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Water Scarcity Reflections on World Water Week 2016 

At first glance the setting for WWW2016, the annual gathering of thought leaders, policy makers, advocacy groups and academics to deliberate on the global water scarcity and poor quality challenges, is paradoxical. Stockholm comprises 14 islands set in pristine Lake Malaren just before it meets the Baltic with some of the best water services in the world. But the half-life of the paradox rapidly diminishes as Mayor Karin Wanngard, reminds us, that while you can now virtually drink the water directly from the lake outside the City Hall, 19th century Stockholm was an unhealthy place – a city that was not sewered with no piped water. This resembles many cities around the world in the throes of the 21st century challenges of rapid inadequately planned for urbanization, with poor infrastructure and inadequate services.

Cities like Stockholm and Singapore demonstrate what is possible with a converged vision, political will, smart planning, prudent investment and innovative implementation with an ethos of continuous improvement. These are two examples of places in the world that have demonstrated that a combination of knowledge based decision-making, sound infrastructure, pools of skilled talent with active pipelines and water wise behaviors by all citizens – individual and corporate can and did achieve water security, perhaps even water prosperity.

But we do not have the century that it took for Stockholm or the 50 years it took for Singapore to reach their states of water prosperity. This is why WWW2016 was an incredibly important bus stop and consolidation point to tie together the strings of the various global dialogues and initiatives with a view to creating a stronger rope to pull in the resources, and other commitments to set us on a sounder course to sustainable development. The keystone of the global water and sanitation narrative is the 2015 Heads of State adopted UN Sustainable Development Goals suite, and in particular SDG 6 which seeks to have access to safe water and improved sanitation for all people everywhere in the world by 2030. While the MDG scorecard is a mixed one, there have been sufficient achievements globally to usher the SDGs into the realm of possibility. Such an ambitious agenda, has the potential to fundamentally improve the quality of life for all the world’s population to a never before achieved level of global development. And therefore needs a series of catalytic actions to propel the SDGs from the outer rim of possibility to the mainstream of probability. One of the important accelerators that was further crystallized in WWW2016 was the United Nations Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Water (HLPW), the group of 10 Heads of State that includes South Africa, that have been tasked to develop solutions for an enabling environment to achieve the SDG 6 by 2030.

My own reflections of the week long gathering that enjoyed the participation of more than 3000 delegates from around the world rests on three points.

The first is one of great encouragement. The 2016 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate was Professor Joan Rose, the world renowned authority on water quality from the USA and the winners of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize was a team of three schoolgirls from Thailand who presented an amazingly rich biomimicry project. The picture of the four Laureates together spelled hope for the future. Not only was it an acknowledgement of the power of Women in Science, it also provided an assurance of leadership into the future with a stalwart from the developed world symbolically handing over the baton of tomorrow’s water science leadership to three remarkable girls from the developing world.

The second was an anxiety. The water community while preaching integration and the removal of silos, continues to be quite insular in its approach. WWW2016 demonstrated an important recognition of the imminent competition for skills and resources between the different SDG teams in pursuit of the 17 individual goals. While water is both a connector and an enabler to achieve and empower the complete SDG suite, the water and sanitation community of practice has to reach out to the other sectors in a more deliberate and meaningful way, while becoming prominent players in facilitating the pursuit of the related SDGs.

Africa was prominent in its participation in WWW2016, and South Africa being quite pivotal with the WRC being a strategic partner and Minister Mokonyane being a prominent voice of the Global South in many of the key debates. The water and sanitation revolution we want to realize will only come about on the back of innovative new disruptive solutions. We need to abandon the notion of incremental improvements if our targets are to be met in a mere fifteen years. The third pojnt of reflection is in fact an offer. The world needs a greenfields site to experiment at scale with these new water and sanitation solutions and technologies. Africa can and should be that global laboratory to fine tune and demonstrate the suite of revolutionary water and sanitation services and practices for the 21st century. In that spirit, we must invite the world to partner us in this great African laboratory to define the new parameters for Global Water Prosperity in the 21st Century.

Article compiled by Dhesigen Naidoo , WRC CEO email: dhesn@wrc.org.za  

The 2016 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate was Professor Joan Rose


The winners of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize from Thailand
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