Carey Law School are also participating. The UN gathering is coinciding with New York Water Week, as well as World Water Day.

Leading up to the conference, the Water Center has been gathering water leaders to foster collaboration and mutual learning on issues of regional, national, and global significance. In one event held on campus last week, water practitioners discussed managing drought risks through cross-jurisdictional cooperation in the first official “side event” for the UN conference.

And during a second event representatives from academia, industry, and the City of Philadelphia heard from Penn students who spent spring break in Simon Richter’s Penn Global Seminar focused on the Netherlands. An ensuing discussion delved into how that nation’s adaptations to living with water could inform communities working to addressing flooding and build resilience in Philadelphia. Some of the takeaways from those events:

Following the water

Waterways and watershed boundaries don’t always match the boundaries of the jurisdictions in charge of managing those resources. Collaborating across those boundaries can prove challenging.

Four panelists sit at table listening while one speaks into microphone
Rohit Aggarwala of the NYC Environmental Protection underscored that managing for drought necessitates cross-border cooperation. “If we think of this as a zero-sum game, we’re going to lose,” he said.

On Friday, March 17, leaders from three watersheds—the Delaware, Colorado, and Danube rivers—gathered in person and virtually in the Hall of Flags at Houston Hall for “Basin-wide cooperation for drought resilience: Case studies to inform transboundary management,” jointly sponsored with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

In introductory remarks, Rohit Aggarwala, chief climate officer and commission with the New York City DEP, noted that climate models predict that the Northeast is expected to receive more water overall for the long term, the models also suggest that the “when,” “where,” and “how much” of rainfall events is likely to be more variable. “Which suggests,” he said, “that while we can be somewhat assured that we won’t have a long-term drought situation, we also need to do more than we did over previous generations to plan for a one-, five-, or 10-year drought. That’s going to require us to work together. If we think of this as a zero-sum game, we’re going to lose.”

Steven Tambini, executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) spoke about the organization’s balancing act in partnering with state agencies to ensure the river’s flow meets the needs of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. A drought in the 1960s caused the salt front—the point at which the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean pushes its way up into the river—to approach the site where Philadelphia now has an intake for water. “With climate change, he said, “the potential for saltwater intrusion into aquifers is a big concern.” DRBC’s advisory committee on climate change, which includes the Water Center as well as governments and businesses as members, “is another way to work collaboratively.”

While drought “is not even in the vocabulary” of some water leaders in water in the East, Tambini said, it’s on the tip of the tongue for leaders in the West. Shanti Rosset, Colorado River resources manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest drinking water provider in the country, spoke via Zoom about how the region’s 23-year-long drought has impacted transboundary water management.

Rosset laid out the challenges and strategies employed to manage the 40-million-acre watershed, including recent historic lows in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Cooperative actions, such as a memorandum of understanding to retain water in Lake Mead, were essential for heading off emergencies brought on by drought. 

Birgit Vogel, executive secretary for the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR), joined the group on Zoom to describe the complex transboundary network that oversees the health of the Danube River, a watershed encompassing 800 square kilometers and 19 countries.

In a large auditorium in front of UN logo, a speak addresses the audience
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland delivers her address at the UN Water Conference. She announced a variety of governmental investments in “climate-resilience water and sanitation” worldwide. (Image: Brenton McCloskey/Water Center at Penn)

There, pressures from anthropogenic activities—not just greenhouse gas emissions but also hydropower dam construction, channelization of the river, and pollution—have led to a need for cooperative oversight. The ICPDR regularly updates a Danube River management plan, first developed in 2009, as well as a joint accident warming system and a climate change strategy. Vogel points to these prior successes as groundwork for future cooperation, including adaptation to potential droughts. “For us drought is a new topic,” Vogel said. “We’re starting in baby shoes compared to the Colorado.”

Steve Smailer of the Delaware Department of Naturals Resources and Environmental Control and Jeffrey Hoffman of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection joined the prior speakers in a discussion about how insights from one another could inform future planning. “I think this shows us that our current regulatory and management system is not as flexible as it needs to be in the face of climate change, more precipitation, greater droughts,” Hoffman said. “We’re all in this together,” Smailer said. “Being from Delaware, we are the Mexico of the Colorado or the Moldova of the Danube. We’re on the front line. Whether you’re looking globally or very locally, it’s about the value of water and how do you communicate that. That commonality is unifying but also challenging.”

Water, equity, and trust

Because of geography, socioeconomics, and social inequities, water-related challenges such as flooding, drought, storm surges, and pollution don’t affect all communities equally.

Those inequities as well as innovations to potentially address them were the focus of a subsequent Water Event held the afternoon of March 17, “Comparative cultures of resilience and sustainability in the Netherlands and in the community of Eastwick in Philadelphia,” put on by the Water Center in partnership with Eastwick United CDC and the Netherlands.

Students give a presentation at a podium titled Design, Adaptation, and Innovation: Strategies from the Netherlands
During an event in the Hall of Flags on March 17, students in Simon Richter’s Penn Global Seminar presented on their observations and insights from their trip to the Netherlands over spring break. (Image: Brenton McCloskey/Water Center at Penn)

After introductory remarks by the Water Center’s McCloskey, Richter, associate chair of the Francophone, Italian, and Germanic Studies department, shared his abiding interest in “the cultural aspects of resilience and sustainability.” His scholarship, teaching, and outreach have long explored the factors that influence how the Dutch manage life as a low-lying coastal nation. This approach also informed the Penn Global Seminar course he’s currently offering, during which students learned both about the history and culture related to sustainability in the Netherlands as well as the U.S., with a particular focus on Eastwick.  

In talks that followed, Brian Schmitt, urban climate resilience manager at Wavin, a global water technology company, and Ricks from the Water Center set the stage for further cultural comparison. Schmitt spoke about one of the Dutch innovations known as polders, which create agricultural fields by catching and controlling the location and movement of ocean water. His company’s PolderRoof system harnesses the same technique on rooftops, creating fertile land atop buildings while simultaneously mitigating flooding on the ground below.

As a counterpoint, Ricks from the Water Center provided background on the community of Eastwick, a Southwest Philadelphia residential area developed on former marshland and still subject to frequent flooding, as well as environmental hazards from a Superfund site and landfill. Ricks also pointed to disinvestment in the community due to structural racism that has left residents to face health and housing crises without federal and local support. Today, as the City of Philadelphia steps in to attempt to address concerns, Ricks said, the task of rebuilding trust among the community and integrating its concerns and needs into future plans present formidable challenges. “Allaying flood concerns is just one aspect of revitalizing Eastwick into the community it was meant to be,” Ricks said.

Earlier this month, Ricks and Eastwick resident Whitley Bladen joined Richter’s 14 undergraduates in a whirlwind eight-day tour of four cities in the Netherlands, where they heard from 30 guest speakers. During the Comparative Cultures event, the students shared presentations of their trip and reflections with the audience, comparing the political landscape between the Netherlands and the U.S., considering how climate resilience manifests in the Netherlands, and looking at the design of adaptation and innovation strategies.

In a panel discussion that followed, Korin Tangtrakul, program manager in Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability; Mathy Stanislaus, vice provost and executive director of the Environmental Collaboratory at Drexel University; and Trevor Johnson, a senior resilience planner at Arcadis, a global design and engineering firm, joined Ricks and Schmitt in responding to the students’ insights. 

A major takeaway, said Tangtrakul, was the essential nature of community input and engagement when it comes to building resilience. Stanislaus echoed that sentiment. “Meeting communities where they are is probably the most important aspect when you address the intractable, racist divestment that represents Eastwick,” he said. “Experts need to harmonize their expertise in service to the community.”

For more on the UN 2023 Water Conference, visit