University of South Florida St. Petersburg



Anthropology professor will join push for more sustainable, comprehensive water policies at U.N. Water Conference

Heather O'Leary

By Matthew Cimitile, University Communications and Marketing

Anthropology Professor Heather O’Leary has been selected as one of just 40 delegates for the International Science Council (ISC) for the upcoming United Nations 2023 Water Conference in New York City from March 22-24. 

O’Leary is an expert on global inequities in water politics, women’s rights, the environment and urbanization. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on engaging the general public to develop more comprehensive water practices, technologies and policies to enhance equitable and sustainable approaches to development. 

As an invited delegate to the ISC, O’Leary will work with other experts and leaders to strengthen the role of science in developing global policy around how water is used, managed and valued. The delegation recently developed a policy brief to inform decision-makers at the conference. 

She will also be available to media covering the international conference to provide analysis on new developments and overall understanding around water policy for the public.  

This will be the first UN conference on water since 1977. It will bring together government leaders and experts in the realm of water issues to review progress on countries’ water related goals and set targets to achieve sustainable development. Conference organizers hope countries can build on progress already made to continue to meet tangible and action-oriented goals by 2030, as part of the UN’s Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“As a halfway point in the U.N.’s water decade, we should be making giant strides towards meeting sustainable goals that the international community set,” O’Leary said. “Many of the challenges we face are borne out through water. Water threats are physical: such as when hurricanes and sea level rise flood our streets and contaminate our drinking water. They are also political because individuals, groups and nations can affect others’ access to enough clean water needed to meet basic needs or development goals. Conferences such as this help us build bridges between nations and different scientific disciplines where we can all work together towards the same goals rapidly.”

The conference will focus on five key themes:

  • Water for health: access to safe drinking water, hygiene and sanitation
  • Water for development: valuing water, water-energy-food nexus and sustainable economic and urban development
  • Water for climate, resilience and environment: biodiversity, climate, resilience and disaster risk reduction
  • Water for cooperation: transboundary and international water cooperation
  • Water action decade: accelerating the implementation of the objectives of the decade, including through the UN Secretary-General’s action plan.

O’Leary joined the USF St. Petersburg campus as a faculty member in the Anthropology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences program in 2019. She has conducted more than a decade of ethnographic research in India, where she worked with families in tenements and illegal slum communities. 

She has served as a scientific reviewer for the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs and participated in a water security task force for the OECD. She regularly presents at national and international anthropology conferences and works with governance institutions to find social-science solutions.

“I see this kind of interdisciplinary work I am engaging in with the ISC and UN as the future of science,” O’Leary said. “Also, many of the issues related to water that will be discussed at this conference can be mapped onto Florida: aquifers, red tide, coastal development, extreme storm events, maintaining infrastructure with sea level rise. Global water risks tend to find their way into our own backyards.”

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