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- Following the UN Water Conference, a World Economic Forum panel discussed what actions need to be taken to transform promises into progress on the world's water crisis.
- Water is the one issue that connects all 17 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, one speaker said, adding that a collective and connected approach to water security is needed.
- Developing a system of accountability will also be critical, as has been done with climate change.
- And the world's 'financial plumbing' needs to be fixed, so that funding flows from global capital markets to small enterprises and communities working to tackle water shortages.
The first UN Water Conference in almost five decades took place in New York on 22-24 March. It led to over 700 commitments to help transform the way we all treat this precious resource, so that everyone can live in a water-secure world.
But a conference on its own – important as it might have been – is not enough to make change happen. “The day after the conference, who's actually picking up the phone and talking about water?” said Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs of the Netherlands, during a World Economic Forum session on 28 March called “Beyond the UN Water Conference: Leaders on What's Next”.
The session brought together key figures from government, business, social enterprises and nonprofits to discuss what action is being taken, what action needs to be taken, and how it can be taken.
Along with Henk Ovink, the speakers were:
- Usha Rao-Monari, Undersecretary-General and Associate Administrator, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
- Gary White, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Water.org
- Beth Koigi, Co-Founder, Majik Water
- Jim Andrew, Executive Vice-President, Chief Sustainability Officer, PepsiCo
There was also an appearance from Hollywood star Matt Damon, who is a Co-Founder of Water.org, a global nonprofit organization working to bring water and sanitation to the world, and WaterEquity, an asset manager focused on investment opportunities in the water and sanitation sector.
Here are some of the key quotes and talking points:
The water crisis is connected to everything, so connected actions are needed to solve it
At the previous UN Water Conference in 1977, the focus was on water as if it existed independently of everything else, according to Gary White of Water.org. “This led to local governments and multilaterals trying to solve this problem in a vacuum,” he added.
The big difference at this year’s conference was the recognition that water is part of an interconnected web of wider issues.
“Water is the one issue that connects all 17 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” said the UNDP’s Usha Rao-Monari. “That's how we're looking at it. No country, no company, can deal with the water shortage issue by itself, because it is such an interconnected resource. And so collective action … is absolutely necessary.”
That sentiment was echoed by PepsiCo’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Jim Andrew. “No matter how good the work is that we're doing, if we're doing it by ourselves, we're doing it wrong. We need to make bolder commitments as the private sector, not just in our own operations, but really thinking about the entire network of our suppliers, our value chain. This is a team sport, and if we ever forget that, we're not going to be successful.”
Water can benefit and learn from the focus on climate change
“Climate is front and centre now, and there's potential to leverage a lot of that,” said Gary White. “Back in the mid-1980s, nobody was talking about climate in the context of water. There's potential to use this confluence to drive much more capital investment to the [water] space.”
While water can benefit from this increased awareness around climate issues, approaches to solving the water crisis also need to learn from the successes and failures in attempts to tackle climate change, the speakers said.
“Water needs a global focus and architecture that it has not unfortunately had.””
“The climate architecture we have globally along with the NDCs [nationally determined contributions] at a country level … why can't we do the same with water, including some sort of water net zero?” asked the UNDP’s Usha Rao-Monari. “Water needs a global focus and architecture that it has not unfortunately had.”
Henk Ovink says that the Water Action Agenda provides a structure for this, but that developing a system of accountability will be critical. Without this, “before you know it, these [700 water] commitments are like a post-modernistic flower garden – they bloom for a season and they're gone. If you don't bring them together and are able to validate and evaluate and follow up, there's no watershed moment.”
What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?
Small start-ups need much bigger support
Kenyan entrepreneur Beth Koigi, who told the session that she has experienced water shortages herself, sees innovative financing solutions as being critical to help solve the world’s water problems.
She co-founded social enterprise Majik Water, which provides technologies that can extract clean water directly from the air. It has benefited from being a member of the World Economic Forum’s UpLink platform, which connects innovators to investors, and Koigi is calling for much more widespread action to help smaller companies such as hers.
While she is encouraged that many people in finance and investment are now looking more closely at the water sector, she is frustrated that the focus is mainly on large-scale infrastructure and utility companies, rather than start-ups
“For us to scale and to implement water solutions as much as is necessary … innovative financing solutions are required that are more patient. Early-stage financing for below $250,000 is not available. Finding someone to create this kind of financing would go a huge way to helping enterprises help solve the water challenge.”
The world needs to fix its financial plumbing
Water.org’s Gary White backed up Koigi’s demands, saying that action needs to be taken to create the “financial plumbing” that will help water flow down from global capital markets into the pockets of small enterprises and local communities who need better access to water and sanitation.
“A dollar invested in water always trickles down somewhere in your own supply chain or in your communities.”
“If we can connect the dots between capital markets and people making a few dollars a day, and financial returns can be had, then this is on us, We’re not talking about scaling up charity to get everybody water. If we can do it with the capital markets, there's no excuse for not making investments in people who need the services.”
Partners of Water.org’s WaterCredit Initiative loan programme have disbursed over $4 billion in microloans, benefiting an estimated 52 million people. And Henk Ovink says the benefits of investing in water and sanitation are already obvious: “A dollar invested in water always trickles down somewhere in your own supply chain or in your communities. You find it in better health and better environment, opportunities to again invest and reinvest at scale and replicate.”
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.