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A Byzantine architecture…Global solutions to the crisis in water and sanitation need regular and long-term investment

The World Water Forum in Istanbul took place this past week in the shadow of some of the world’s most ambitious and remarkable architecture – and all of it on a grand scale. This is an appropriate backdrop to the world’s largest water event but also, perhaps, poses a critical question: is the scale and ambition of the Forum itself and the global institutional architecture that it displays right for the global tasks facing the water sector? Or is the edifice in need of major upkeep? Two sub-questions are nested within this:
  • How to ensure that the institutional ‘division’ of labour at a global level is ‘fit for purpose’?
  • How best to change the architecture to ensure that it works for all users?

How to ensure that the institutional ‘division’ of labour at a global level is ‘fit for purpose’?
The current financial crisis was a major theme discussed at the forum. It is predicted the crisis will erode established financing practices undertaken by both public and private water utilities. Sources of finance will dwindle alongside a decline in revenue as consumers find it harder to pay water tariffs. At the same time government ministries concerned with rolling out rural water supply programmes to meet global MDG targets will find that finance ministers are harder to reach.  And when they finally connect with those ministers holding the purse strings, they will have to provide more clarity – and evidence – on links between investment and contributions to national economic growth. The question, then, is whether the existing architecture is up to the job? The answer is probably not. The enormous current complex of networks, donors, think tanks, agencies and companies needs to do two things: firstly  to slim down and have a stronger central narrative on water and growth; and, secondly, reach out more effectively beyond the current sector institutions to other sectors, in particular finance, economics and social protection.

How best to change the architecture to ensure that it works for all users?
Identifying a need and actually responding effectively are different things. Renovating a large building takes time and patience and is best carried out in stages. One current attempt – perhaps a first stage – is the Global Framework for Action (GF4A), which is being pushed hard by DFID along with other donors and agencies. This  calls for the need to harmonize  both financing and institutional arrangements for  water supply and sanitation delivery - including one annual sector review, one annual high- level sector review meeting, one global task force, and possibly one global sector fund. At the forum, the ‘GF4A’ completed its third out of four consultations and will be launched later in the year. Help in ‘shaping the reshaping’ is perhaps one of the world water forum’s key strengths. But here, more work needs to be done to ensure that future meetings facilitate (and precipitate even) institutional restructuring. This will enable the sector to respond more effectively – and quickly – to new challenges. Doing this better would also help to quieten the voices of some who question the forum’s legitimacy.