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Water flows through development – big ideas from World Water Week

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Guangzhe Chen, Senior Director, the World Bank’s Water Global Practice, 
speaks at the opening plenary of World Water Week 2017. Credit:  Tim Wainwright

It was inspiring to see so many committed water practitioners at World Water Week in Stockholm the last week of August, coming together to share experiences and advance global action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of safe and accessible water and sanitation for all (SDG6) by 2030.  As we know, access to water and sanitation is key to thriving communities. It determines whether poor girls are educated, whether cities are healthy places to live, whether industries grow, and whether framers can withstand the impacts of floods and droughts.

Without it, we are limiting our full potential. In fact, today we face a “silent emergency”, with stunted grown affecting more than a third of all children under five in countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Niger and Guatemala. This was presented in the new World Bank report WASH Poverty Diagnostics, provides new data on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for 18 countries and finds that we get the biggest bang for the buck when we attack childhood stunting and mortality from many angles simultaneously, in a coordinated way. While improving water and sanitation alone does improve a child’s well-being, the impacts on child height are multiplied when water, sanitation, health, and nutrition interventions are combined. The report also pinpoints the geographical areas in a country where access to services are low or missing completely, and suggests that to move the needle on improving poverty indicators, policies need to be implemented and resources have to be better targeted to reach the most vulnerable.

Cities are always a hot topic of discussion for us working in development and they took center stage in Stockholm this year. The SDGs provide even more impetus for cities to be inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. This goal is inextricably linked to securing safe and sustainable access to WASH services for all and managing water as it travels across the city.

As cities grow and become thirstier and often dirtier, different users and uses of water are competing for this scarce resource. We therefore have to be smart in how we provide clean water, sanitation and related services to all city dwellers, especially the poor. We brought together practitioners from cities in Brazil, Sweden, Ethiopia and the United States for a series of rich discussions on Integrated Urban Water Management (IUWM) approaches for sustainable cities. We hope that these conversations will contribute to shifting mindsets which embrace a more efficient use of water while including the needs of all water users in a city through broad stakeholder participation. Our IUWM sessions also sparked discussions of partnerships and learning between Brazil and Ethiopia as well as with Stockholm and some of our client counterparts.

We also took a detailed look at the challenges of the urban sanitation agenda where it is clear that, with only 26% of urban excreta safely managed in developing country cities today, we won’t be able to deliver safely managed urban sanitation to all through business as usual. Together with key partners we promoted action on Citywide Inclusive Sanitation, highlighting the need for a radical shift in how we think about urban sanitation for all, embracing a mix of approaches combining reticulated and on-site solutions.

In Stockholm, issues of social inclusion – gender in particular –also received a lot of attention. We took the opportunity to launch “The Rising Tide”, a report on water and gender and to discuss how broad societal inequalities are mirrored in, or exacerbated by, water-related areas such as fishing and farming while being cemented by norms and traditions. This usually disadvantages women, but in our research we also saw some surprising findings. For example, we often think that women give higher priority to water and sanitation than men, but the data from across several African countries show that in fact, men and women have very similar priorities. We also found that men, not women, are more likely to die from drowning which perhaps runs contrary to popular belief.

With a changing climate, greater incidences of droughts and floods, and more fragile environments, our clients are suffering the impacts of water scarcity.  So we need to step up our efforts to help them. This is most evident in our work in the Middle East and North Africa region, and it was the main topic of our new report  Beyond Scarcity that looks at how countries can anticipate water scarcity and act to strengthen water security rather than waiting to react to the inevitable disruptions of water crises.

That water has long been a subject of conflict was echoed by this year’s Stockholm Water Prize Winner Stephen McCaffrey, who quoted Mark Twain when he said ‘Whiskey is for drinking, while water is for fighting over’, and underscored the need for stronger adherence to international legal structures around resources that are increasingly scarce – and often shared between countries.

What became perhaps most clear at this year’s Stockholm Water Week is that Standard Operating Procedures won’t cut it if we are to achieve SDG6. On a macro level, we need strong leadership from heads of state, such as through the High Level Panel on Water, and on a micro level, we need to work with countries to develop lending instruments and strategies, and make sure that our organizations are adaptable and nimble enough to provide us with the innovative tools needed to meet the many challenges faced. Just as water touches most of the SDGs, our work has to entail collaboration and cooperation with every actor involved in protecting the most vulnerable around the world.

But the SDGs will not be met without significant changes in how the sector is financed.  The financing gap is growing and it is likely that public and concessional finance will not close this gap.  Thus, increased commercial finance will be needed, regardless of whether services are provided by the public or private sector.  In developed economies, long-term financing is raised in domestic capital markets and we are seeing increased evidence that this is working in emerging markets as well.  To reach this goal, service providers need to become more technically and financially efficient and governance and regulatory structures managing water need to be more transparent.  With increased accountability, service providers improve their operations, become more viable, and can diversify their financing options. Our report “Easing the Transition to Commercial Finance” intends to help our client countries and service providers access the domestic financial market.

At the opening plenary at which I served as a panelist along with other ministers and youth representative, I reiterated these messages to all participants.  They were well received and appreciated by the audience. It is my hope that by next year’s World Water Week, I will be able to reflect in the progress made in all these areas.



Guangzhe Chen

Vice President for Infrastructure, The World Bank

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