Reflections on Stockholm World Water Week 2013

WaterAid Chief Executive Barbara Frost shares her highlights from World Water Week in Stockholm

Stockholm World Water Week always throws up surprises and interesting points for reflection, and this year was no exception.

With over 2,500 participants, it brought together many of those involved in the water and sanitation sector, and many more broadly involved in and around water.

There are so many seminars and events that you spend as much time wondering what you have missed as you do thinking about what you've actually seen and heard. That being said, it was a thoroughly stimulating week and left us all with much to think about – most importantly how best to position our work to champion sustainability and equity, and to catalyse change towards our vision of universal access by 2030.

The start of the week was dominated by the UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson’s opening plenary speech (Jan was the founding Chair of WaterAid Sweden), which you can read my take on or watch in full here. It was really inspiring to hear Jan talking, both during his speech and at other events during the week, about his view on how a water and sanitation commitment needs to be at the heart of the new Sustainable Development Goals. He has been a powerful champion on this issue, and his personal commitment to this is a tremendous boost to WaterAid and our work.

The inventor, advocate and 2013 Stockholm World Water Week Laureate, Peter Morgan, also gave a wonderful speech. He highlighted how his work had been inspired by nature, and led to low-cost solutions that have revolutionised the water and sanitation sector. His work has had a big impact on our programmes, and his eco-san (composting) and VIP latrines have helped to save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives across the globe.

Peter also took the opportunity to note a concern that there is insufficient focus within the water and sanitation sector on maintenance and ongoing financing. Maintenance costs are currently being borne by developing countries, and the amount needed soon racks up. It is time for us all to recognise this issue and shift programmatic attention away from merely providing taps and toilets, to also providing the capacity and financing required to keep this infrastructure working.

Another highlight from the start of the week was seeing how positive Ángel Gurría, the OCED (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ) Secretary General, was about a new international water and sanitation goal. The OECD plays a crucial role in compiling data from donor countries on their funding for international development work. Their figures were crucial in a recent WaterAid report, Addressing the shortfall, which was also picked up in coverage by the UK's Independent newspaper in the article 'How £11bn pledged for water and sanitation aid never arrived' that highlighted the difference between what countries have promised to give in water and sanitation aid, and what actually was transferred to developing countries.

Another very influential presenter was Margaret Catley-Carlson, former Chair and now Patron of the Global Water Partnership, at a Sanitation and Water for All partnership session on Tuesday. She highlighted how we need to understand success better, particularly from countries who in recent decades have dramatically improved their access to sanitation and water, such as South Korea. She asked what it was that brought about change in these countries, what inspired the governments to invest, and what led to the political and societal changes. She also said that it was important that NGOs and agencies learn from the corporate sector on hygiene behaviour, and think about what we can apply from their advertising and business practices.

Margaret also pointed out we need to upscale the enabling environment and capacity of developing countries to really see greater gains around sanitation. Business regulations, the ability of local and national government to plan, and better coordination by governments with the business community and NGOs are all crucial to meeting the challenge of the sanitation crisis. The Honorable Betty Bigombe, the Ugandan Minister of State for Water, also highlighted the need to get finance ministers engaged within the economics of water and sanitation. She said that it is important to be able to provide demonstrable evidence of how investments in this area have returned economic gains. While there has been a lot of work looking into the costs and benefits from investing in these basic services, including an influential World Health Organization study from 2012 written by Guy Hutton, practical examples may be required to really get ministers responsible for budgeting to invest more in this area.

It was also very exciting hearing from Brian Arbogast, who is the (very) new director of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programme at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation has helped to give sanitation a much higher profile in recent years, and Brian is a welcome new edition to the water and sanitation sector. He is keen to see new innovations, particularly those that have a proven business model, which is not that surprising considering his background as an executive at Microsoft. The foundation is also promoting a clear ambitious target for water and sanitation in the post-2015 framework and the support of such an influential organisation will go a long way.

At the same UNICEF breakfast that morning, there was a particularly striking debate about why, in some instances, so little of the money earmarked for water and sanitation work is being spent. One contributor highlighted that in a particular instance only 15% of the budget line was actually used over the period of a year. Part of the challenge around absorption rates relates to the capacity of governments in the developing world to actually commission and carryout the work that money is provided for. WaterAid, in previous reports, has pointed out the need to decentralise services and for donors to release funding earlier in the funding cycle as a way to help alleviate this particular problem.

Handwashing and hygiene behaviour was also a major topic of discussion this week, with an interesting reflection coming out of one of the debates around why, with handwashing being promoted in schools for over three decades, it isn’t ingrained into the behaviours of communities. The challenge of how to promote handwashing in a way people will respond to and include as part of their daily routines may require innovative approaches.

Attending the CEO Water Mandate meeting was particularly interesting. The group represents a wide array of business and NGOs who are working through the auspices of the UN to help tackle the water crisis. There was a focused discussion around the creation of a new manifesto that companies, as part of this group, would need to sign up to, commiting them to improving their water management and recognise the human right to water.

Professor Rita Colwell, from the University of Maryland and John Hopkins University, also made an important contribution to the debate around tackling diseases, such as cholera and diarrhoea, which are in large part brought about through a lack of access to clean water and safe sanitation. She argued that vaccination campaigns are only part of the solution, as they can only help prevent particular strains of these diseases, and that improving access to taps and toilets was the key in terms of long-term prevention. WaterAid is supporting a new study in Nepal looking at the impact of bringing these approaches together, to find out how much more effective vaccinations can be when people also have access to water and sanitation, as compared to when they don’t.

The Stockholm World Water Week theme this year was on cooperation and partnerships. It was good to see, over the course of the week, business, governments, charities, agencies and academics coming together to find ways of tackling the water and sanitation crisis. WaterAid sees that government has a key role in ensuring there is the right enabling environment to provide water, sanitation and hygiene services, while private sector investment and innovation is critical. Civil society ensures that the voice of the poor and marginalised is not forgotten and we work together to hold governments and service providers to account so that the right to water and sanitation will one day be universal.

Collaboration is critical to meeting these challenges for the world's poorest people. Each group has something different to bring to the table, and it is only by working across sectors and joining together that we will see the accelerated long-term improvements that are so desperately needed.