Attendees of last year’s World Water Week in Stockholm. Photo by: SIWI / CC BY-NC

STOCKHOLM — Water advocates are calling for governments to prioritize water, for donors to offer innovative financing solutions, and for practitioners to step outside their technical bubbles ahead of the biggest annual conference in the water sector’s calendar.

More than 3,000 water, sanitation, and hygiene advocates are gathering in Sweden for Stockholm World Water Week, now in its 28th year. The conference is set to host at least 20 water and environment ministers, as well as Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Amina Mohamed, and UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

It comes after a recent U.N. report indicated that the world is not on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals for WASH, which under SDG 6 aim for sustainably managed water and sanitation for all. More than 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and 4.5 billion are without sanitation services. The World Bank estimates an additional $114 billion per year is needed in order to achieve universal access to WASH; in 2014, development finance for water stood at just $18 billion.

But the challenge extends far beyond providing water and sanitation services. The latest U.N. Water Development Report estimates that nearly half the world’s population, 3.6 billion people, live in areas vulnerable to water insecurity, while 2.3 billion are at risk of routine drought and flooding. By 2050, these figures could rise to upward of 5 billion and 3.6 billion respectively. Recent floods in Kerala, India, and the water shortages in Cape Town, South Africa earlier this year, are just two examples of the growing threats of water scarcity.

The multidimensional nature of the challenge, and the subsequent need for holistic solutions, is reflected in the theme of this year’s conference: Water, ecosystems and human development.  Torgny Holmgren, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute, which organizes the conference, said the theme reflects the centrality of water to all aspects of life. This includes health, education, energy, and food production, cutting across the entire Sustainable Development Agenda. As such, WASH needs to be “lifted to the highest possible decision-making levels,” Holmgren said.

Lack of political will

The latest U.N. figures “paint a pretty dismal picture in terms of progress” toward meeting the SDGs in WASH, WaterAid’s global campaigns director Savio Carvalho told Devex. He pointed to a lack of political commitment in comparison to other issues such as HIV/AIDS, and called on the international community to “wake up” to the situation.

“Twenty-five years ago, when the world woke up to [the] HIV reality, no stone was left unturned … You had a global momentum to say, ‘we need to do something.’ But where is that for ... WASH, why is it not becoming a matter of concern?”

Patrick Moriarty, director of IRC WASH, agreed that stronger political commitment is needed.  

“Without strong and committed government leadership, SDG 6 is going nowhere,” Moriarty wrote in a blog post, adding that leadership will only emerge if there are strong accountability mechanisms through which citizens can hold their governments to account.

Elynn Walter, advocacy expert with IRC WASH, added that a growing interest in WASH advocacy has taken it beyond lobbying central governments to include working with local mayors all the way down to community groups.

Holmgren agreed that strong governance is lacking in many countries and that water is not prioritized. The upcoming conference will explore ways of changing this mindset, he said.

“Of course there are technical solutions but ... governance of water is the critical route … there are countries which handle water scarcity while others go into disaster,” he said, adding that if countries develop strong institutional systems, they will be better able to handle droughts, floods, and other water crises.

However, it is not just ministers who need to up the ante around water and sanitation. WASH actors, including those who will meet in Stockholm next week, also need to be held to account, according to Carvalho.

“The Stockholm community needs to look at itself and ask the question, ‘why are so many millions of people [still without WASH services] ... and what should be done differently to play catch up and ensure greater accountability of duty bearers to ensure these services are provided?’” he said.

The value of water

Appropriately valuing water as an economic, social, and cultural good will be a major theme at this year’s conference, according to Holmgren, with sessions featuring the different perspectives of corporations, faith-based groups, and civil society.

“What we find of great interest is the value of water, not only economic … but also its cultural and spiritual value … We need to treasure and revalue water in other ways,” he said.

Valuing water also means pricing it accordingly, Holmgren said, which could mean using differentiated price structures to charge large water consumers, such as industry, more than households. Currently water is still “quite cheap” as a production line cost, he said.

External financing for WASH will also need to increase dramatically if countries are to meet the SDG targets, experts agree. Applying innovative financing tools to the sector has been held up as one way of getting more money to flow. Blended finance, combining public and private finance through mechanisms such as development impact bonds, is one avenue increasingly being explored. However, there is still some way to go before these tools start to work effectively for the WASH sector, according to Walter, who added that multilateral and bilateral donors will have a big role to play.

“We are still not quite there on the financing piece … and the innovative mechanisms … and what it will really take to get to blended finance,” she said.

Ian Moise, WASH senior technical adviser at Catholic Relief Services, said financing needs more attention.

“Increasingly, donors recognize that grant and philanthropic mechanisms alone cannot solve the world’s problems. The game must change. If an organization is not working on water and sanitation financing, they cannot credibly say they are working on SDG 6,” he said.

Devex will be on the ground at Stockholm World Water Week. Follow reporter @Sophie_Ed1984 on Twitter for live updates, and keep an eye on for more stories to follow. 

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.