(Bloomberg) -- The United Nations marked World Water Day on Wednesday by hosting its first water conference since 1977, and there was clearly pent-up appetite to discuss Earth’s most life-giving element. 

The high interest seemed to have caught the international organization off guard. Attendees waited in line for more than two hours to pick up pre-approved passes and crowds packed into too-small rooms for panels such as “Accelerating Women’s Inclusion In Water” and “Private Sector Investment Commitment to Water Innovation.” 

The UN has six water sustainability goals, including securing universal access to drinking water and sanitation by 2028, but the issue has tended to be too low on the agenda for Catarina de Albuquerque, CEO of Sanitation and Water for All, a UN partner agency.  She points out the UN didn’t confirm safe drinking water as an essential human right until 2010. For this conference, however, there was an unusually high number of applications to organize side events, de Albuquerque said. 

As climate change upends water supplies all over the world, even in rich countries that haven’t had to wrestle with the issue for decades, there’s a growing awareness that time is running out to pass legislation, develop technology and implement programs to conserve and purify what’s left. A random sampling of participants at the UN meeting included an NGO worker from Canada who studies water delivery variability in India, a water utility director from Albania advocating for more women to have more positions in government water management and a professor of civil engineering from Japan eager to learn about innovations in water infrastructure management.

Rising global temperatures already have the US facing record droughts (see: California last summer) and record floods (see: California right now). They’re also making similar natural crises in developing nations even worse, like the current severe drought in the Horn of Africa and flooding in Pakistan last summer that killed thousands and has left millions without safe drinking water still today. 

That lack of safe drinking water, which affects some 2 billion people globally, was a big focus of the UN conference. A report published by UNESCO on the same day found that the world isn’t doing nearly enough to address the problem, or the fact that nearly half the world lacks access to basic sanitation. To mitigate both might require as much as $1 trillion in investment annually, according to Richard Connor, editor-in-chief of the report. 

Gender inequality was also a repeated theme. Women are disproportionately burdened by carrying water in poor countries, and woefully underrepresented in jobs at water delivery agencies in richer nations. 

Mapping groundwater is also crucial. In many places, the extent of this important supply is unknown even though it may be a lifesaving resource during droughts. Poorer governments desperately need access to sonic technologies, now widely used by industry, to discover the depths of their reserves and, hopefully, protect them before they are exploited by selfish actors. 

Nations need to meet more frequently to discuss water issues and set concrete treaty goals, de Albuquerque said. It was telling who was not in attendance at the UN gathering in New York, she said. “For this to be a triple-A-rated conference, you need heads of state and government ministers stepping up and being ambitious, and only six heads of states confirmed their attendance.” 

The problem, de Albuquerque theorizes, is that water is such a basic part of life it tends to be forgotten by those who have access to it. “Water is so obvious,” she said, “that it is hidden.” 

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