LinkedIn Pulse Blog: Water overuse and waste – addressing the global crisis locally

Source: LinkedIn Pulse Blog by Peter Brabeck Letmathe

The 2015 Global Risk Report of the World Economic Forum (WEF) is a reminder, and stark warning, that we use far more water than what is sustainably available. According to the report just published in Davos, water scarcity is the biggest economic and societal risk for the next ten years. The 2030 Water Resources Group that I am chairing is the most important Davos-based initiative to address this risk.

First, some orders of magnitude of the problem. In 2015, freshwater abstraction for all kind of human use, mostly to grow food, increased to some 5,000 cubic kilometres, while sustainable annual supply is only 4,200 cubic kilometres. If there is no change in the way we use water, withdrawals will continue to increase with world population and prosperity to some 7,000 cubic kilometres by 2030. In other words, to re-establish balance and sustainability by then, we have to find ways to reduce withdrawals by some 40%.

The 2030 Water Resources Group (2030 WRG) aims to respond to this challenge with a global, multi-stakeholder structure, becoming active through local structures. In many respects, it is a unique form of public-private-civil society partnership; it helps governments, at their request, transforming the management of their water resources for the sustainable development and economic growth of their countries.

2030 WRG is founded on the understanding that governments, the private sector, and civil society have a common interest in the sustainable management of water resources, and that unsustainable use of water will have negative effects for economic development, wellbeing of people, food security, and ecosystems. As we want to broaden the membership base, this post is also an invitation to signal your possible interest in joining.

2030 WRG was launched in Davos in 2009 and later on formally incubated in the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank Group. It is a combined global and local public-private partnership, involving also NGOs.

Initial discussions that ultimately led to its creation started at a private breakfast organised by Nestlé, with guests from other companies, governments, intergovernmental agencies, academia and civil society in January 2005, an event where I personally together with other leading participants for the first time clearly supported water as a human right.

But, since declaration alone are never sufficient, we defined an initial roadmap to overcome the increasing freshwater overdraft. We agreed that it was necessary to first create awareness outside the specialised water community, to develop some new analytical tools (the water cost curve), to contribute to creating an enabling environment, and to bring together the relevant local stakeholders to actually drive the process in order to solve the emerging global water crisis with a specific set of relevant, cost-effective local individual and collective actions.

2030 WRG wants to be disruptive – in the way Schumpeter defined it: i.e., not re-inventing any wheels, but re-arranging information into a perspective that triggers different, more relevant action.

Water is local, overuse requires local solutions; one-fits-all approaches do not work. Water overuse must be addressed in the main river basins; at this level our tools are supposed to help close the gap between long-term water resource needs and water resource availability in a sustainable, cost-effective and equitable manner.

This approach was discussed and confirmed at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Governing Council of 2030 WRG in Davos. It is about local solutions, as the following examples of country- and watershed-specific action shows:

In South Africa, in close co-operation with, and actually driven by government and local partners, measures were taken to reduce the very high leakage in municipal water supply systems: the No Drop incentive program to reduce municipal leakages with a focus on performance based contracts to achieve desired outcomes. There are measures to address drainage from coal-mines, which pollutes rivers for downstream users and ecosystems. And there are efforts to improve inefficient and outdated irrigation schemes, as well as current exclusion of new farmers in these old schemes.

In Bangladesh, first discussions with government and local stakeholders took place in 2014, with a focus on improving water use efficiency (increasing reuse and recycling) and reducing pollution from certain industries. Further discussions have taken place on improving agricultural efficiency and water productivity, and enhancing wastewater treatment and surface water quality.

In Mongolia, the partnership with 2030 WRG was initiated personally by the country’s president Elbegdorj in one of the water sessions in Davos some years ago. In the meantime, several rounds of discussions with government and local stakeholders addressed incentives for sustainable water resources management, water challenges in the Gobi area, including a need to reduce water use by industry, mining and municipalities to make sure herders are not losing their livelihood. Discussions further addressed Ulaanbaatar’s – the capital of Mongolia—future water and waste water challenges, including the need for reducing leakage in the existing system and increasing service to existing “Ger” areas (informal settlements). Stakeholders agree that this requires robust data systems and water governance structures.

In India, at national level, 2030 WRG discussed with the government its possible national engagement with a specific emphasis on the Ganga river, possibly as a demonstration of replicable water sustainability models for public-private-civil society engagement within the urban, industrial and agricultural sectors. A broad variety of stakeholders that 2030 WRG brought together wants to develop and implement economic incentives for enhanced long-term sustainability of waste-treatment plant operations. Additional discussions and projects were set up in two of the Indian states, namely Karnataka and Maharashtra.

In Tanzania, and then in Kenya 2030 WRG discussed with the government and local stakeholders possibilities to increase water use efficiency across all sectors, but in particular in irrigated agriculture, better inter-sectoral coordination (including at the Government level) to overcome conflicting demands on water between agricultural and energy sectors as well as for ecosystems and municipal use, and the need to improve water security, including potential interventions relating to better use of groundwater, increased small scale storing capacity and rainwater harvesting, and potential for inter basin transfers etc. but also enhancing wastewater treatment and reducing pollution and, very importantly in this country, improving the collection and dissemination of water related data.
Finally, in Peru, together with the government and local stakeholders, 2030 WRG looked into ways to prioritise investments in coastal catchments and the need for innovative financial instruments to develop and promote investment mechanisms to attract funds to the water sector.

Let me add three final comments:

The WRG is not a lobby group, but a partnership looking for solutions in the interest of all stakeholders around a watershed. In that sense, it is also not a charity or a philanthropic effort by private enterprise, but rather something that has to be seen within the concept of creating shared value. We are engaged as private enterprises, putting our money and personal efforts into this effort, because it is important both for society and for the success of our business.

Second, from our discussions with local stakeholders, we know of the need for credibly comprehensive solutions for individual watersheds, particularly to overcome the so-called ‘tragedy of the commons’.

What we have made a rule, therefore, is that we only work in a country if we are requested to by the government, to ensure comprehensive views and strategies. Normally, it’s either the President or the Prime Minister who expresses their interest; we then suggest that they appoint a coordinator because water is treated by many different agencies, ministries, etc.

Third, with help of the WEF, and our partners in government, intergovernmental agencies, academia and civil society, we still have to create more awareness about the urgency of increasing water scarcity and the need for comprehensive solutions to it. We have to make governments aware that the water issue is urgent and has to be tackled now.

As ever, I welcome your comments.

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