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Time to get things done in the water sector? A little less conversation...

Written by Josephine Tucker

Reflections on World Water Week in Stockholm (12-18 August 2007)

We are now at the Millennium Development Goals midpoint, and there is a long way to go if the targets on water supply and sanitation are to be approached. At the same time, climate change is placing ever greater urgency on the need to effectively manage water resources, build strong water institutions and negotiate resilient arrangements for transboundary waters. While talk of urgency is not new, at World Water Week in Stockholm there was a definite sense of drive to get things done. Pragmatism and real life experiences were prioritised over intellectual positionings on how water should be managed and delivered. Of course, it was a forum for lots of talking, but there were positive signs of interest in partnerships and learning from all corners. Impatience surfaced when platitudes were put forward or old debates recapitulated: people were looking for practical ways to make progress. This is illustrated by five messages that emerged from a variety of sessions.

Message #1 Don’t go for perfect reform: take the best you can get
Many speakers shared their experiences of making change happen in the water sector and agreed that sometimes “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. Policy change is not a one-off event leading to the ideal solution, but a continuous cyclic, or pendulum-like process, of learning and adjustments. There seemed to be broad acceptance that two pillars of current approaches to water management – integrated water resources management (IWRM) and stakeholder participation – are unwieldy in their fullest form. It may be better to make policy as integrated as possible, and as “participatory as appropriate”, than to aim for something which is extremely difficult to manage and unpalatable to policymakers. There was also a clear answer for those who asked when detailed predictions of the effects of climate change would be available: “Don’t wait”. Our models may never be able to accurately predict change, but change is already evident and we urgently need to build capacity to adapt accordingly.

Message #2 Water plays both social and economic roles.
This message is far from new, but the absence of polarised viewpoints asserting that water is solely a “social good” or “economic factor” was striking. A workshop on “Making Governance Systems Effective” emphasised that this dual role of water makes it a particular challenge to govern, but that treating it as only one or the other will paralyse progress. One speaker said that we should seek “efficiency in the supply of water and equity in its distribution”, a clear-sighted assertion that the goals of efficiency and equity are complementary, not conflicting as has sometimes previously been assumed.

Message #3  There is a potential role for both public and private financing in improving and extending water services. Strong partnerships can and do offer a way forward.

Several sessions brought together the public and private sectors in very open conversation about the challenges facing investment in the water sector. Useful discussions explored the roles which each might play, and revealed genuine interest in exploring complementarities and working towards strong partnerships. While a few participants spoke against private sector involvement, the general feeling was that we should be pragmatic, focus on what works, and learn from experiences to maximise the potential benefits of new forms of investment. Some water funds (such as the SRG Water Fund established under the UNDP’s Public-Private Partnership umbrella) are emerging under mainstream banks, which invest in scaling-up of small projects which demonstrate sustainability and stakeholder engagement. However the demand for financing currently remains weak, even though the need is great, and capacity building of local utilities is essential.  

Message #4 There is still a need for greater innovation and risk-taking
Repeated calls were made for more innovation in service delivery and financing. New instruments, such as guarantee funds, could support investment, but are slow appearing. Donors should be willing to take on more risk, and more attention should be paid to the many effective local examples of change which were presented. Some innovation was in evidence: a new open source web platform (akvo.org) has been launched, which aims to promote learning on water and sanitation and to connect water projects with potential supporters and funders.

Message #5 The water community needs to communicate its messages better.
The water community needs to bring water goals to the service of other sectors and stakeholders, to win investment and buy-in for reform. One approach to this is assessment of the costs and benefits of good water resources management and water and sanitation services (see the ODI-led RiPPLE project), to illustrate their cost-effectiveness and links with poverty reduction and economic growth. However care needs to be taken in monetarising these values. Key concepts also need to be unpacked. When we advocate for better water governance what do we mean? Who and what is it for? When we talk about capacity building at local level, what does this involve and what roles is capacity needed for?

So how can the water community make change happen?
This was a focus of a number of sessions, and the following points emerged:

  1. Know what you are trying to achieve, through good knowledge and research.
  2. Engage in and generate public debate. 
  3. Prioritise the essential messages to advocate.
  4. Engage with other sectors and present your message in their terms. 
  5. Build strong coalitions, even if you share the same goal for different reasons.
  6. Local champions are essential.
  7. Focus on the most effective point of change (the national or regional government or village level, for example).
  8. Anticipate resistance by assessing whether reform will require change in existing institutions and instruments. 
  9. Continually work to improve the enabling environment for reform, and seize opportunities for incremental change as and when they arise
Much of this has been said before, and it is one thing to say something and a very different thing to do it, but the common sense approach and impatient calls for action displayed last week in Stockholm are encouraging.