Time for Solutions, or Just More of the Same?

I spent last week in Marseille, France attending the 6th World Water Forum, a gathering of more than 10,000 water professionals from a variety of backgrounds, in an attempt to assess the latest and greatest in water policy and “grease the wheels” for a research project with Duke faculty in its initial stages.

The theme for the Forum “Time for Solutions,” was perhaps a bit ambitious, but also appropriate, given the frustrations of many—particularly in the developing world—that theoretical conversation continues to outweigh action on the ground.

All of this said, there were a number of well-run sessions driven toward results: target goals and commitments for governments and NGOs, new programs and collaborations, and renewed pushes for data collection and research, especially in the realm of ecosystem services. A few were particularly relevant to our work:

The International Hydropower Association (IHA) Sustainability Assessment Protocol:

Though certainly controversial given the emotionally loaded context of building massive dams that displace native populations, wildlife, and permanently alter the hydrological cycle, the session resulted in at least two major developers pledging to use the protocol in building future dams. Now, it’s non-binding and has major questions about transparency, with a huge potential for “greenwashing,” but it’s nonetheless a start on an incremental path toward more environmentally and socially sustainable dams. The protocol is one perfect example of the value of the forum, as the  need for it emerged out of the 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul.

Innovative Financing for Water Resources Management, Ecosystem Services and Agriculture:

The most valuable presentation in this session came from the Australian government about the water market it created in the Murray Darling basin, the “food bowl” of Australia. Using a cap-and-trade system, which puts a permanent limit on total withdrawals and allows Australian farmers to trade those withdrawals to other users across states, both efficiency and long-term sustainability of the system have improved. For a permanently drought-stricken region, it was critical for the government to meet these goals. What is the most valuable here in the context of the forum, is that the example provides a success story for policy makers from both developed and developing countries. It lets them know it is possible to vastly improve water management and provides a road map for exactly how to do it.

In the end, after my first visit to a World Water Forum, it’s impossible to say for certain the costs of bringing 20,000 people to such an event outweigh the benefits. There are plenty of arguments against its utility—with some of the buzz in the blogosphere and the activist crowd focusing on the corporate nature and lack of human rights at this year’s forum—but there are also plenty of good ones for it.

The final session I attended perfectly highlighted these. The round table format forced participants from a wide array of backgrounds—a French infrastructure development company, a Dutch wetlands NGO, a small remote sensing GIS-focused NGO from India, and local African government representatives—to delve into discussion about how to integrate ecosystem services and natural infrastructure approaches in river basin management. This intellectual exchange of ideas from wildly different perspectives not only cut to my core motivations for working in the field, but was also highly relevant to our work in Lao around the very same issues.

Such settings—where people with such diverse backgrounds and expertise from both developed and developing countries come together to hash out complex common problems—are rare. Their results actually help guide on-the-ground implementation. That, to me, seems to far outweigh the costs.




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