Five thoughts from World Water Week in Stockholm
Published 30th August 2012
- The event had a topical theme, but attendance was thin. With a drought in the US, a poor monsoon season in Asia, and poor harvests in Russia and Ukraine, this was definitely the moment to hold a conference with the theme “Water and Food Security”. In the opening session, Stockholm International Water Institute director Torgny Holmgren said that a quarter of the world’s water was wasted on growing food that was destined to be wasted: it was picked up by news organisations the world over. Sadly, competition with the triennial World Water Forum in Marseille in March this year, the biennial IWA World Water Congress in Korea next month, and a plethora of other water weeks and water hubs springing up around the world, meant that the 21-year-old grandaddy of them all looked a little below capacity.
- Mind the gap between ideas and actions. The most telling moment of the show was when a woman from South Africa stood up to complain that she felt rather behind with the jargon. She said that she had just got her government to line up behind “integrated water resources management”, and now that she was being told that “the Nexus” (i.e. the inter-relationship of water, food, energy, and fibre) was the thing, what was she to do? Although she was reassured that IWRM was still good, it did reveal the distance between NGOs and their clients. The former are always looking for new ideas in order to stay relevant to donors, whereas the latter need to focus on one big theme over many years in order to get anything done.
- If water risk is a nail, then water governance is a hammer. The big spenders in Stockholm are no longer the aid agencies and the multilateral lenders. The corporate sector – led by PepsiCo – is the biggest growth market for NGOs looking for money. Although there is some spending on water projects in developing countries, most of the focus of the corporate interest is on the water risk issue. Arjen Hoekstra, one of the inventors of the water footprint concept, asked a very pertinent question during the session on Better Tools for Water Governance: “What is the difference between water risk and water governance?” He wasn’t given a very adequate answer. In an ideal world, water governance would be what companies should do in order to reduce water risk. In the real world, however, water governance is what NGOs want to sell to the corporate sector, and water risk is what they are using as the sales pitch. At some stage, the corporate sector is going to need a lot more clarity on this issue.
- The best paper I heard offered an interesting solution to nitrate removal. Olivier Bommelaer from the French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy presented some research on the cost of nitrate removal. Apparently 1kg of nitrate costs farmers around €1 up front, but adds €12 to the value of the crops it fertilises. Unfortunately, it costs between €70 and €106 per kilogram to remove at the treatment plant. Wetlands can be used as an alternative. One hectare of wetland can remove 40kg of nitrates from water over a year, meaning that the economic value of a wetland in terms of the amount of nitrate removed is between €2,800 and €4,240 per hectare. This compares to the value of agricultural land in France, which is in the region of €500 per hectare. The implication is that water utilities should be buying farmland and converting it to wetland if they want to meet tough nutrient removal standards such as those required by the EU Water Framework Directive or the numerical nutrient standards the US Environmental Protection Agency is expected to impose.
- Water economists only give good results if you pay them extravagant sums. Water economics should be one of the most dynamic areas of the dismal science. It has got everything: totally dysfunctional markets, natural monopolies, weirdly shaped supply and demand curves, externalities, perverse consumer behaviour, and a real need for better policy. I long to meet a brilliant water economist who might have all the answers, so I went along to a session of the 10th International Water Resource Economics Consortium in Stockholm. I was quickly disappointed. The delegates scattered about the room were in a catatonic state of boredom. I fled while my limbs could still carry me. Apparently it would have been very different if someone had been prepared to throw a pile of money into the room. Bommelaer remarked after presenting his wetlands valuation paper (not under the aegis of the IWREC meeting) that the secret of getting such interesting results from economists is to pay them more. There had been previous studies of wetlands, but they had never put such a high price on preservation. His study had been much more expensive, and had in turn yielded much better results.