Water access crucial for development

Development Policy27 Mar 2013Saskia Hollander, Karlijn Muiderman

The UN’s two-day event on water issued a call for a Post-2015 development framework that is less fragmented than the process of formulating the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and is integrated with the sustainable development agenda. So far, this is line with the main findings of The Broker’s online consultation ‘Prioritising water after 2015’. To develop a more comprehensive framework, the interlinkages between global challenges like food and energy security need to be acknowledged. Yet, exactly what form this framework should take is a question that the prominent guests left largely unanswered. 

These were the main conclusions of the two-day event on water, hosted by the Dutch government on 21 and 22 March (see box below). Both days served as input for the High Level Panel, which advises the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the global development framework beyond 2015. The event received considerable attention in the media, as on 22 March, his last day as Chair of the Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB), Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander gave a passionate speech in which he advocated the need for a separate goal on water.

Water is key for sustainable development

One of the main conclusions from both days is the emphasis on a nexus approach. A nexus approach recognises the interrelatedness between water security and other key global challenges. As Irina Georgieva Bokova, Bulgarian politician and incumbent Director-General of UNESCO, said: ‘The thinking for future goals is nexus thinking’. As the interrelatedness between water and food security, energy, conflict, environmental degradation and economic development is evident, the members of the High Level Forum (including members of the High Level Panel on World Water Day) generally agreed on the importance of nexus thinking. As was frequently stressed during the two-day event, cooperation is the key to achieving such a nexus. For example, along water basins like Mekong River in South-East Asia, which are transboundary and highly populated areas, cooperative models need to build on equal access, sustainable management and effective regulation to sustain regional food production and environmental sustainability.

The Post-2015 consultation process on water

On 21 March, inspirational leaders from governments, business, civil society and religious organisations took part in a multi-stakeholder dialogue on the role of water in the Post-2015 development framework. The Thematic Consultation on water, organised by the United Nations (UN) fed into this event, as well as The Broker’s ‘Prioritising water after 2015’ online consultation. The day ended with a ‘ Wake up Call for Water’, which in its turn served as input for the next day’s event: international World Water Day. On the second day, high-level representatives of the UN, members of civil society organisations, and government and business leaders discussed the importance of water cooperation for sustainable development.

The UN’s two-day event on water was preceded by a long process comprising several consultations. While the MDGs were largely developed in isolation, drawing on a number of high-profile international conferences during the 1990s, it was acknowledged that a different approach should be adopted in formulating Post-2015 development framework. In the period leading up to World Water Day, several international consultation processes took place in parallel. In its report ‘The Future We Want’, a UN task team identified the key areas that needed to be emphasised within a more comprehensive Post-2015 agenda: inclusive social development, inclusive economic development, environmental sustainability, and peace and security. In July 2012, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon introduced a 27-member High Level Panel to advise him on the Post-2015 development agenda. The Panel’s report was presented earlier this year. In May 2012, to achieve a more open multi-actor approach, the UN opened a series of consultations, also called ‘The Future We Want’, in which 56 member states took part, to come up with a shared vision. To extend this participatory approach, the United Nations Development Program initiated an online consultation process, ‘The World We Want’, around eleven themes – one of which was water – to include representatives of civil society and the business community in the process. Both the multi-stakeholder dialogue and World Water Day can be considered concluding events in the consultation process on water, as the High Level Panel has to present its final report, with recommendations, to the Secretary-General in May.

Advocates of the nexus approach widely recognise that water is the key theme that links the Post-2015 agenda to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The participants agreed that the Post-2015 process should not take place in isolation from the SDGs. In the words of Crown Prince Willem-Alexander: “The goal should be a new set of MDGs, but the path to get there should be the SDGs. The MDGs should be so good that the SDGs are no longer needed”. The importance of emphasising sustainability within a new comprehensive framework was shared by many Forum members. For example Michel Jarraud, Chair of UN-Water, argued that: “The nexus relies on the SDGs”. Betty Maina, CEO of the Kenyan Association of Manufactures and High Level Panel member on the Post-2015 development agenda, stated that the Post-2015 agenda should clearly go beyond the MDG framework and integrate sustainability measures, as “poverty cannot be separated from the environment”. As water is closely linked to both agendas, cooperation on water between all sectors is needed to lead to a shared vision that integrates both.

Equal access and inclusive growth

Unequal access to water was also highlighted as a major challenge. As Chris Williams, Water and Sanitation Supply and Collaborative Council, clearly stated: “Business as usual is counterproductive”. As universal access will not occur automatically, guaranteeing equal access to drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) needs extra attention. Prince Willem-Alexander advocated universal access for marginalised communities and groups and observed that progress on WASH is unevenly distributed. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and co-chair of the High Level Panel – together with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom – shared this vision. She said that the lack of access to sanitation, the MDG target for which has not been achieved, especially affects African women and girls. Fighting inequalities, within and between countries, requires unity of vision and purpose, and effective management of this vision through new partnerships.

As The Broker’s Special Report ‘Prioritising water after 2015’ also shows, the debate on inequalities in WASH is closely linked to inclusive economic development, one of the global development dimensions defined by the UN. Participants in the multi-stakeholder dialogue and World Water Day stressed that lack of access to drinking water and sanitation poses serious challenges to economic growth, as it prevents people (especially girls and women) from attending school and being productive on the labour market. WASH policies therefore need to address the bottom billion to guarantee that they can fully contribute to and benefit from economic development.

Privatisation: solution or problem?

The participants discussed the opportunities for organising new water partnerships between the public and the private sectors. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf argued that technology transfer and training on water management and use are crucial for innovating our wastewater treatment. As observed on both days, the private sector can help expand the transfer of knowledge. Participants stressed that the private sector can contribute to overcoming water-related problems like pollution, for example through taxing mechanisms. Paul Polman, CEO Unilever and High Level Panel member , advocated the green business model to provide valuable solutions, saying: “Business models can take droughts into account. They look at long-term presence and incorporate it. But they should be internalising water and risk mitigation also, as these are not valued currently.” Polman added that cooperation between business and other sectors is the key to sharing knowledge and building a trustworthy relationship that takes nexus challenges into account. Others stressed, however, especially during the multi-stakeholder dialogue, that water privatisation comes with risks, especially unequal access to water and the exploitation of water resources – ‘water grabbing’ – in developing countries (see also The Broker’s Special report on Water). Multilateral cooperation should aim at finding long-term solutions that incorporate such risks.

Leadership beyond nation states

The participants in World Water Day emphasised the responsibility of strong and inspirational leaders to take a stand on going beyond individual or national interests. For example, in resolving water-related conflicts between regions. Management of transboundary river basins demands good governance and knowledge-sharing between different authorities and sectors. Francisco Pereira, Deputy Minister of Public Works and Housing of Mozambique, gave the example of flood prevention, which can be achieved only through coordination between countries up and downstream. The involvement of local and regional governments in the policy-making process is crucial. Prince El Hassan of Jordan also passionately advocated supranational legislation, which has to be implemented at the regional and local level. He said that priorities are set on the basis of multilateral thinking, as individual states are not capable of overseeing what is best for global development.

Strong leadership was also advocated with respect to raising awareness of the urgency of water security. For example, to make consumers more aware of their daily water footprints, or businesses of the pollution they cause. During the multi-stakeholder dialogue on 21 March, a more specific role in this respect was given to religious leaders.

It’s all about human dignity

Achieving a focused agenda needs targeted and transparent allocation of financial resources. Many participants advocated getting Ministers of Finance on board, and more transparency in the financing of water services and its impact. As Ellen Johnson Sirleaf argued, official development assistance (ODA) should be reallocated to where it is most effective. Above all, this process should be transparent to the public and legitimised democratically. In this context, Prince El Hassan argued strongly for a focus on human dignity in the Post-2015 agenda. He argued that it is all about human dignity: “I don’t understand the supremacy of the arms industry, the war on terror and weapons of mass destruction. Sit down with all actors and talk about human dignity. We prefer to spend money on the Iraq war or on building buildings than on human dignity.”

The Post-2015 framework?

The international community has not yet determined a clear framework for the Post-2015 development agenda. The participants in the two-day event remained equally inconclusive on this question. Some argued, implicitly or explicitly, in favour of a MDG-like framework with a set of separate goals and targets. Such a framework should above all be ambitious and integrate the Post-2015 development framework with the SDGs. Ambition is needed, as the costs of inaction are too high. In the words of Irina Georgieva Bokova: “Aim high like the MDGs to get governments and financers on board”. Michel Jarraud argued: “We should not be aiming for perfections, then nothing will be implemented”. Prince Willem-Alexander called for a nexus approach but based on water as a separate goal, to mobilise political will, sectoral expertise and financial resources.

Other participants stressed the importance of an integrated and holistic approach that goes beyond the separate goals and targets of the MDGs. Although the participants were not explicit about the nexus implications of such an approach in practice, they implied that it should be more context-specific and focus on the systematic causes of the challenges that lie ahead, with sustainable development as the key driving force.

With still two more years to go to discuss the best framework for the Post-2015 development, The Broker will continue to follow the process closely.