A view from the opening plenary of the Stockholm World Water Week. Photo by: Thomas Henriksson / SIWI / CC BY-NC-ND

STOCKHOLM — There was a newfound sense of urgency in the air at this year’s Stockholm World Water Week. More than 3,000 water, sanitation, and hygiene actors gathered in the Swedish capital last week for the event, which comes on the back of the sobering news that the world is way off track on meeting the Sustainable Development Goals for WASH.

A recent United Nations report revealed that billions of people still lack access to WASH services; 80 percent of countries do not have enough financing to meet the SDG targets; water pollution is getting worse; and there is a lack of capacity and governance to fix the problem.

At World Water Week, there was a growing sense that unlocking private finance and working more collaboratively across sectors will be critical to meeting the ambitious goals. 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.

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At the same time, participants were told repeatedly that achieving the WASH targets will be fundamental to attaining the other 16 SDGs. United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed described the WASH SDG as a “docking station” for the other goals and called on the development community to work together to reach them. The point was echoed by the theme of this year’s conference: Water, ecosystems and human development.

Devex rounds up the key takeaways from the week.

1. Finance

Financing SDG 6 was the key topic at this year’s conference, with many participants commenting on the impressive number and quality of sessions, and the packed audiences compared to previous years.

Based on the agreed assumption that public finance and development aid will not be sufficient, sessions explored innovative ways of channeling more private money into the sector, especially through blended finance mechanisms.

“Compared to five years ago ... the sector has become much more mature [in] talking about finance and the different streams including sources, mechanisms … That’s great [since] the first sign of change is people adopting a language and giving meaning to it,” IRC WASH's head of international program, Catarina Fonseca, told Devex.

Yet despite the discussions, private finance still lags and “a lot of the [same] financial constraints we were hearing about five years ago have not been resolved,” Fonseca added.

Joel Kolker, head of the Global Water Supply & Sanitation Partnership at the World Bank, agreed that the debate around financing has some way to go.

“I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the number of [finance] sessions … but we still need to flesh out where the emphasis needs to be,” he said, adding, “what we really need to do is look at the technical and financial efficiency of the service provider.”

2. Cross-sector collaboration

WASH actors have long talked up the need for greater collaboration, but this rhetoric is finally translating into action, according to Catarina de Albuquerque, executive director of Sanitation and Water for All.

“The discourse has changed; it’s now mainstream and no longer an exotic discourse by some NGOs. Everyone is talking about collaboration,” she told Devex. Her organization brings together ministers, donors, private sector, and civil society around the WASH agenda.

“I see bilateral donors more and more interested in supporting SWA because they feel this type of work … bringing stakeholders together and working on the enabling environment …  is what is needed for their actions at country level to work,” she said.

“The discourse has changed; it’s now mainstream and no longer an exotic discourse by some NGOs. Everyone is talking about collaboration,”

— Catarina de Albuquerque, executive director, Sanitation and Water for All

The U.N.’s Mohammed pointed to the need for greater integration between WASH, education, and health, a point highlighted in a new report released last week by UNICEF and the World Health Organization. 34 percent of schools surveyed do not have decent toilets, affecting 620 million children — and 520 million school children are without access to clean drinking water, according to the report. Access is poorest in preprimary and primary schools. A similar assessment for WASH in health clinics is due to be released in December.

“It’s outrageous today to see that we are designing hospitals and schools without reticulated water systems, with toilets that are way off … in the back and behind of a school building which puts many of our girls at risk,” Mohammed said.

Tim Wainwright, head of WaterAid, told Devex that while the results were “alarming,” they did not come as a surprise. But he said he was encouraged to see the development community finally acknowledging “the foundational nature of WASH,” and that it must be looked at beyond the household setting.

“This gives me hope ... We need a coordinated cross-sectoral approach,” he said.

3.  Sanitation rising

Sanitation, long neglected in terms of funding and attention compared to water, continued to rise up the agenda at this year’s event. Conference goers were given a look at WHO’s first sanitation guidelines, officially launching in October. The World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also launched a comprehensive handbook on fecal sludge management and septage treatment, designed to be used by city planners and engineers in lower- and middle-income countries as they grapple with delivering appropriate sanitation facilities in rapidly growing cities.

Last week, the World Bank also published a guide on designing and implementing shared household and community toilets. The guide has raised some eyebrows since the U.N. Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, which tracks progress toward SDG 6, does not count shared toilets as an example of improved sanitation. However, Martin Gambrill, lead water and sanitation specialist in the World Bank’s Water Global Practice, told Devex that shared toilets are commonly used, and the guide is intended to make them as good as possible. He did emphasize, however, that they should be seen as an “interim solution.”

The two guides are linked to the Bank’s broader Citywide Inclusive Sanitation work, which is pushing a range of sanitation solutions dependent on context, he explained.

“We need a mix of solutions depending on where the country and the city is … so [these guides look at] how can we support our project teams and especially their government counterparts in doing this,” he said.

Gambrill’s point was echoed by Jean-Michel Tiberi from French multinational Veolia, which in May announced it had joined the Toilet Board Coalition, a group of businesses, NGOs, and funders working to accelerate progress on sanitation. Speaking during a side session, Tiberi said the kinds of waste systems on which Veolia has traditionally operated, such as sewers, are not always appropriate and alternatives are needed. He added that local entrepreneurs working on decentralized sanitation solutions often run in parallel and in competition with each other.  

To help address these issues, Veolia intends to use its experience “collaborating with government bodies” to develop “a new generation of PPPs [public-private partnerships] that will encompass all these centralized and decentralized activities … and stakeholders … and try to align the interests of the different players,” he said.

4.  Nature-based solutions

Following the U.N.’s 2018 World Water Development Report, a focus this year was on nature-based solutions for water. These can include forests as well as groundwater-based solutions, such as aquifers. As a result, World Water Week attracted a slightly different set of actors, including The Nature Conservancy — a partner for this year’s event. Andrea Erickson, TNC’s managing director for water scarcity, spoke during the closing plenary about the need to embrace green alternatives to water infrastructure. “Our takeaway is that nature-based solutions do work,” she said.

Nature-based solutions are “not totally new,” and though there is a revival of this approach it is “not [yet] on a sufficient scale,” according to Sophie Trémolet, who has just moved from the World Bank to become senior water adviser for Europe at TNC.

Part of the problem has been a historic lack of communication between conservation groups, who tend to focus on cleaning water upstream, and WASH groups, which tend to focus on helping utilities work on expanding their network “with limited attention to where the water comes from,” Trémolet said. The groups will have to work together in order to avoid situations like the water shortages in Cape Town, South Africa and São Paulo, Brazil.

“Bringing in more upstream thinking about these topics before it’s too late is important,” Trémolet said.

Update, Sep. 3: This story was amended to clarify that Catarina Fonseca works for IRC WASH

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.