What better reason for a Sustainable Development Goal on water?

Water PollutionToday, January 15, 2015, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Perception Survey rated “water crises” as the #1 risk facing the world in terms of its potential impact. In terms of its likelihood, “water crises” is listed at #8.

This confirms what Global Water Partnership (GWP) and many others have been saying: if we are to ensure a sustainable and secure future for humanity, one of the top development priorities must be to improve the management of the world’s water resources.

Fortunately, the UN General Assembly, on September 8, 2014, adopted a framework for the Sustainable Development Goals which includes Goal #6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

As this framework goes into a period of negotiation among the UN Member States, it is a crucial for governments to keep Goal #6 because the management of water resources is foundational to economic and social development. Are world leaders willing to risk humanity’s future by ignoring the #1 risk facing the world?

Steven Downey, GWP Head of Communications

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Water, Key to Climate Resilience, Requires Funding

Much of the following article, written by GWP’s Programme Officer, Maika Müller, was published in the multi-stakeholder magazine ‘Outreach’ during the UNFCCC’s COP 20, in Lima, Peru, from 1-12 December 2014. It has been updated as  a blog, taking into consideration the COP 20 outcomes.


Water is the common leverage through which a changing climate impacts us, but it is also the bloodstream of our well-being. The impacts of climate change through water are revealed in extreme weather events expressed by more floods, more droughts, and more storms. Notably, the world’s most vulnerable peoples, including women, children, and indigenous populations are hit worst by such climate events.

Water is a big player in creating a more climate resilient world: it is widely demonstrated that countries with robust water management systems, institutions, and water infrastructure are better prepared to cope with climate change impacts.

Sufficient financial resources and innovative approaches to financing are required to support developing countries in undertaking adaptation activities to effectively adapt to climate change. This means we need to assist countries in advancing water infrastructure, strengthening ‘no/low regret’ investments, and developing institutional capacity.

However, looking at the final outcomes of COP 20, water is not central to the global climate change agenda – and it should be. Even though countries have increasingly recognized the importance of water to climate change impacts since the climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, water is still absent from the formal negotiations and final decisions.

The Green Climate Fund (GCF), which is expected to be operational by 2015, will have an important role in handling billions of dollars in climate finance in the coming years. With its paradigm shift towards a low-emission and a climate-resilient development pathway, the Fund plans to channel a greater share of new multilateral funding for adaptation projects, which are currently undercapitalized in the evolving global climate finance landscape.

In addition, the Fund emphasizes allocating a ‘50:50 balance’ for adaptation and mitigation activities and the increased pledges to the GCF. This is good news, especially if  the Fund creates a “water window” to close the financial gap for adaptation activities implemented by countries for holistic water resources management.

When U.S. President Barack Obama announced a USD 3 billion pledge, he stressed that this “gives us the opportunity to help vulnerable communities with an early warning system, with stronger defences against storm surge, climate resilient infrastructure, to help farmers plant more durable crops.”

How can these ambitions be achieved?

GWP is responding to the emerging climate finance challenge through activities under its Water, Climate and Development Programme (WACDEP). The programme supports 60 countries in climate finance readiness. To support countries in leveraging efficient financing for climate resilient adaptation projects in water resources management, we must, among other actions:

  • enhance the knowledge and capacities of partnerships, institutions and stakeholders to integrate water security and climate resilience in development planning and decision-making processes.
  • support countries in preparing climate resilient “bankable” and tangible projects to leverage investments for water resources management.
  • develop the capacity of planners and decision-makers to identify, develop and appraise ‘no/low regret’ investment plans – such as early warning systems and more resilient crops – to improve the resilience of natural resources in a sustainable way under future climate scenarios.
  • support countries and enable governments to unlock financial sources from new and emerging climate funds and other sources such as development banks.
  • contribute to the development of national adaptation plans (NAPs) and the formulation of projects and programmes to support water security and climate resilient development.
  • strengthen the design of national drought and flood management policies through improved knowledge and access to scientific understanding of drought and floods, risk assessment, monitoring, prediction and early warning.
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Engineering and Green Infrastructure: How do They Work Together?

GWP Senior Knowledge Management Officer Dr. Danka Thalmeinerova wonders about the connection between headline messages and real action in water management.

small water retention

Water leaders sometimes seem to develop new messages in order to justify holding global meetings. Messages such as “towards sustainable water solutions”, “economic development and water security”, “nexus thinking”, “water for development”, and “sustainable growth” are tailored to present new trends and initiatives. But do these messages make a difference on the ground?

For example, “Green Growth” and “Green Infrastructure” have become popular terms in the last 10-15 years. But these concepts have not yet been introduced in national policies or investment plans. The most common response to water management challenges has been to increase investment in solid engineering infrastructure. That response is attractive to politicians because infrastructure is visible and technologies are well tested. So, after a big flood, bigger dikes are built. After a severe drought, more irrigation channels are constructed or deeper groundwater pumps are installed. Other alternatives to mitigate floods, control erosion, and purify wastewater are not given full attention. Even water managers have little understanding of these “green” terms.

Green infrastructure is usually perceived to be a conservation approach, allocating water to the ecosystem in order to secure biodiversity “gems.” The water sector has not overlooked ecosystems. However, implementation of green infrastructure solutions is not fully embedded in water policies as solutions to water management problems. On the contrary, modern water legislation brings several restrictions to alternative solutions. One reason is that the promotion of green infrastructure pushes water planners beyond engineering and beyond the water sector. Land use enters here and it requires the involvement of agriculture, forestry, and nature protection managers to make changes.

Several existing definitions of green infrastructure do not make it easier to get ownership by decision making processes. The most frequently used definition refers to green infrastructure solutions that “are based on the utilization of ecosystem services.” What does this mean in a concrete situation? How can this compete with traditional requests for reliable water supplies and minimizing the impact of extreme events? Can you be sure that restoration of wetlands will be sufficient to filter effluents and absorb pollution? Some answers are found in a recently published Guide on Green Infrastructure (2014). Green solutions are categorized and examples of green infrastructure solutions are displayed. The guide will probably be read mostly by scholars and researchers (it’s 76 pages!), less by practitioners.

The other day I saw a short video which made me realize that things are happening “on the ground” which show green infrastructure actions. Since 2013, GWP Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has been implementing the Integrated Drought Management Programme (IDMP), which aims to support governments in the development of drought management plans. GWP CEE experts from four countries are testing small water retention methods in the field and are collecting good practices. In the video, GWP CEE presents these alternative measures – showing real examples of the application, effects, and benefits of green infrastructure. The video addresses the role of small water retention in situations such as erosion control, water purification, flood control, urban storm water control, and drought management. It deserves your attention, so watch the video now. It’s time to promote what is happening at the local level to the global level!

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From Water Risk to Value Creation

no fishing

By Fraser MacLeod, GWP Head of Global Projects:

This is the title of a new report that I came across, and to me it crystalizes what I believe is one of the biggest challenges humanity faces in the coming decades: how do we turn problems into solutions, how do we make lower water use the path of greatest economic return?

So, you may ask: what does the report tell us about this journey? Perhaps inevitably, the report is essentially silent about the journey. Rather, it provides another snapshot of how Global 500 Companies view water. The essence is that risks are growing, awareness is increasing, and leadership is needed – tell me something that I don’t know!

We all know that water is invariably not at the table when the big decisions are taken about the wider political economy – education, housing, jobs, taxation, etc. Yet, we also know that these big decisions have consequences for water management. And the corollary is that every water management decision has implications for the wider political economy. How can we bridge this gap?

I believe one of the simplest things the water sector needs to do is to stop talking about water. We need to engage with decision makers on their terms, we need to understand what drives them, and we need to be able to articulate the reasonably foreseeable impacts of their decisions on water (and vice versa). If we can do this with authority and credibility then we will earn respect and trust, from which comes influence.

When I say ‘authority’ I do not mean demonstrating power or leadership – I mean the confidence one gains from personal experience, or the ability to influence others because of one’s commanding manner, or being a trusted source of reliable information and evidence. This form of authority results in a very different conversation, one I do not think we are prepared for.

What do you think?

For those interested in the report, it’s here: From water risk to value creation

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Winners for European Waters: Reflections from ERRC 2014

GWP Senior Knowledge Management Officer Dr. Danka Thalmeinerova shares impressions from the European River Restoration Conference in Vienna (ERRC 2014, 28-30 October), which she is attending.

errc 2014 participants

We all know that the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) made a paradigm shift in thinking about European rivers as “natural capital”. I like this term used by Beate Werner from the European Environmental Agency. This term is self-explanatory, having the same meaning to economists and environmentalists as well as policy makers.

It was emphasized at the plenary opening session of ERRC 2014 that it took Europe about 60-80 years to destroy its aquatic environment thanks to huge economic development, ranging from river pollution, urbanisation, navigation channels, irrigation schemes, and numerous cuts off and regulations of natural streams. A thorough mapping of all the changes in hydro-morphology was made during the first River Basin Management Planning process in all member states of the EU. Wording in the EU WFD stipulates that all the water bodies that are considered to be unsustainable are called heavily modified water bodies. It was estimated that we would need to spend the next 200 years to fix past problems.

The ERRC 2014 is an occasion that attempts to demonstrate that restoration projects are possible, not only as a “nice-to-do activity” of enthusiastic ecological activists, but as an integral part of river planning and management. About 100 presentations were made at the event showing approaches that support river restoration. The most attractive of these qualified for the European River Prize. This prize is devoted to champions of best practice in river basin management. The three 2014 finalists are:

  • DanubeParks is a network of nature protection areas along the Danube. When looking at the Danube from a bird’s eye perspective, the network of parks is like string of pearls, running from Austria’s mountains to the floodplain of Romania towards the Black Sea. More than 10 years of strengthening the management of natural parks along the Danube comprised more than 150 activities, ranging from river restoration, nature conservation, and enhancement of eco-tourism. As a result, several rare species that were going extinct are coming back because of better management of the protected parks. This finalist made a point that river is a place for birds, fish, as well as for people and the economy.
  • The Mur River restoration project in Austria is an example of cooperation between local municipalities, water engineers, urban planners and eco-activists. Historically, the Mur River was one of the dirtiest in Europe. Although the early wave of restoration included heavy investments in wastewater treatment plans, these were recently combined with increasing of public awareness. The restoration project aimed to bring water back to people and bring people close to the river. Today, the Mur is a popular place to organise festivals, a meeting point for young people, walking space for elderly people, and a good stamp of approval for elected politicians!
  • The Regional Association of Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development (BROZ) is a non-governmental organization that has been active for more than 15 years in river restoration activities in Slovakia and neighboring countries of the Danube (Austria and Hungary). Several restoration projects initiated by this NGO were presented, ranging from small urban streams improvements to important protected zones requiring significant investment. The message of the finalist was clear: practical activities involving stakeholders and the public seem to be the best way to increase trust and transparency in the participation process. Face-to-face discussions are important, although the reports to bureaucratic machinery need to be made seriously. Trust is also increased by providing tangible evidence of how these discussions have influenced the development of the plan.

At the time of writing this, the winner has not yet been announced, but I am convinced that all these finalists and all the others who presented their projects are already winners for European waters.

Related link: Dr. Thalmeinerova also wrote a blog post about ERRC 2013, A Salute to the ERRC

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Rediscovering Our Water Culture Paths in the Mediterranean

“Much of the past water culture heritage has been left largely unexploited, resulting in neglect, deterioration and even loss of any potential remains”, writes Vangelis Constantianos, Executive Secretary of GWP Mediterranean in this blog.

Holding only 3% of the world’s freshwater resources and hosting 50% of the globe’s “water poor” population – counting to 180 out of its 460 million inhabitants – the Mediterranean is among the most arid regions of the world. (‘Water poor’ are those among our fellow citizens disposing less than 1000m3/person/year)

Yet, there are many more of its characteristics to make it exciting, but challenging too: gifted with natural beauty, diversity and fertility; a mosaic of civilizations, religions and ideas; with a fast growing population with increased urbanization trends in search of a better life; poverty, unemployment, gender disparities; unsustainable consumption over the last decades; high development pressures from tourism, industry and agriculture; rising energy needs; climate variability and change, desertification, pollution and biodiversity loss; etc. Lingering socio-political instability, escalating turbulence and war are encountered in some countries of the region.

Over millennia, each and every among the region’s civilizations have celebrated water as a vital substance integral to survival and development, an enduring symbol of life, rejuvenation, purity and hope; a common denominator of a shared heritage.


Since antique times and through a range of practices, indigenous populations of the Mediterranean region have been utilizing rivers, springs, lakes, aquifers and rainwater for water collection, storage, distribution and flooding emergency responses. Such simple, functional and, yet, sophisticated practices were valorized and advanced by all civilizations, since all have been facing similar water-related limitations.

Improved through observation, experimentation, innovation and adaptation to local needs, practices often evolved to knowledgeable solutions supplying water to human settlements and cultivations: remnants of wells, pipelines, canals, aqueducts, cisterns, reservoirs, ponds, small scale dams and integrated systems do still survive – in the face of modern development sirens – scattered across the Mediterranean, forming a unique cultural compendium of centuries-long water management wisdom.

Yet, the pattern changed when our home tap got conveniently connected to a domestic water distribution system, and much of the past water culture heritage has been left largely unexploited, resulting in neglect, deterioration and even loss of any potential remains. The high value traditionally attributed to water has decreased, and though infrastructure and technology have been managing to provide solutions to our everyday practical needs and problems, they have not made us wiser and more responsible water users.

Understanding and truly appreciating the cultural, emotional and intellectual significance of water in our everyday life, will contribute towards a new, thoughtful, and urgently needed consumer’s water culture, in every possible scale. From leaving the tap running while taking a shower to mastering a river through dams’ building, our own choices make a difference for the future of the most valuable gift of life.

Experiencing cultural heritage related to water can help in this direction, as an everyday reminder to local communities and visitors: further to their sentimental and tradition-praising value, such cultural pieces often still contribute to the local water balance and small scale socioeconomic development. Astonishing examples from all around the region can be reviewed through the ‘Hydria Project’ on ‘Collection, Storage & Distribution of Water in Antiquity: Linking Ancient Wisdom to Modern Needs’ at www.hydriaproject.net.

For example, how many tourists have noticed the several traditional wells, fountains, cisterns and watermills scattered around the Greek island of Naxos, clear marks of a century long sophisticated water exploitation? How many do exactly know the practical value of the grandiose Larnaca aqueducts in the island of Cyprus that has long been facing water scarcity? How many appreciate the effort undertaken by the Bonifacio inhabitants in the island of Corsica who have been digging caves and wells up to 70 meters down the earth, to get access to the valuable groundwater? How many have visited the amazing Naples underground network of aqueducts and cisterns, dug stone by stone over thousands of years by Ancient Greeks and Romans? How many are aware of the story behind the Matfias, an originally collective community system developed in the Abda Valley, in Morocco, to tackle drought throughout the year in a simple and low-cost manner? How many do truly understand the pride that Timimoun oasis populations in Algeria find in the local foggara systems, these ingenious irrigation systems which find, however, themselves today in great danger and decline?

The Hydria Project is implemented by the Mediterranean Information Office for Environment, Culture and Sustainable Development (MIO-ECSDE) as part of the Mediterranean Education Initiative for Environment and Sustainability (MEdIES). The Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean (GWP-Med) supports and collaborates with MEdIES and the Hydria Project since their launching. Other supporters include the European Commission, UNESCO and the Anna Lindh Foundation.

Inset photo: “Relief depicting hydria carriers from the North Frieze of the Parthenon, circa 447-432 BC (New Acropolis Museum). The scene is part of the sacrificial procession of the Panathenaic festival that is sculptured all around the frieze.”

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Towards Water-wise Cities in Africa

Water security is under threat in many urban centres, writes GWP Senior Network François Brikké in this blog, which was originally published as a guest blog for The African Water Facility (AWF)


Water security is under threat in many urban centres. The very nature of urbanization contributes to water stress: rapid population growth, poor or no waste water management and pollution, competing demands from various sectors of activity, and more frequent water related disasters induced by climate change. Urban growth in Africa is one of the highest in the world, and the urban population is expected to be around 60 % by 2050. It poses not only a major challenge to existing and potentially future urban centres and existing planning and management of water systems has proven to be insufficient.

There is a need for a paradigm shift in the way we plan and manage water resources at urban level in order to reach water wise cities from the perspective of cost effectiveness, technical performance, social equity and environmental sustainability. The Integrated Urban Water Management (IUWM) approach provides a framework for interventions over the entire water cycle and a reconsideration of the way water is used (and reused). It is not a prescriptive model, it is a process that invites current cities and emerging ones to adjust their current planning and management practices, given their own priorities, hydrological and socio-economic contexts.

The IUWM approach is based on the following key principles:

  • Integrated Water Resources Management: considering the whole urban water cycle as one system within the watershed.
  • Participation of key stakeholders: considering the participation of key stakeholders coming from the public, private and social sectors representing different socio economic activities that have an interest in water.
  • Optimum infrastructure design and investments: considering the choice of technologies from the perspective of cost effectiveness, technical performance, social equity and environmental sustainability.
  • Effective water governance: considering both centralized or decentralized systems, with options of involving communities at local level, as well as optimizing public-private and social partnerships.

Blogger’s Bio:
François Brikke is both a development economist and a sanitary engineer. He is now working with the Global Water Partnership based in Stockholm, and is the focal point on the theme of Integrated Urban Water Management. He has 25 years experience in the water actor holding various positions with UNICEF, the Water and Sanitation Program of the World Bank and IRC.

Here is the blog in its original format on AWF’s homepage.

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Water Exports vs. National Heritage in Slovakia

Nitra River, Slovakia (GWP CEE/Muller)

It appears that the government of Slovakia is going to submit a law, in spite of considerable opposition, that will allow the export of water from Slovakia. Dr. Danka Thalmeinerova, GWP’s Senior Knowledge Management Officer, who is from Slovakia, explains the situation.

To mark World Environment Day 2014 (June 5), Dr. Mikulas Huba, a member of the Slovak National Parliament, organized a seminar titled, “Europe and Slovakia through an Environmental Lens” which took place in the Parliament building. Representatives from municipalities, central government, non-governmental organizations, and the general public discussed the “Europe for Citizens” funding programme 2014-2020. Although the seminar was about new European Union (EU) funding schemes for the environment and other priority investments in Slovakia, the most discussed issue was water.

Slovakia is a small country rich with water: natural springs, diverse water-dependent ecosystems, abundant groundwater resources, and with few problems in allocating water to users. Such riches are tempting the government to allow this ‘blue gold’ to be exported to other countries just as oil-rich countries export their ‘black gold.’

But should this be allowed? Dr. Elena Fatulova, Chair of GWP Slovakia, reminded seminar participants that there was a public campaign at the end of 2013, supported by more than 8,500 signatures, urging the Ministry of Environment not to sell Slovakia’s water resources – a resource which the constitution calls a ‘National Heritage.’ The Ministry of Environment insisted that the revision of the Slovak Water Law must include water exports in order to harmonize it with EU rules on internal markets (e.g., the free movement of capital, goods, services, and labour).

However, Dr. Fatulova pointed out that in March 2014 the European Commission published Communication from the Commission on the European Citizens’ Initiative “Water and sanitation are a human right! Water is a public good, not a commodity!” [COM(2014) 177] which declares that “water distribution and supply and wastewater services are expressly excluded from the application of the cross-border freedom to provide services.” Hence there is no obligation to permit the export of water abroad. Ironically, based on this Communication, Slovak authorities could actually do the opposite of what they are planning: they can prohibit water exports without having to defend it against EU internal market rules. In a further irony, virtually all NGOs and professional organizations support the government in wanting to amend some legal provisions in the current Slovak water legislation, but the clause on water exports might end sinking the entire piece of legislation.

Some people have argued that Slovakia should export its water the way others export their oil (even with the knowledge that oil resources are also finite). In addition, there are water-scarce countries that use water to irrigate fields to produce food that is sent abroad (called “virtual water” exports). Nevertheless, the counter arguments are compelling:

  • There is a lack of data on how much disposable volumes of groundwater there are in Slovakia and how long they will last. The data is not sufficient to estimate current and future water consumption of citizens, economic sectors, and ecosystems. Such an assessment is required by the EU Water Framework Directive and was supposed to be completed by the end of 2013.
  • There is evidence that groundwater availability is decreasing and is more difficult to extract.
  • There is also evidence that groundwater quality is deteriorating. Only recently, some water resources were excluded from the public water supply because of poor quality (in other words, it’s polluted).

GWP Slovakia, like other GWP Country Water Partnerships, provides a neutral platform for a multi-stakeholder partnership of government, civil society, and the private sector to address water issues. It is a difficult space to occupy especially when there are conflicting views within the partnership. While GWP Slovakia has not taken a formal position on this issue, it is important to speak up for the resource itself, that is, for water resources to have its voice heard at the table. What do you think?

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Minerals in Water – a Win-Win Issue for Public Health

Dr. Ania Grobicki, GWP’s Executive Secretary, has written the foreword to “Drinking water minerals and mineral balance – importance, health significance, safety precautions” (Rosborg I. et al), a book to be published by Springer Verlag in 2014. Below is an extract from the foreword. 


In the early 21st century, drinking water security is rightly a global concern, as hundreds of millions of people still lack daily access to clean and safe drinking water. The increasing risks of climate change have brought us to the awareness that in many regions of the world, water security is under increasing threat and cannot be taken for granted. In more and more locations, people are drinking water that has been treated and recycled from lower quality water or seawater, while conversely the sales of bottled mineral water are skyrocketing. 

Water is essential for life and health, with each adult human being needing to drink on average at least 2 litres of water per day to maintain optimum fitness and alertness. Water safety is generally linked with the absence of disease-causing bacteria, or pathogens. Yet it is not only the water itself that is crucial to our well-being – the minerals it contains are also vitally important. We talk of “hard” water (which contains high levels of minerals) and “soft” water (which is more acidic). Yet how much do we really know about the mineral constituents of water?  Do we have the public health guidance that we need regarding minerals in water?  Are water providers paying sufficient attention to these minerals, and do they need to be better regulated?  These are the questions which this book goes a long way towards answering. 

The health-giving effects of highly mineralized water, found in spas, have been known for thousands of years, certainly since Roman times. Over time, the dangers of high levels of certain elements in water have also become apparent, with tragedies such as the arsenic present in the drinking water wells of Bangladesh causing wide-spread illness and death. Arsenic toxicity in drinking water is now declared by the WHO as a public health emergency, which has affected more that 130 million people worldwide. Guidelines have been developed with maximum recommended levels of a range of minerals in water. In general, toxicity levels of minerals with regard to human health are now quite well known. 

However, the beneficial health aspects of minerals in water have not been investigated to the same extent. For instance, bicarbonate ions in water help to reduce osteoporosis, and have a strong association with increased longevity, in areas where the water is hard (and bicarbonate alkalinity is high). Broadly, many elements may be beneficial and even essential to health in smaller quantities, and yet harmful in large quantities.  Many people are aware that calcium is the most abundant element in the human body, and that it is essential for building healthy and strong bones and teeth. Yet how many know that it acts as an antagonist to magnesium, which is essential for a healthy heart?  Too much calcium prevents the uptake of magnesium, and hence the optimum balance of these two minerals in the water which we drink is vital to our health. 

The issue of minerals in water is becoming increasingly important as freshwater resources shrink, while ever-growing numbers of people become reliant on treated and recycled water. Water that has been treated by reverse osmosis or distillation is “demineralized”, and drinking such water over a period of time can lead to serious health effects, as has been the case for example in Jordan.  However such treated drinking water can quite simply be remineralized, to the benefit of the population which is dependent upon it. 

Our current drinking water regulations focus on maximum allowed levels of bacteria and toxins. However with regard to mineral balance, it is just as vital that the levels of minerals are properly regulated with regard to both maximum and minimum levels, and to the ratios among the various elements. Safe re-mineralized water provides a win-win situation for public health – people are protected against harmful elements in the water, while being provided with the balance of vital elements which go a long way towards promoting well-being and longevity. Around the world, we need increased policy awareness of this issue, with the development and enforcement of regulations which will provide us with clean, safe, remineralized water.

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Celebrating World Water Day: Thinking Broadly, Acting Specifically

Roberto Lenton is Founding Executive Director of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute (DWFI). He is also former Chair of GWP’s Technical Committee, and he continues to support the work of GWP. For World Water Day 2014 he wrote a text in the Water for Food Blog about how to tackle nexuses.


At World Water Week in Stockholm last September, I participated in a session designed to foster a dialog between senior and young professionals. I was, needless to say, in the “senior” category. We’d been tasked with discussing the water/food/energy “Nexus Approach” and were given a set of questions in advance. The lively conversation raised many interesting points. It also exposed a fundamental difference in thinking that helps illuminate a debate I’ve seen intensifying in development circles.

As World Water Day and its water and energy theme are celebrated around the world tomorrow, it is timely to reflect on ways to approach nexuses in ways that are practical and expansive, rather than restrictive.

Some in that Stockholm session seemed to view the “Nexus Approach,” in capitals, as a defined way to organize and frame problems and reach solutions. The image that came to mind was a roadmap or path leading to a food, water and energy secure world.

In contrast, some of us didn’t accept the proposed framework. Our view was broader. Our experience working at the interface of multitudes of connections made us mindful of the different viewpoints, disciplines and scales that must meld to create the future we want. Instead of a rigid Nexus roadmap focused on water, food and energy, we envisioned a broader approach recognizing many interconnections, shifting and changing as conditions warrant and new insights emerge.

During the discussion, it became clear that this broader take had sparked an expansion of thinking. While we need to applaud the idea of celebrating nexuses and focusing attention on interconnections, we should also worry that focusing too much attention on a specific Nexus Approach in capitals gives it too much power. We must have practical, not prescribed, solutions.

Narrowly defining issues is not new. Government agencies, ministries, interest groups and the like have long operated within rigidly defined boundaries. But neither is the idea that things are interconnected. Most groundwater irrigation farmers are all too aware of the nexus between their water costs and their energy costs.

Opening yourself to the array of possibilities can be overwhelming. The innumerable interconnections among water, energy, food, health, policy, the environment, climate, culture, social welfare, history, economics and politics, to name a few, and all operating on scales ranging from the local to the global, is a daunting prospect.

The key – to borrow the environmental movement’s mantra – is to think broadly, act specifically.

Examples of specific acts abound. Just as important, though less tangible, is the need to think broadly and flexibly to inform the specific projects that change lives.

If creatively designed, institutions can provide important forums for the expansive thinking that create a shared vision and form interconnections among disparate groups. That work lays the foundation for acting specifically. Two examples of pioneering institutions that do just that come to mind.

More than 40 years ago, Nebraska created natural resources districts to conserve and protect the state’s natural resources. Arranged around watersheds and locally governed, NRDs have the flexibility to engage all stakeholders and to maneuver in ways that best serve the environment and communities. I have come to know these remarkable institutions first-hand since joining DWFI two years ago. The NRDs have successfully helped to conserve Nebraska’s portion of the nationally significant High Plains Aquifer. When extreme droughts hit, such as occurred in 2012, the water is there to save crops and livelihoods.

At a broader level, the Global Water Partnership, with which I was closely involved during its initial formative years, has grown into an extensive, worldwide network of governmental and non-governmental agencies, private sector groups, research institutes and others operating at different scales, from local to global. GWP brings together relevant stakeholders for the coordinated, strategic thinking and planning that lead to sustainable water management solutions and projects at all levels.

These examples highlight the vital role that flexible, creative institutions can play in expanding thinking and forming connections. Indeed, my most rewarding work has come from being involved in developing these types of institutions, from helping the International Water Management Institute get off the ground in the 1980s and 1990s to my current role as DWFI’s founding director. I’m motivated by the long-term impact achievable from working in that expansive space where so many different realms interconnect and where so many innovative solutions can be found.

On World Water Day, I celebrate the tremendous progress already achieved. Today, the challenges are growing even more complex. But I’m encouraged by my young colleagues in Stockholm and so many others who are embracing the larger possibilities we have yet to explore to achieve the future we want.

This text was originally published in DWFI’s Water for Food Blog.

Photo: GWP at World Water Week 2013

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