World Water Week: reflections on this year’s conference

WaterAid Chief Executive Barbara Frost reflects on the highlights from the annual water conference in Stockholm.


5 Sep 2014

World Water Week is an opportunity for academics, governments, NGOs and the private sector to meet, debate, and discuss solutions to the global water and sanitation crisis. This year the theme was energy and water.

WaterAid is supporting the proposed UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 and to ensure universal access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene. The question of how this can be achieved has been front of mind at this year’s conference.

The existing Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to reduce the proportion of people without access to safe water by half has been met. However 748 million people still lack access to drinking water and by 2050 two-thirds of the world's population will live in water-stressed areas.

Sanitation holds the embarrassing title of the most off-track MDG. It's clear that current approaches to providing sanitation are not delivering at scale. This is holding back human and economic development, and poor treatment of human waste is polluting our planet. Something needs to change – and fast.

The week in quotes:

Everybody has got a plan till they get punched in the face.

Mike Tyson, American boxer

Dr. John Briscoe, 2014 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate, borrowed the words of Mike Tyson to describe the enormous task ahead when it comes to water and sanitation. He challenged the development sector not to lecture the developing world and refrain from offering 'Volvo-standard solutions', when 'Volkswagen-standards' may be enough. He warned against blueprint solutions and said we need to look at what works in given situations, to listen and to adapt.

The politics does matter. It [sanitation] requires a vision and consistent application.

Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF

It was great to see my colleagues Henry Northover and Tim Brewer present an excellent study on how Singapore and South Korea achieved near universal access to sanitation over a relatively short period of time. This session was chaired by Naina Lal Kidwai, Chair of HSBC India, and generated considerable debate. As would be expected, early findings show that high-level, committed political leadership, effective governance systems and monitoring lay at the heart of this transformation.

We should start talking about what people want, rather than what they need.

Philippe Rohner, Pictet Group

Neil Macleod from the eThekwini water and sanitation utility in Durban, South Africa, and this year's winner of the Stockholm Industry Water Award, spoke about putting customers at the centre of decision making at the Founders Business Seminar. He described how eThekwini ensured universal access to services and how they are generating energy from waste. Toilets have been provided in light, clean and portable containers for public spaces – pleasant enough for people to 'sit and read'.

Including water and sanitation in the Sustainable Development Goals is long overdue.

Naina Lal Kidwai, Chair of HSBC India

HSBC, Earthwatch, WaterAid and WWF came together at World Water Week to share their experience as part of the HSBC Water Programme in India, where all three NGO partners are operating. With sanitation targets high on the national agenda, our partnership with HSBC will be even more critical to continuing and advancing our work in India.

Reaching the most excluded shouldn't be seen as an add-on.

Jane Wilbur, WaterAid

I was pleased to hear how my colleague Jane Wilbur responded to a question about measuring the cost of inclusion, in a session on equity organised by SHARE. Jane was clear that inclusive facilities needn't be expensive if properly considered at design stage and stressed that leaving people out is an unacceptable cost. The real cost is borne in people being unable to use the facilities, dropping out of schools or being unable to gain employment due to inaccessible places of work.

The WASH sector needs to make friends with the energy sector."

Debora Tan, China Water Risks

Debra Tan summed up the theme of the conference by insisting that WASH folks need to make friends with their energy sector colleagues and forge new solutions. She pointed out that 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity - largely the same people who lack access to safe water and sanitation. It's clear that governments, NGOs, the private sector and all development partners need to collaborate effectively to meet the SDGs. All of us need to think about the interdependence of our work and the impact of climate change, urbanisation, inequalities, human development and pollution.

We went viral with poo!

Sue Coates, UNICEF

UNICEF hosted a terrific event about using social media platforms to promote the importance of ending open defecation, chaired by author and journalist Rose George. We heard about the fantastic #Poo2Loo campaign, which encourages people who have access to sanitation to talk about open defecation and support the one billion people without access to a toilet, promoting the provision of decent toilets and hygiene behaviour change. The event demonstrated how social media can be a powerful tool to promote individual change as well as a brilliant way of raising issues and building movements.

The week ended with Dr. John Briscoe addressing the final gathering in the City Hall, inspiring us all to do whatever we can to help make this a better world for all. Hear, hear!