Strengthening Connectivity is Key for Progress toward Global Water Solutions

Katie Van Werkhoven presents at World Water Week 2018

This year’s intense summer drought in Scandinavia -- the worst in almost 75 years -- was a striking backdrop for the annual World Water Week held August 26-31 in Stockholm, Sweden. The unusually dry conditions, in this otherwise water abundant region, helped to underscore the critical importance of global water issues and management policies. More than 3,600 experts, decision-makers, and practitioners met to exchange ideas and foster progress toward solving the world’s many water-related challenges.

The theme for this year’s event, “Water, Ecosystems, and Human Development,” expanded upon the Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) focus of the UN 2018 World Water Development Report (WWDR). This theme sparked a week of thought-provoking dialogue about the way we alter, and increasingly value, ecosystems in our approaches to improve water security around the world.  We heard consistent messages throughout the week, calling for greater emphasis on collaboration, community, and complementarity. How these concepts translate into real action across program areas—from NBS to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH)—will be key for achieving steady forward progress.

Takeaways for NBS

NBS, as defined by the WWDR, are methods that “are inspired and supported by nature and use, or mimic, natural processes to contribute to the improved management of water.” Often referred to as “green infrastructure” investments, they include methods implemented across various scales and settings, ranging from site to landscape level applications, and from rural to urban settings. Over the last 10 years, use of NBS has grown to become nearly a mainstream component of water management, with much of its potential still unrealized. Throughout the week, we heard encouraging success stories about protected watersheds, new mechanisms for funding, and progressive policies for NBS taking shape around the world.

While interest in, and even adoption of, NBS is taking off, we also learned about challenges inhibiting progress, like the need for a more comprehensive body of evidence demonstrating the benefits of NBS; a lack of capacity for implementing the methods; and the need for stronger lines of communication between policy makers and stakeholders.

Given these challenges, as well as the still unrealized potential of NBS, the critical actions we see moving forward are:

  1. Prioritize collaboration across the research community to bring clarity to the benefits of NBS
  2. Focus on capacity building at the local community level
  3. Recognize and exploit the complementarity of green and more traditional “gray” infrastructure investments

Takeaways for WASH

In the context of WASH programs, emphasis on community and collaboration permeated discussions about enabling environments and resource mobilization. A key question surfaced—how do we connect and mobilize the people and resources needed to improve access to clean water and sanitation services?

To answer this question, we need to explore the complex dynamics of the enabling environment (e.g. political will and governance, citizen demand and community commitment, blended finance mechanisms, integrated multi-sectoral approaches, and access to water resources data).

We believe that to effectively bring together this broad array of dynamics and achieve an enabling environment at scale, government leadership must play a role. For mobilizing resources, the scope must widen to include all stakeholders. Examples we heard from Kenya, Chile, and Peru highlighted how government, local communities, academia, private sector, utilities, CSO’s, development banks, and NGO’s are working together and beginning to move the needle toward inclusive access. These examples demonstrate that success can be achieved through collaboration and that seemingly disparate sectors may in fact bring the complementarity needed to make progress.

The challenge ahead for the global water community is to build on the success stories and lessons learned by fostering strategic collaborations and bringing them to scale in varying contexts across the globe

Building a Stronger Web

Another key take-away we heard at World Water Week, related to both NBS and WASH, is that ‘connection’ is critical in every facet of the global water story. The event theme highlighted the fundamental linkage between water, ecosystems, and human development. While discussing those linkages, the importance of connections within human systems (e.g. communities, policy makers, scientists, practitioners, etc.) emerged as an essential ingredient for progress. 

Next year, as the event theme shifts to “Water for Society,” connections within human systems and inclusion for all people on the planet will take the front row. Given all the critical, multi-directional connections, perhaps we need to adjust our way of thinking about the best path toward greater water security. Rather than just trying to “push the needle,” we need to “spin new threads.”  Each new success story, each break-through, and each resonating dialogue at World Water Week serves as a crucial thread in the construction of that web. By following the same blueprint and working together to continually spin new threads, we can build a collaborative, connective web strong enough to support our ultimate end goal—global water security for all.

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