Participants at the venue of last year's World Water Week conference organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute. Photo by: SIWI

WASHINGTON — Wastewater, and how to reduce it, clean it and recycle it, is the theme of this year’s World Water Week conference in Sweden next week. The theme seems especially appropriate as a record number of countries around the world grapple with devastating droughts while seeking to meet the increasing water demands of the world’s growing population.

Thousands of delegates from civil society, government, academia and the private sector are set to gather in Stockholm for the week-long event, which is the largest and longest-running annual conference — now in its 27th year — in the water calendar.  

But this year’s conference — organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute — aims to broaden out beyond its traditional realm of water use, sanitation and hygiene, attracting participants from across the development sector — including actors in health, agriculture and energy — and outside of it, including private sector players such as businesses, insurers, financiers and manufacturers.

This is linked to what SIWI’s Executive Director Torgny Holmgren describes as the need to see water as a “resource” and a “scarce commodity” that is fundamental to a wide community of actors.  

“Water is in high demand … we will need up to 55 percent more water by 2050 to feed our industrial, energy and food production needs,” he said. ”And we need to become more smart and efficient in the way we handle this scarce resource.”

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The importance of ensuring equitable access to clean drinking water and sanitation for the world’s poor remains — the U.N estimates that 2.1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water, and 4.5 billion to sanitation services — but Holmgren is calling for a more joined-up approach to solving the multiple dimensions of the water problem.

“My vision is that we should look at water in a coherent way, thinking not only about water use but also water as a resource,” he said. “Looking at the Sustainable Development Goals, nearly every one of them needs water, and so instead of this traditional siloed thinking, let’s look more synergistically.”

This will mean reducing the amount produced as wastewater and finding better means of recycling it, Holmgren said, explaining the rationale behind the theme of this year’s conference: “water and waste: reduce and reuse.”  

This is also the theme of the most recent U.N. World Water Development Report, released in March, which makes the case that better and more treatment of wastewater could be crucial in addressing the world’s looming water shortage. According to the report, more than 80 percent of the world’s wastewater produced by domestic, agricultural and industrial activities is released directly into rivers, lakes and seas without being treated, which can lead to waterborne diseases and environmental damage. In low-income countries, the figure stands at more than 95 percent.

Participants can therefore expect that a good number of the more than 200 sessions — which range from high-level panels to more informal seminars and workshops — will address the issue of wastewater, which is specifically mentioned in Goals 6 and 12 of the Sustainable Development Agenda. Organizers said they expect this year’s attendance to be bigger than ever, with approximately 3,300 participants from civil society, government, the private sector and academia attending across the week, which runs from Aug. 27 through Sept. 1.

But discussions will extend far beyond wastewater. Devex will be reporting from Stockholm next week. Here are five topics to watch out for.

1. Climate change and green infrastructure

The impact that rising global temperatures are having on water is one of the most visible ways in which the world is experiencing the effects of climate change, especially in developing countries. East and Southern Africa, parts of the Middle East, Australia, China, southern Europe and California are all experiencing drought. At the other extreme, countries such as Nepal, India and Bangladesh have suffered from extreme flooding in recent weeks.

Almost all countries have made the link between climate change and water explicit in their Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement — which outline the actions countries commit to take in order to meet its goals — by including water as a central part of adaptation efforts, often ahead of agriculture and health, and also in the provision of sustainable energy, according to SIWI.

Linked to this is the emerging area of innovation in “green infrastructure” — the use of trees, wetlands and other natural means of filtering water, protecting against floods, and replenishing groundwater supplies while protecting ecosystems — which has the potential to address both water and climate change concerns.

Green infrastructure will be discussed during three sessions at this year’s conference, and at a side event organized by conservation and development NGO Forest Trends with the aim of developing a clear action plan for accelerating the green infrastructure agenda.

2. Gender and youth

It has long been recognized that, in developing countries, women and girls carry out the majority of work — often unpaid — related to water and sanitation, including fetching water, laundry and managing hygiene for family members. The same is true within the workplace, and in agriculture and fishing. As a result, dirty and polluted wastewater poses a greater risk to women due to their higher levels of exposure.

At the same time, the majority of decisions around water access are made by men and tend to favor men, according to Louisa Gosling, program manager at WaterAid UK, the world’s largest dedicated water NGO.  

While Gosling said that sessions on gender at previous World Water Weeks “have often been as side events, attracting a niche audience,” this time, the gender dimensions of water and wastewater has been named as a core theme.

“[This] shows that gender has now been recognized as a theme that cuts through all other discussions,” she said, adding that the key question to address is “what do water professionals need to do to seriously promote gender equality in decision-making within institutions and within all aspects of investment in water and wastewater.”

The World Bank has also been researching the link between gender inequality and water and will be launching a new report on the subject during the conference.  

According to Maitreyi Bordia Das, global lead for social inclusion at the bank, water-related development projects not only help address inequality in terms of access and work related to water, but can also promote gender equality more broadly.

“Water is an arena where gender relations play out in ways that often mirror inequalities between the sexes … [and] exacerbate ingrained gender and other hierarchies,” she said, adding that “interventions that balance these relations in water-related domains can have a strong influence on furthering gender equality more broadly.”

Decisions about water also tend to be dominated by older generations, according to SIWI’s Holmgren. The Stockholm Junior Water Prize, which will be announced next week, is an attempt to redress the balance. With competition entries received from 33 countries, Holmgren is confident the initiative is achieving its aim.

“Water is often a male-dominated, middle-aged thing, but … this is a sign of an increased interest among the youth. It’s a matter of sustainability,” he said.

3. The value of water

Meeting the specific water and water-reliant targets within the SDGs and the Paris Agreement requires massive capital investment to treat wastewater, develop new and more efficient water technologies, and repair and replace inefficient water infrastructure.  

However, experts say that because water has been grossly undervalued, the financial incentives to make these investments have traditionally not been there, leading many businesses and financial institutions to take water “for granted,” according to Holmgren. Similarly, neither governments, companies nor users are incentivized to use water more sparingly. All the while, the poorest often pay a disproportionately high amount for their water.

However, this is now changing, Holmgren said, in part due to the realization by groups such as the World Economic Forum that the looming “water crisis” represents a huge threat to global society, as detailed in the 2017 global risk report. In response, he sees actors moving toward greater efficiency, as competition for water resources and scarcity has created the incentives to do so. This was not the case even five years ago, he added.

“Now we come into a situation of scarcity and competition around water … [and] if you do run out of water you cannot produce anything, so there is a financial risk, and so [water] is becoming more and more interesting for companies and the financial sector,” he said.

This is reflected in the fact that this year’s attendees include a record number from the private sector, Holmgren said, including commercial banks; companies; and innovative financing platforms such as the Green Climate Fund, which has financed integrated water resource management, sanitation, and flood risk management projects, and Climate Bonds Initiative, an organization working to create an international market for green and climate bonds.

4. Law and justice

Sharing sources of freshwater such as lakes, rivers and aquifers is currently the norm for 145 countries with little history of conflict to date. However, as water becomes more scarce, conflicts are likely to increase, especially considering water agreements are only in place for one-third of these shared resources, according to U.N. estimates.  

This is likely to be a major topic for discussion at World Water Week. The winner of this year’s Stockholm Water Prize — Stephen McCaffrey — is an expert in international water law and has acted as a legal counsel during negotiations over shared water resources, for example between Argentina and Uruguay, and Pakistan and India. The law professor, who is currently at University of the Pacific, will receive the prize during a ceremony next week.

5. Pollution

SDG 6 calls for improved water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing the release of hazardous chemicals and materials into water supplies. Related to this, representatives from the textile industry, including GAP, Nike, H&M, Target, C&A, Adidas and others, will present at the conference on their strategies for reducing wastewater and pollution, with a particular focus on China as a manufacturing hub.  

The World Resources Institute is also launching a report on the topic of high levels of pollution being pumped into waterways as a by-product of industry in a number of Asian countries, including Mongolia, Indonesia and Thailand. Much of this contaminated water is being consumed by poorer communities who rely on it for drinking, washing, farming and fishing, but the report finds that despite the existence of strong right-to-know laws, people are not easily able to access the information. A new study by the International Water Management Institute found that the use of untreated wastewater to irrigate crops is twice as prevalent as experts had previously thought, which could pose a serious risk to consumer safety.

Devex will be reporting from World Water Week in Stockholm next week. Follow Devex reporter Sophie Edwards on Twitter for live updates, and keep an eye out for more stories to come.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.