GSO Commentary — Silos and Pillars at the World Water Forum

An estimated 25,000 participants attended the 6th World Water Forum in Marseille, 12-17 March.  The six-day program was packed with events, hundreds of them, ranging from grassroots and citizenship events, to conferences and workshops, and countless side events and exhibitions.  There was much talk about the problems, and many suggested solutions, big and small.  Indeed, the theme of the forum was “Time for Solutions”.  With events falling into 6 time slots over 6 days, the most one person could hope to sit in on is 36, not including evening receptions hosted by the plethora of governments,  NGOs, and international government organizations, each with a claim to space of its own in the vast exhibition center .  We pushed to cover many, and chose to focus on the high level conferences and panels, filling time between them with visits to a variety of special sessions on water and governance, water and human rights, water and food security, financing water, scaling up local water solutions to solve global water problems, optimizing water use….  Yes, water water everywhere, and so much to drink in.

In the midst of the diversity of subjects and discourse, we heard some common themes.  Some questions often asked, rhetorically, included: How did we get into this state of affairs? Why do these problems persist? Why haven’t known solutions been implemented?  And the typical answer to each was: organizations that deal with the different aspects of water have been and continue to operate within their own silos. These organizations are the agriculture ministries, the public works departments, the chambers of commerce, the foreign ministries, the conservation societies, the environmental protection agencies, the utilities, consumer advocates, etc., etc., etc., each typically operating in its own narrow interest. Interestingly enough, representatives from these many and varied organizations participating at the forum fully agreed with this assessment, and were more than ready to pledge cooperation and collective action going forward.

Yet reservations and differences of opinion remain.  We saw for example, an exchange at a panel discussion on Good Governance and Sustainable Financing. There, one of the panelists was adamant that water utilities and their management must, absolutely must, be in government hands. Yet on the same panel, a high ranking government official with oversight responsibility articulately described and lauded the efficiency and quality of privately operated water works in his country, and so gives the private sector his full support. And then there is the debate on placing a price on water, which some regard as a priceless gift of God, while others remind that while water may be free, its transport, distribution, and treatment has a cost which must be borne.

As the silos become more permeable, a platform for cooperation can emerge to support cooperation and collective action. The platform may be institutional or virtual, but, as heard in the World Water Forum rooms, it must stand on pillars that reflect guiding principles and understanding of the concerns voiced by many water interests. Leaders of organizations  in many sectors represented at the forum talked of being focused on the challenges of a world in 2050 with 50 percent more people living on a warmer planet with larger deserts and smaller rain forests, less snow and smaller lakes, increasing energy demands, and oh so many hungry mouths to feed. The solutions need to be built on pillars that stand for an equitable sharing of resources, a fair distribution of costs, assured sanitary access, efficiency, and perhaps most importantly, cooperation.