By analyzing the texts of UN Declarations and Statements resulting from high-level meetings on water and the environment, the authors are able to highlight important trends in water and sanitation discourse. While some shifts were deliberate, based on changing priorities and knowledge in international development, others may simply be attributed to resolution drafters failing to pay close enough attention to the effects of their word choice. As documents can be influential in shaping future initiatives, it is important to remember that words matter and to take heed of the recommendations presented here for cogently discussing the need for real development in water and sanitation.
- In the three most current documents studied, the issue of water scarcity was absent. This may reflect increased focus on "desertification" as the way of interpreting scarce water supplies.
- Unlike 'food security', the notion of 'water security' is not entirely institutionalized at the UN.
- Water quality is approached both as an environmental threat and as a social inequality. Texts that refer explicitly to pollution or polluters are best able to advance a conversation about water quality.
- Sanitation was discussed in a complex and nuanced way in 1990 in New Delhi. Since then, it has tended to be lumped into 'water and sanitation' as an afterthought, though some 2009 and 2010 texts show a slight recovery. Discomfort with talking about human waste still appears to be a challenge.
- There have been great strides in how poverty is discussed. In the 1970's, the "underprivileged" were seen as causes of environmental harm, or at least environmentally ignorant. By the early 1990's, the poor were "unserved" and the goal was not just poverty "alleviation" but "eradication". Now, language like "people living in poverty" and "pro-poor" calls for inclusion.
- Health should be much more consistently linked to water in discourse. This word tends to appear in list form, failing to impress upon listeners how interrelated health is to sanitation and water.