Submitted by James Dalton on Tue, 05/05/2015

This year the focus of the 7th World Water Forum was on implementation – something everyone strives for but which can become forgotten at events often more intent on policy debate. Implementation of better water management has to scale-up to reach ambitious Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets, and solve problems quicker than they accumulate. Reflecting the cross-cutting nature of water in society and in the economy, the Forum brought together a diverse range of stakeholders – from engineers to conservationists, from financers to farmers, from local government to Parliamentarians and Ministers.

A clear subject in the thematic events was natural or green infrastructure. Natural infrastructure is by design, nature for development and development for nature. It recognises the intrinsic links between environment, people, and economy. It speaks to many communities-of-practice and their multiple policy objectives and indicators. It goes beyond carbon mitigation to include mitigating the current practical problems that exist – to highlight that natural systems are a sensible and attractive place to invest when you are trying to reduce flooding, build water security, grow food, conserve habitats and species, grow industry, provide livelihoods and employment, and store carbon. Sessions on natural infrastructure ranged from business investing in natural infrastructure to disaster risk reduction interventions, from community scale to city scale, and watershed protection by utilities who recognise the need to protect ‘upstream’, to give everyone enough water ‘downstream’. Sounds simple right?  Yet getting to collective implementation is a challenge.

We were able to sit with our co-authors, UNEP-DHIThe Nature Conservancy (TNC) and World Resources Institute (WRI) to discuss the further development of our Green infrastructure Guide, and were joined byForest Trends and Wetlands International to look at learning and scaling-up our knowledge with others. OurWISE-UP programme is currently looking at how natural infrastructure can support low carbon pathways for water, energy and food security that can be used to go beyond incentives, but actually highlight where natural infrastructure investments need to be made to keep the lights on, the water flowing, the fish in the river.

Not unsurprisingly, the subject of the water-energy-food nexus was a clear thread throughout the Forum. It is also the theme of today’s World Environment Day. With 42% of the global population living in the 286 transboundary river basins of the world, the nexus is a catalyst to mobilise integrated water resource management (IWRM) – to take IWRM from plan to reality on the ground. These transboundary rivers account for approximately 54% of total river flows using the latest information from the Transboundary Waters Assessment Programme. Transboundary river systems offer many solutions for collaboration, negotiation, and benefit sharing. Our global BRIDGE team were in force at the Forum, sharing their hydro-diplomacy experience on the global stage.

The nexus tends to challenge conventional water management practice. The cross-sectoral nature of water should help move IWRM from plan to action. This ongoing dynamic debate has to focus on the broader stakeholder concerns and experience beyond ‘water’ and ‘Government’. Our latest report produced with theGlobal Canopy ProgrammeInternational Water Association, German International Development Assistance (GIZ) and the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) demonstrates how closely linked the energy future and ecosystem security of Latin America are to better water management. The nexus helps to demonstrate how the interconnectedness of water challenges have outgrown the institutions set up to deal with them.

Sweden’s Ambassador for Oceans, Seas and Freshwater, Lisa Svensson facilitated our Special Session, ‘The Water-Energy-Food Nexus: Are we finally talking?’ Convened jointly with IWA and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the session focussed on how the nexus relates to the SDGs and national development trajectories. European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, Neven Mimica, spoke of the need to create clearer dialogue at the Ministerial level on the opportunities for innovation and investment that the nexus brings.

This dose of realism is needed. Good water resource management underpins our economies, our societies, and the ecosystem services we rely upon. Water drives our climate, and therefore climate change affects the hydrology we so heavily rely upon. The majority of adaptation finance is used to solve water management challenges on the ground, and yet water is poorly integrated into climate change policy discussions. Those who argue that climate change is still a distraction are probably not suffering from the effects of it, or remain unaware of its contributory effect to floods and droughts.

A new report, Securing Water, Sustaining Growth was launched from afar during the Forum. This work was initially presented at the OECD Global Forum on Environment: New Perspectives on the Water-Energy-Food-Nexus in November 2014. As was pointed out by Bill Cosgrove at the time, these issues are not new and are innately understood. Our future development is guided by too much water (flooding), too little water (drought), and water in the wrong place at the wrong time (natural hydrology and climate change). With the continuing lack of safe water supply and sanitation to millions, and the risks to our freshwater systems from pollution, over-abstraction, and flow interruption, it is paramount the implementation focus of the Forum becomes reality, at speed and at scale.

When you know too many people in the audience – you are at the wrong event. Partners and colleagues are there to ‘do business’ – to learn, network, and design opportunities. This is one reason we were there. But to influence agendas, promote learning, and leverage our work and experience we are increasingly talking to the converted. There was wide agreement and a greater sense of collective action on key issues such as natural infrastructure, the need for ecosystem service valuation, climate and resilience approaches, and a strong implementation focus. But water management is no longer about ‘do as I say’! It is increasingly about ‘what do you say’? It has become a more inclusive conversation than it has been in the past.

As we learnt through the 11-year Water & Nature Initiative, ‘grand discourse’ is a key element of scaling-up. Of course, the style and format of large events needs to change, with the need for a renewed focus on the outcomes and legacy of events and not on the number of delegates. Yet, where there is a grand purpose, we may not all agree on the solutions proposed, but we can agree on the problems. This is important as we try and accelerate implementation, and more importantly, implement collectively at scale. Small scale is small impact.

We cannot solve water problems by being water-centric – this much is clear. The safe ‘community-of-practice’ no longer exists. We have a much better idea of the drivers that impact our water resources. As the use of rivers and groundwater become more contested and competition increases for freshwater, it is the ability to work with and harness the solutions, skills, and resources of different sectors that will deliver the results for positive impact on our water resources. Now is the chance to collectively move from retail to wholesale implementation – and this requires innovation, investment, and improvement in the tools, mechanisms, processes, and teams trying to deliver implementation.

Grand discourse seldom solves problems, but perhaps, as was raised coming out of Rio+20, big events are over, but big conversations are not. Framing the debate as action on the ground should help influence change in water management through measurable impact, and allow us all to focus on critical and not peripheral policy issues.