Water Week chief: Better management, governance needed

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Droughts, poor land use and water access have all contributed to recent volatility in food prices and regional food emergencies. To address such insecurity in food supplies, good water management and governance – as well as reliable early warning systems – are needed, says Jens Berggren, who heads World Water Week that begins on 26 August in Stockholm.

Jens Berggren is director of World Water Week, organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). He has previously worked for the Swedish Foreign Ministry and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. Questions for the following written interview were posed by EURACTIV’s Timothy Spence.

There are growing concerns in Europe, Asia and the United States about regional droughts and the potentially serious impact on food supplies and prices in the coming months. What action should be taken, given that these events seem to become more frequent and more severe?

Although drought is an act of nature, there are plenty of opportunities to improve water management and governance. Several solutions for adapting our societies for current and increasing rainfall variability will be presented and discussed during the World Water Week. Even if appropriate long-term measures have not been taken, early action and quick response can prevent droughts and floods from bringing devastation to people’s lives and the economy also in the shorter term.

The 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa should serve as an example – despite early warnings, there was little response until the famine hit in full force and costs people’s lives. We must establish more effective early warning systems and ensure that farmers, communities and governments across the world are equipped and capacitated to not only receive warnings, but also to take early action to protect its people from the impacts of floods and droughts.

The European Union is seen as a global leader in water policy – from the Water Framework Directive to measures aimed at reducing waste and pollution. What is right and what is wrong with the EU’s water policies?

The EU’s Water Framework Directive is a source of inspiration for many other regions around the world. We are continuously seeing similar initiatives taking place in China, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, in coordination with the EU. One example of which is the African Working Group at the EU Water Initiative, hosted at SIWI, and the China-Europe Water Platform (CEWP), hosted by Denmark. Those and many more EU partners will be attending the World Water Week. One area that can be improved almost across the globe is policy coordination between water, energy and food, making sure that the synergies in this nexus are tapped into.

A recent SIWI report, ‘Land acquisitions: How will they impact transboundary waters’, raises red flags about the impact on fragile freshwater supplies when richer countries turn to poor nations – especially in sub-Saharan Africa – to buy land for food or biofuels production. In practice, these deals seem to provide benefits for both sides – needed commodities for foreign buyers, jobs and opportunity for poor people. What are the downsides?

One important danger presented by these land deals is the existing land and water rights of local stakeholders are violated. It is really too early to tell what the impacts of these deals are or will be. We know that water is often taken for granted in the land deals, and very few of the deals that have been made public regulate how much water leasing parties can take, nor are there explicit regulations to control agricultural water pollution to local water sources. Even the recently adopted guidelines on this trade are almost completely silent on the issue of water despite the fact that everyone knows that, since both plants and livestock need water to grow, an investment in agriculture is always a big investment in water.

There may be regional ramifications as well where insufficient legal and institutional mechanisms set up to handle such issues. If these deals would result in big increases in agricultural water use in a country in the catchment of the Nile, it may significantly change the dynamics of the transboundary relations along the river. In theory, yes the rush for water and land may go down in history as a rush of foreign direct investment.

But a lot of work is needed to ensure that this growing water and land market is properly regulated with significant attention to the rights of small holders and marginalised groups. It is also of utmost importance that water issues are regulated in these deals and that the guidelines on the investment in land and water resources provide explicit guidance also on the water resources aspects.

Depending on whose statistics you use, 1 billion people don’t have access to safe water and more than twice that number don’t have toilets – this despite a decade of efforts and billions in aid money to reverse these imbalances. Who is to blame for failing to do better to help these people?

There are no single entities that could take the whole blame. Global agreements are not easy to implement on local and national levels due to insufficient funds – and such agreements are often non-binding. Each region in the world is unique in its nature, needs, governance and socio-economic development. And quite as diverse are the actors who are involved in improving the water and sanitation in these regions. There are several efforts in place working to increase the political will and the ensuing resources for increasing water and sanitations services, many of these will be actively engaged in the World Water Week.

India, China, the United States, Russia and some of the other emerging countries are the biggest water users, according to UN figures. They also happen to have governments that are most resistant to binding targets on sustainability and conservation. If these important countries don’t care about how we use water or other resources, why should the rest of us?

There are three main reasons why water issues are important to all.

First, water is the bloodstream of the planet and economy it underpins all economic activity and fuels the ecosystems that support all life on the planet. Water shortages will disrupt economic activity, and like the financial crisis, if we mortgage our future by overexploiting water resources today the impacts will reverberate globally.

Second, water is a local resource. If it is polluted, or runs dry people will feel the impacts directly. That is why countries like China, India and the US who are experiencing serious water challenges are certainly concerned with water resources, and very committed to making sure that they manage it well to meet rising needs on all fronts. In this respect, it is different than the discussions surrounding climate change, where those emitting the most may not necessarily be the ones impacted most.

Finally, water costs money to heat, treat and move. That is money that people pay for directly or through their taxes, so its pays directly into your wallet to care about being prudent with water.

The World Water Forum, held earlier this year in Marseille, was criticised by environmental and labour groups as putting the interests of corporations over those of people. World Water Week, which your organisation hosts, starts on 26 August. How does your event distinguish itself from the other well-known international water forum?

The World Water Week in Stockholm is the leading annual meeting place for all actors working with water and development. Our focus is to bring actors together to ensure that water resources are governed wisely to contribute to sustainable human development. With our roots in science and policy, the mix of people attending the World Water Week remains very diverse. Academia, civil society, national governments, multilateral institutions and media make up over 85% of the participants even if the interest from private sector has been growing rapidly over the last years.

There is also a relatively large proportion, around 40%, of our participants coming from countries in development. The World Water Week is in its essence a non-commercial week. We are very happy to see the increasing interest in water and development issues from all parts of society. The World Water Week has always been a platform for sharing ideas and perspectives in a tolerant atmosphere. This has often led to a common understanding, materialising in new solutions and new partnerships, but there are also cases when our participants conclude that they respectfully disagree.

As the private sector, from individual smallholder farmers to multilateral conglomerates, play such an important part in the practical management of our global water resources, we believe that it is vital that they contribute with their different views on the challenges and opportunities that we are facing. We take the response we get, that 84% of our participants believe that World Water Week is better or much better than other similar events, as an indication that the balance is about right and do our utmost to maintain the atmosphere of collaboration.

What would make World Water Week a success?

The World Water Week has been successful for the past 22 years in creating a balanced platform for all stakeholders interested in water issues and sustainable development. We believe that the week’s success depends on good representation of a multitude of actors and perspectives contributing with big and small solutions towards a water and food secure world. The World Water Week will be a success if it contributes to channel the world’s newfound interest in water and food towards constructive collaboration rather than disruptive disagreements.

The World Water Week would also be a success if it contributes to build the common understanding and increase the mutual trust to relax the gridlock that has hampered the negotiations in several more formal conferences.

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