A Reflection on Stockholm World Water Week 2018

Thomas Henriksson/SIWI
18 Oct 2018
Photo: Thomas Henriksson/SIWI

In August 2018, End Water Poverty along with its partners attended World Water Week in Stockholm. End Water Poverty attended this global event to present the recently launched report on National Accountability Mechanisms for SDG 6. The report, its results and importance were discussed during a sofa session interview. To get a sense of how this global event went, we spoke to our International Coordinator, Al-hassan Adam.

Overall, how would you describe your experience at World Water Week? 

Attending the Stockholm Water Week was quite fascinating. My key takeaway was that at this event a lot of work goes into getting sector experts along with the international financial institutions to accept everyone’s human rights to water and sanitation. What was missing was the spirit of activism and social movements.  

The number of closed doors meetings during this event was excessive. Whenever I walked past a closed door meeting, I would think to myself, what is the point?

The exhibition stalls send a strong signal of the dominance of donors and northern INGOs in Stockholm. I think we should trust people and be open to other views even if they are critical. Alternatively, I think we should open these spaces for people, and citizens to express their views and be critical.

What were the key highlights for you?

I was happy to see the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) launch the first ever data on WASH in Schools. The data showed that “69% of the global population have basic drinking water service, 66% have sanitation services and 55% basic hygiene services ”. It is important to note that there was no data on services higher than basic services as no indicator had been developed at the time the report was written. I think the report is a great achievement due to the complex nature of combining SDG 6 and SDG 4 monitoring. However, I don’t think there is a need to develop a new indicator to measure out progress.

What shocked you the most about Stockholm World Water Week?

I was stunned by how very little human rights to WASH featured in the programmes or in individual sessions. The only session which incorporated this topic was one organised by WaterLex. They did well to showcase how people are using different tools and methods to realise these rights. What was missing in this session was people asserting their rights and holding their governments accountable to their human rights to safe water and sanitation. Catarina Alburquergue’s comment on the presentations from this session best captured the challenges of incorporating human rights in our work:

“Even though it is fantastic to see active and empowered NGOs, active civil society is the oxygen that makes human rights thrive and stay alive. We go back to governments to remind them that they have human rights obligations. We should never forget to remind governments that they are the duty bearers. They are the ones to put in place the mechanisms”.  

I was taken aback in the financing and infrastructure sessions where stakeholders seem to be closing windows of opportunities. For example, there were a lot of talks about bankable WASH projects, meaning more emphasis on cost recovery and profitability. I thought we had made progress by abandoning decades of failed policy reforms of cost recovery and profitability as the main drivers for investment in WASH, which did not deliver for the most marginalised and vulnerable communities who are left behind. This is anthesis for human rights values of accessibility, affordability, acceptability, availability, safely and quality.

How was sanitation featured during this event?

One of the sanitation related sessions I attended had an interesting discussion on the models of sanitation systems and their ability to prevent the spread of pathogens. From the discussions, it was clear that there is a lot of focus on physical sludge management and not enough attention paid to how pathogens spread. For example, through seepage, flooding, leakage, accidental spillage etc. Some presenters and participants also raised the problem that some sanitation models are not ideal for urban and high-density areas.  

Tell us about one key step that needs to be taken post Stockholm World Water Week?

Th Water Action Decade was initiated by UN member states to put some energy and policy urgency on SDG 6. It was great to see both the German and South African Government leading the change to have the United Nations (UN) place water in the centre of their work in achieving the SDGs. The UN is currently exploring the idea of hosting a conference on SDG 6. There is a task team working on this which includes the following institutions;

  • United Nations Department on Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA)
  • United Nations University (UNU)
  • United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)
  • UN-Habitat,
  • Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)
  • Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO)
  • United Nations Economic and Social Convention for Western Asia (UN ESCWA)
  • UN Environment,
  • International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)
  • International Association of Hydrological Sciences (IAHS)
  • Women’s Federation for World Peace (WfWP)
  • World Wildlife Foundation (WWF)
  • Water.org
  • Global Water Partnership (GWP)

There are mix feelings about this new decade. It has the potential to galvanise people and resources around SDG 6 or dissipate energy into conferencing while the work at national level is left behind.  My take is that, EWP should keep listening into this conversation.  We can contribute by sharing ideas on how to effectively engage with civil society and broaden the participation beyond technical experts.

Would you attend Stockholm World Water Week again?

Yes, I think our presentation during the sofa session went well and the sessions I attended were very interesting and overall, the event is a great networking opportunity. The event itself can be both overwhelming and underwhelming. When you see so many doors being shut to participants in closed doors meetings, you ask yourself: is this an exclusive group that we are not a part of? I do not think this bodes well for equality and inclusion.

The atmosphere (including the stalls, exhibition and sessions convenors) along with the registration cost makes Stockholm World Water Week an event for predominantly INGOs and donors. This development creates a vacuum of nuance and critical voice at the event. That said, participants can get value for money if they are familiar with the event and know which sessions to attend and what to present.