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World Water Week showed how the world can solve the water crisis

  • World Water Week showed how the world can solve the water crisis
    Credit: SIWI

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SIWI
SIWI is a water institute. We leverage knowledge and our convening power to strengthen water governance for a just, prosperous, and sustainable future.
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World Water Week ended on 27 August with a strong message: we have many solutions to fix the water crisis and tackle climate change, but we need political will and sufficient investments. This is what the conference called on the international community to activate.

The world’s leading water event, World Water Week, was held 23-27 August against a dramatic backdrop of unprecedented climate-induced disasters in many parts of the world, enhancing the importance of the Week’s theme Building Resilience Faster. But when the Week closed on Friday, it was on a cautiously optimistic note. The Week’s over 400 sessions, co-created with leading international organizations, demonstrated a number of solutions to for example water scarcity, the climate crisis and poverty.  

The results will now be used locally by the 13,000 participants from 188 countries but also fed into other global processes such as the United Nations’ upcoming High-level events on food and energy and the Climate Summit COP26 in November. 

“Events such as the World Water Week, as well as the High-Level Dialogue on Energy and the Food Systems Summit later in September, provide an historic opportunity to shine a light on the much-needed energy, water and food revolution so that we can secure a safer future for all,” said Usha Rao-Monari, Associate Administrator UNDP, in the Closing plenary. In her view, these transformations are absolutely necessary but only possible to achieve through improved management of water.  

Cate Lamb, water lead of the UK High-Level Champion ahead of COP26, emphasized the role of water for effective climate action, putting the planet on a path to zero carbon emissions. “At COP26, we want more countries to prioritize adaptation and translate their risks into resilient water investment,” she said, highlighting the importance of protecting wetlands and forests, reducing energy use, and tackling poor sanitation and waste treatment. 

The recipients of the world’s most prestigious water award the Stockholm Water Prize, which was presented by the Swedish King H.M King Carl XVI Gustaf during World Water Week, also stressed the role of water in addressing major global challenges. “We don’t have time to solve the water, climate, and biodiversity crisis piecemeal and one at a time,” said the 2021 Laureate Sandra Postel during the award ceremony on 25 August. 

Torgny Holmgren, Executive Director of the organizers Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), promised that World Water Week 2022 will continue to provide concrete solutions to major global challenges. “Next year’s World Water Week will have a special focus on valuing water, which I believe holds the key to solving the looming water crisis and tackle climate change. If we continue to underestimate the value of water, we will fail to manage it properly. We will look especially at the invisible water, like groundwater, that we might not be aware of but that is critical to our survival,” he said.  

Dr John Cherry, leading groundwater expert and the recipient of Stockholm Water Prize 2020, welcomed the focus on valuing water and especially groundwater. The world is headed for a catastrophic water crisis unless we start taking this water into account, he argued, but emphasized that the problems are possible to solve. “Many solutions have been tried out somewhere around the world. At this amazing turning point in human history, we have all the means to solve the big water problems and now it is just a matter of the public learning about them and putting pressure on the politicians,” Dr Cherry said.  

Henrika Thomasson, Director of World Water Week at SIWI, described the 2021 event as a resounding success: “We are of course very pleased to have been able to welcome a record number of participants from a record number of countries, offering them more sessions than ever before. But the real measurement of success is the impact we are making, all the solutions discussed at World Water Week that will now be implemented around the world. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of water in building a more resilient future,” Thomasson said.

7 important conclusions from World Water Week

All over the world, people have been shocked by unprecedented floods, droughts, and heat waves, hard on the heels of COVID-19. By now it should be clear to everyone that we need to build resilience faster. World Water Week 2021 offered more than 400 sessions with concrete solutions to help us do just that. Here are seven key take-aways. 

World Water Week is the world’s leading water conference and an important meeting place for changemakers from cities, governments, academia, businesses, and organizations of all sizes. From 23 until 27 August, participants from 188 countries shared experiences and co-created solutions on the theme Building Resilience Faster.  

With the help of 38 rapporteurs, who listened in on all the sessions, SIWI has identified seven important trends and initial conclusions.  

1) There is growing interest in resilience. 

The theme of Building Resilience Faster seemed to really resonate with World Water Week participants. Many described 2021 as the first year when the whole world is experiencing the kind of health threats and climate-related disasters that previously mainly affected low-income countries in the global South. This is rapidly changing how the world talks about climate risks and has brought the often-forgotten question of adaptation into the limelight. If these dramatic climate impacts are unfolding already today with a 1.1-degrees C temperature increase, we must prepare for even more extreme and dangerous events in coming years, even if we manage to keep global warming at 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. 

2) We must climate-proof every sector of society. 

World Water Week 2021 was full of sessions where representatives from different sectors shared best-practice examples of how to climate-proof their operations. This typically means preparing for suddenly getting much more or much less water than usual. Across the world, from farmers, mayors, government agencies to water utilities companies are starting to realize that they will keep facing completely new threats with no manual to guide them. What they can do, however, is to collaborate with and learn from their peers in other countries. World Water Week can offer an important meeting-place for this. 

3) Focus on pathways to major transformations.

We now need to move beyond problem-solving to also redefine how we generate energy, produce food and consumer goods, and manage our land. A strong trend at World Water Week is how more and more sessions talk about creating pathways or roadmaps to transform entire sectors, industries, or countries. After Bhutan in 2015 became the first country to promise to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, more than 50 countries have followed suit, as have a growing number of companies. World Water Week is taking on an important role as a place to plan the steps involved in these transformations and discuss the water implications.

 “We are no longer in a situation, unfortunately, where small intermittent changes are going to deliver the future that we need. We do really need to see radical shifts in the way in which businesses functions,” as Cate Lamb from the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) put it in a SIWI seminar on the private sector and resilience in uncertain times. She is also involved in the Climate Action Pathway to 2050 through water, presented in another session. 

4) Make friends with nature. 

Many World Water Week sessions championed nature-based solutions and concepts such as One Health, linking the well-being of humans, animals, and ecosystems. An important topic was the risks that follow when the water cycle is altered, which was emphasized in the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the lead-up to the Week. The two Stockholm Water Prize Laureates Dr John Cherry (2020) and Sandra Postel (2021) are among the world’s most influential thinkers on the long-term threats to freshwater, for example over-abstraction and contamination of groundwater and mindless exploitation of rivers and lakes. During World Water Week they shared important perspectives, with an emphasis on how this knowledge opens for new solutions. “We don’t have time to solve the water, climate, and biodiversity crisis piecemeal and one at a time,” as Sandra Postel put it during the award ceremony.  

5) Inclusion will speed up progress. 

An important lesson in many sessions during World Water Week is how inclusion and equality can fast-track progress towards resilience. This is often a forgotten aspect that hinders necessary progress, a point that was made in the session Inclusive practices in water climate adaptation. During World Water Week there were however plenty of good examples. Indigenous knowledge is often crucial to developing nature-based solutions, as pointed out in sessions such as Integrating indigenous knowledge in the design of nature-based solutions. In the session The multi-dimensional role of youth in building resilience Andrea Ferret from the French Water Partnership encouraged more young people to choose educations and careers with a focus on nature-based solutions so that these become more mainstream. The leadership of women was emphasized in many sessions, for example Breaking silos: Climate resilience for WASH through women’s leadership.  

6) Equality and justice must be a top priority. 

Many participants at World Water Week worried that the world is not paying sufficient attention to the growing gaps between the rich and the poor, who tend to be hardest hit by climate-related disasters. ”Things get harder when you face the same disaster over and over again,” commented Dr Mahmud Zahid Hayat from the Bangladeshi research institution ICDDR in the session Building Climate Change Resilience: Integrated Solutions for WASH-related Disease Control. Several sessions explored the impacts of COVID-19, climate change and other stressors on different groups, and asked how we might prevent vulnerable groups from being left behind.

“Talk is cheap,” said Sheela Patel from the Mumbai-based NGO Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) in the SIWI Seminar Urban water resilience, from utopia to reality. She did not feel that the world has delivered on the promise to create something new and better after COVID-19. 

7) Investing in systemic change. 

The 2020 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate Dr John Cherry emphasized how we already have much of the scientific and engineering know-how we need and that many solutions have been tried out somewhere around the world. “So, at this amazing turning point in human history, we have all the means to solve the big water problems and now it is just a matter of the public learning about them and putting pressure on the politicians”, he said.  

 It is often a lack of financing that keeps the world from adapting fast enough. According to a UN report, the annual cost for climate adaptation in developing countries is rising fast and could reach 500 billion USD per year by 2050. However, early investments can significantly reduce the costs and provide a range of other co-benefits.

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