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Impressions from the Stockholm World Water Week 2006


 The World Water Week in Stockholm is a yearly event that brings together around 1,500 international scientists, policy makers, practitioners and donor organisations to discuss issues concerning the water sector. Katharina Welle and Halla Qaddumi attended on behalf of the Water Policy Programme.

Harmonisation and Alignment – the need to look beyond the sector
(by Katharina Welle)

In his inaugural lecture, this year’s Stockholm water Laureate, Prof. Asit K. Biswas criticised the event for discussing too much of the S.O.S – “the Same Old Stuff”. In other words, the sector was inward looking and future debates needed to focus far more on wider developments that affected the sector.

One such case is the “new aid agenda”, which now dominates aid interventions in developing countries, including in the water sector. This is about improving aid effectiveness, with harmonisation between donors aiming to reduce transaction costs and alignment of aid to partner countries’ development priorities and systems aiming to enhance ownership.

However, in Stockholm, only very few sessions touched on this topic. A Sunday side event organised by Danida covered some of the emerging experiences and repercussions of new aid modalities in the sector. Questions and comments from the audience reflected the challenges that donors and partner countries alike are facing. One participant compared the harmonisation of donors interventions to “herding cats” while others put forward their doubts about achievements so far: Have transaction costs really been reduced? Are donors working towards complementarity of aid interventions at the international level?

Another event that incorporated H&A was a special session organised by the EU Water Initiative on “Moving the EUWI forward – Monitoring, Alignment and Harmonisation”. Its objective was to scrutinise the draft monitoring framework for the EUWI. The NGOs WaterAid and Tearfund and WELL, a UK resource centre network, provided feed-back to kick off discussions. WaterAid and Tearfund’s main message was “keep it simple” – one of the key elements of harmonisation. This notion was supported by various participants from partner countries in the audience who underlined, for instance, the need to have one common monitoring framework in country to be used by different organisations. Yet, the plea for simplicity did not get much enthusiasm from the presenters from EUWI who felt that the 22 suggested indicators measuring inputs, outputs and outcomes were necessary.

Overall the sessions showed that H&A are not yet very well-understood concepts in the water sector and remain topics of marginal importance for many sector specialists. This is strange, given the huge potential for the H&A agenda to set the future pattern of sector financing and governance in coming years. There is thus a great need to increase our understanding of potential impacts and to assist the sector in waking up to the new aid realities. Perhaps Prof. Biswas had a point, though he is by no means the first to make it.

Transboundary Water Management (by Halla Qaddumi)

This year’s World Water Week was launched by a high-level panel addressing the overarching theme of the conference, « Beyond the River – Sharing Benefits and Responsibilities ».  The importance of the theme cannot be overstated.  Almost 50 percent of the world’s population reside in the 263 international river basins that span the globe.  With water sharing arrangments established in only a handful of these basins, the opportunities to enhance cooperative management are vast and carry significant implications for development and welfare.  The obvious difficulty is how to achieve such « win-win » outcomes.  That was precisely the question put forward to the over 1500 individuals from more than 100 organizations who participated in the whirlwind week. 

A focal area of the conference was the concept of « benefits sharing ».  Although not a new concept, it  has recently attracted major attention in international water debate as an approach that has the potential to yield more viable, positive-sum, solutions than one that focuses solely on water allocations and rights.  It has been argued that benefits sharing could produce both direct positive effects – such as increased trade, improved environmental management, higher productivity and more effective spending – as well as « spill-over » effects into other spheres, including increased security, regional stability, and peace.  The contemporary policy relevance of the concept is best summarised by Mr. Anders Berntell, Executive Director of SIWI:  «’Sharing benefits’ is a future-oriented approach in water and development, because it means looking at water from the perspective of what can be derived from it, for whom and by whom, and not the water per se.

Several workshops and seminars throughout the week grappled both with the concept and with its practical implementation.  In the workshop, « Tools for Benefit Sharing in Transboundary Settings » attendees validated the concept, but argued that it could not replace addressing directly volumetric water allocations.  Three different categories of of tools to move forward the process of transboundary cooperation were identified by the attendees:  analytical, institutional, and the quantification of tangible benefits on the ground.  Particular emphasis was placed on the need for reliable and transparent data/information and for methodologies to calculate benefits.  It was agreed that shared ethics and values are preconditions for successful benefits/responsibilities sharing, which must involve key sectors, actors, and formal and informal institutions.  Finally, it was recognised that optimal solutions are impossible and that focus should be given instead to « second best » solutions that move the parties in a stepwise manner towards cooperation.

The critical role of power relations in transboundary settings was taken up in the seminar on « Hydro-Hegemony ».   The analytical framework was found to be useful in revealing the nature of water relations in the cases of the Euphrates-Tigris river basin and Ganges river basin.  Representatives from the Jordan river basin, however, hotly contested the validity of the theory and argued the uniqueness of each case.  Notwithstanding the controversy, the theory clearly provided a useful point of departure for debate and clarity.

At the conclusion of the conference, the question is whether the participants achieved their goal.  Are we any closer to arriving at « win-win » solutions?   Related sessions made clear that the challenge remains to identify practical mechanisms for enhancing cooperative transboundary water management.  In other words, we need less vague talk and more concrete recommendations.  For example, if shared ethics and values are preconditions, how do we arrive at these, particularly in the extremely contentious cases where the various riparian states question each other’s basic and fundamental right to transboundary waters?  How do we begin the process of dialogue amongst parties who hold deep feelings of mistrust?  If benefits sharing provides an answer, how exactly is the concept operationalised?  Unfortunately, the conference was dominated by general and somewhat ambiguous discussion rather than precise and feasible proposals, and a number of the participants passionately expressed their frustration for it.  Still, it would be unfair not to recognize the positive effects of the conference.  By putting the matter squarely on the table, it reignited a much-needed exploration of transboundary water sharing.  Its most direct contribution, however, was as a venue for presenting case studies of current collaborative initiatives on, for example, the Okavango river basin, the Orange river basin, and the Nile river basin.  Practical lessons learned from such exercises hold perhaps the most promise of pointing the way forward.