What happened at World Water Week: 4 takeaways

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A laptop screen shows the opening ministerial panel during World Water Week At Home. Photo by: Stockholm International Water Institute / CC BY-NC-ND

ALICANTE, Spain — More money, communication, and resilience are key to solving the world’s water crisis, according to messages delivered during World Water Week 2020, where delegates explored the linkages between water, climate change, and COVID-19.

Now in its 29th year, the five-day global gathering — typically hosted in Stockholm by the Stockholm International Water Institute — aims to transform global water challenges and is often regarded as the biggest annual event in the water, sanitation, and hygiene calendar. Last week’s event focused on climate change as its primary theme but was forced to pivot to an online format as a result of COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has accentuated the low resilience of water to threats or crises such as climate change, highlighting the massive inequalities of access and showing the world how critical it is to have access to clean and safe water for all,” said Belynda Petrie, CEO of OneWorld Sustainable Investments, in an email to Devex.

Climate resilience topped conversations at World Water Week

This year's World Water Week At Home focused on a multitude of issues across the water and climate space, but climate resilience took center stage.

Torgny Holmgren, executive director of SIWI, said during the closing plenary that water-related solutions are needed not only to tackle the pandemic but also to take on the climate crisis.

Thousands of professionals signed up to discuss this and other topics — including water diplomacy, the “Internet of Water,” and the safety of sanitation workers. Here are four key takeaways.

1. Building climate resilience is key to the water challenge

For Stefan Uhlenbrook, director of the International Water Management Institute’s strategic program on water, food, and ecosystems, COVID-19 and the idea of building back better means discussing how to invest in resilience while meeting water management challenges — floods, droughts, or providing WASH services — in a greener and more resilient way.

About 20 of the week’s 120 sessions focused on building climate resilience.

“We’ve been really excited to try to connect these dots instead of having a silo in the development community around climate and resiliency and then a different silo around water and sanitation,” said Lindsay Stradley, co-founder of Sanergy, a sanitation-focused social enterprise. “If you optimize fully on one or the other of those two, you’re going to inadvertently work at cross-purposes,” she said.

Nathanial Matthews, director of programs at the Global Resilience Partnership — which unites public and private organizations working to build resilience to crises — said resilience involves three abilities: persisting in the face of stresses, adapting to stay in the same ecosystems or livelihoods, and transforming to find novel ecosystems and ways of creating livelihoods.

On a practical level, that means taking steps to ensure WASH services are resilient to shocks. This could mean implementing boreholes, early warning systems, and solar-powered water pumps.

2. Finance for this, and WASH, is waning

To achieve climate resilience and achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6 on access to clean water, more funding is necessary. “There is a huge need for major investments in financing water infrastructure,” Holmgren said.

“COVID-19 has accentuated the low resilience of water to threats or crises such as climate change … showing the world how critical it is to have access to clean and safe water for all.”

— Belynda Petrie, CEO, OneWorld Sustainable Investments

Less than 14% of countries say they have adequate resources to implement their WASH plans.

For Petrie, funding for adaptation in the water sector should be a serious priority. Of the $579 billion spent globally on climate change in 2017 and 2018, only 5% was for adaptation measures.

But Jonathan Farr, senior policy analyst at WaterAid, said donors want to know what spending more money on adaptation actually means. “It’s about having answers to those difficult questions,” he said, adding that talking about this at events like World Water Week can help.

Uhlenbrook said that there has been some movement in this area but that greater cooperation is needed to push this further. “The linkage to the investment community is getting stronger and stronger … There is funding available for climate change adaptation or mitigation, but to channel this into the water sector … more cooperation needs to happen,” he said.

Petrie said she hoped the week would bring about greater investment, alongside “a real sense of urgency, and a deep and wide focus on building back better.”

3. A lack of effective communication could be to blame

Given the lack of finance and slow progress toward SDG 6, Richard Lee, communications manager at the World Wildlife Fund, said on a panel that water communicators had failed to get the issue of water to resonate. Experts weighed in on how to change this. They recommended getting better at tailoring communications to different audiences, doing a better job of conveying where water comes from, and taking steps to measure impact.

“The rest of the world needs to understand and connect with water,” said Mina Guli, founder of Thirst, an organization focused on raising awareness about the water crisis, during the same panel discussion.

Connecting with businesses, politicians, and CEOs in a way that will resonate could help to spark further investment and action for progress. While many countries have taken action to ensure water access during the pandemic, attendees at a session on water and politics said that politicians’ interest in water can be short-term and driven by election goals. Experts said communicating with them early on through successful campaigning could change this.

4. The perceived value of water matters

No real change will happen unless water begins to be valued more highly in society, Holmgren said.

While a farmer who cannot grow crops because of a lack of water or a child who travels far to collect water is likely to understand its importance, this can be hard to comprehend for someone who has easy access to drinking water, Guli said.

Yet if people do not understand water’s value, it can be hard to persuade locals of the benefits of a tariff system and difficult to make the case to policymakers and businesses for investment. When there are competing priorities — such as climate change and COVID-19 — there can be questions as to why water should be a top priority, Guli added.

Climate change, resilience, and valuing water are expected to be at the top of next year’s World Water Week agenda.

“In these uncertain times, we know very little about what the world will look like one year from now — but we do know that we need to address these important topics,” Holmgren concluded.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.