Submitted by Mark Smith on Fri, 03/22/2013

"World Water Day is like any themed global day: it’s not really to ‘celebrate’ water, it’s about getting people to pay attention and decide they’re going to take action to solve water problems." 

With this is mind, the day started well. BBC news had a series of reports about water in Asia, from China, the Philippines, India and Indonesia showing how water scarcity is squeezing food supply, how water pollution makes people sick, how the poorest people, perversely, pay the most for the water they drink. Standing by a stinking (it looked smelly at least…) river in Jakarta, a reporter pointed to the river, incredulous, and said this is what people bathe in, swim in and drink. The people living by the river, and Indonesia in this case, are paying the price in terms of health, money in pockets, lost investment and, as industries go elsewhere where water risks are lower, jobs too.

Behind the speeches by royalty and eminent personalities at theWorld Water Day dialogue in The Hague today, lies the challenge of solving real problems like these, affecting real people. What everyone here agrees on is that the solutions are not easy. This is why 2013 is the International Year of Water Cooperation. Solving water problems means cooperating over water. But even this is not simple.

The experts and politicians debating here have called for cooperation among communities, governments, business, bankers, farmers, industries, on the human right to water and sanitation, food and energy security, water pollution, governance, water diplomacy and ecosystems. The crux of the challenge then, people are saying, is to translate this web of issues into a post-2014 development agenda for water that politicians will come to bat for. HRH The Prince of Orange, HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Unilever CEO Paul Polman, High-Level Panel members in The Hague all agree. They want a specific Post-2015 or Sustainable Development goal on water.

What could such a goal do? It can galvanise action and investment on water supply and sanitation, on sustainable water resources for food and energy security, on good water governance and on ecosystems. A new agenda for water that puts ecosystems at the centre could be a game changer – but this will need a change in mindsets. People’s attitudes are changing, though. There is more and more acceptance, including in the recommendations coming from here, that conserving and restoring ecosystems delivers benefits for development – that we need to invest in nature as part of water infrastructure, because there are real and valuable benefits that people need.

If your goal is water security, letting ecosystems degrade is foolish. But, while more and more people understand this, they still slip back too often saying, as an after-thought, that ecosystems need protecting, once we’ve done everything else.

We will know that the message has gotten through when they say as a matter of routine that cooperating on managing ecosystems is a starting point for meeting development goals for water. We will know we’ve succeeded when a BBC reporter stands by a stinking river and says “this river is vital infrastructure and the people who live here have decided to work together to restore this river because it will help them escape ill health and it will help this country to make economic progress.”

This blog post was written by Mark Smith, Director of the IUCN Global Water Programme, reflecting on the high-level World Water Day meeting which took place in The Hague on 22 March 2013.