The Wizard of Oz to advise water’s High-Level Panel

Published September 8th, 2016

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Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

I was in Stockholm last week for World Water Week. A lot of the talk was about the High-Level Panel on water that has been organised by the United Nations and the World Bank. This is headed by the presidents of Mexico and Mauritius, and includes the premiers of Senegal, the Netherlands, Hungary, Tajikistan, Jordan, Bangladesh, Australia, and South Africa. Water is not used to attracting attention like this: it has created the kind of excitement that you get in small towns in England when the Queen announces a visit.

The panel has pledged to “develop an improved and comprehensive narrative on water; shine a light on examples of policies and institutions that could help the world onto a more sustainable pathway; and […] advocate approaches to financing and implementation that would help change reality on the ground.” It will hold its first meeting at the Budapest Water Summit in November.

There is some talk of the panel being the first step towards setting up a permanent global institution related to water. Just as food has the FAO, health has the WHO, and energy has the IEA and the COP process, do we need a global body to make sure that the world does the right thing for water?

There are two schools of thought on this. The idealists say that water is a global issue because rising competition for resources, increased pollution, and the impacts of global warming are affecting everyone. They argue that we need a global body to coordinate a response to these challenges, and to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals for water and sanitation are met.

The pragmatists reply that water is a fundamentally local issue. If you look around the world, there is not a single country (excluding city-states like Singapore) where the responsibility for all the issues covered by the SDGs is held by the central government. Water is mostly managed at the municipal, state or catchment level. There may be some international river basin disputes, but these are best addressed by regional commissions. Getting heads of state involved, and setting up a permanent global platform for water is nice, but it is not going to be sustainable in the long term. Governments will lose interest because they won’t get a good return on their commitment.

I have sympathy with both sides. Despite publishing Global Water Intelligence and organising the Global Water Summit, I agree that water is fundamentally a local rather than a global challenge. At the same time, I can also see that the cause of water will benefit from being moved up the political agenda to the head-of-state level. However, I don’t think that the biggest problem for the High-Level Panel will be the extent to which a global platform can influence a local issue. The biggest challenge will be focus.

Water is not a single challenge like global warming. It is a multifaceted issue which spans things as intimate as toilets and handwashing, and as grandiose as giant dams which allow millions of acres of farmland to be irrigated. Go to the World Water Forum and you find thousands of interest groups each addressing a different aspect of the way water works in the world. The Sustainable Development Goal for water and sanitation has condensed those different interests into six different sub-goals, but even those are impossibly broad. They range from improving the efficiency with which the global economy uses water, through protecting wetlands, to piping water to the home. All of them are important. All involve water. All would like to have a piece of the High-Level Panel. But if the High-Level Panel tries to do them all, and it will end up doing nothing.

My approach would be to turn that last sentence around: try to do nothing and thereby achieve everything. The High-Level Panel needs to be something like the Wizard of Oz: it should provide a focus for all those looking to solve the world’s water problems, but once they get to the Emerald City, all they should find is a radical self-help message. The Wizard is not going to solve your problems. You are, and if you need help, go and talk to the people who got it right.