We tend to look after only what we value. Perhaps that is the reason why we have literally been pouring the world’s fresh water down the drain.
Yesterday, Ban Ki-moon, secretary general at the United Nations, reminded presidents, business leaders and NGOs at a meeting in Davos that “most of us do not appreciate water. We just take it for granted. Someone with a lavish life, we say he is spending money like water.”
The secretary general likes to practice what he preaches; he keeps only a small jug of water in his office and exhorts his staff not to waste the precious resource. He wants the world to do the same.
He is by no means alone. Christopher Chiza, Tanzania’s minister of agriculture, said it was a crying shame that 80% of the water used for irrigation in his country goes to waste.
But times are changing and the World Economic Forum (WEF) has recognised water scarcity as the second most important risk facing the world in the years ahead.
The problem with finding solutions is that many developing countries have little idea of how to address the problem, and are not able to measure rainfall patterns or water usage.
To complicate matters, answers do not lie in the hands of any one group in society and the debate is highly political.
But paradoxically, these difficulties are actually helping the Water Resources Group (WRG), created five years ago at the secretary general’s request, to make more progress than any other initiative within WEF. This is because everyone recognises that they have no other alternative but to work together.
Companies, in particular, recognise that water shortages cannot be solved inside the factory gates. If there is a lack of energy, they can purchase generators. They cannot take an easy route with water.
The WRG has also achieved progress because the original group of individuals who set it up are still largely in place. It has therefore avoided the problems faced by other cross-sector initiatives that have faded once key players move on.
Projects have already been developed in countries from South Africa to Mexico and new cross-sector partnerships will soon be created in other countries such as Peru and Bangladesh.
Two interesting developments are worth noting. First, the key stakeholders, including multinational companies, are beginning to recognise that they need to involve those at the very bottom of the pyramid in the debate. This means that smallholder farmers will be included on the WRG’s governing council.
The companies engaged in the WRG, such as Nestle and Coke, also recognise that they have to be honest about the fact that they are operating not from a sense of charity, but from self interest.
Another welcome development is that the group is starting to bare its teeth a little, even if they couch it in the most diplomatic of ways. Business leaders do not usually criticise each other but yesterday they took a pop at the mining industry for not doing enough to deal with the water pollution.
The WRG’s annual report says, when referring to South Africa: “The country’s gold, coal and copper extraction houses could clean up contaminated acid mine drainage to potable standards, and pay for this process by selling the treated water to municipalities. We will help overcome legal and institutional constraints to treatment, allowing mines and downstream users to benefit.”
One of the big challenges these cross-sector partnerships need to overcome is a lack of trust from governments and NGOs in the corporate sector. This is largely the result of decades when companies put the bottom line first, regardless of the impact on local communities.
But it is also true to note that in some cases, while there has been a welcome change in attitude from some business leaders to a more inclusive approach, this is often not trickling down to executives on the ground, who often still put profits first. The brewer SABMiller, for example, has learnt just how important it is for local managers to own these projects.
The WRG is at the very beginning of a process, and while it has created a methodology for action, it now has to prove it can scale this up if there is going to be any meaningful change on the ground.
What will help this process is the fact that the WRG has now been taken under the wing of the International Finance Corporation, which will help secure future funding. However, the sums raised so far are a mere drop in the ocean.
The success of initiatives such as the WRG are not just a matter of intellectual interest. The issue of water scarcity is critical to the future of billions of people on this planet.
As Ban told the WRG annual meeting: “The post 2015 development agenda must address this gap. I have been travelling to many places in Africa and have seen many women and girls walk endlessly just to get some water. It is quite moving and sad to see what is happening.
He added: “When I was visiting Darfur in 2000 people became violent and I was threatened. When they came towards me, I said I am here to bring you water. All the violent crowd became quiet. Water is life; that is what I have been saying all the time.”
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