Submitted by guest blogger on Sun, 06/17/2012

By Dr. Mark Smith, Director, IUCN Global Water Programme

My first day in Rio was yesterday. I was off the plane at 6 am, to the hotel and then straight to Rio Centro for a lunchtime side event with the Ramsar Secretariat on the upcoming TEEB study on water and wetlands. We are aiming for this study to gather the economic numbers behind nature as water infrastructure. The ‘not the usual suspects’ are very interested in this – the engineers and the bankers – and saying “natural infrastructure, we can work with that!”. The same people that yawn and go off to the next meeting when the topic of ecosystem services comes up. The secret is that it’s the same thing wearing engineer’s boots instead of ecologist’s sandals. The 60 or 70 people who came along to the Ramsar event were happy with that….
… And, heaven forbid, they were interested too in new ideas that might help to solve some of the problems people are coming to Rio to work on. After the side event I stopped in on the negotiations. First, I went to the session on green economy. There I witnessed a debate amongst diplomats on whether to use the verb ‘commit’ or ‘encourage’. We had the EU pushing to commit and the G77 preferring merely to encourage. Normal fare for these events it’s true, even if always disappointing. Feeling inspired I headed for a taste of the negotiations on water. Oh, here was the real action! Brackets, we know, are put around the words that are disputed in a negotiating text. Here we had brackets around [, clean], as in ‘safe [, clean] water’. Somebody, from somewhere on planet Earth, is apparently arguing over the idea that people everywhere should have access to water that is clean.

You have to wonder whether this is the way to solve anything. Are fetid rooms full of diplomats going to get us anywhere?

This afternoon, now Saturday, I had a little spare time to go jogging along the beach. Here I discovered another side to Rio+20. A carnival of citizens (not diplomats), mostly from Brazil as far as I could tell, with drums and clowns and delicious-smelling barbecues in the sun. There were competing presentations and debates, on unions, women’s rights, the Amazon, sustainable cities. There was even one organisation seemingly dedicated to promoting the cause of white oaks. That one was slightly puzzling, but they had a voice and they were raising it.

Among all this, many people were wandering from tent to tent carrying copies of Agenda 21, the ‘action plan’ from Rio 20 years ago. Made me think again, maybe this does all count for something. Except, I’m not sure how the citizens will hold the diplomats to account. Certainly, though, at least for now in Rio this time around, the inspiration for the ‘future we want’ is coming not from the meeting rooms, but from the beach.