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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March/April 2008

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Strengthening Global Water Initiatives

Intransigent, obdurate, intractable, perverse—these and similar words are commonly used and often suitable descriptions of freshwater as an issue in today’s world. There are floods in normally dry parts of Africa, protracted droughts in Australia, still more than 1 billion people worldwide without a reliable supply, and at least double that number lacking effective sanitation. Could the situation be any worse? With a burgeoning population and increasing volumes of pollution, the demand for water in many parts of the globe has already outstripped the available resource. And climate change, now seen as manifest, threatens to exacerbate an impossible situation, particularly for the poor and weak in those nations least able to cope.

Water resource challenges are increasingly assuming a global face for governments, organizations, and citizens around the world. Groundwater systems provide 25 to 40 percent of the world’s drinking water, yet they suffer from massive overdraft and inadequate rates of recharge. The world’s rivers, already overtaxed by pollution and the effects of damming and diversion, are also exhibiting declining flows—especially in arid and semiarid regions. Nearly a billion urban dwellers live in slums with unacceptably low rates of water provision, while sanitation coverage in developing countries (49 percent) is only half of that of the developed world (98 percent). Drought, pollution, ecosystem degradation, natural disasters, urbanization, corruption, and population growth are some of the many dynamics that pressure water resources at levels beyond the watershed. The tenor of the world’s water troubles has never been so global. Water governance, like the problems it seeks to mitigate and resolve, has also reached new heights of globalization.

Water problems extend across all dimensions from local to global, with the adequacy of governance being one of the major imponderables at all scales. Proficient at their best and weak and corrupt at their worst, the systems that govern the planning and management of water resources need attention. Echoing similar developments in other sectors (such as economics, forestry, and conservation) in recent years, the water sector has taken to the world stage to consider and debate its difficulties. Arguably one of the most prominent and controversial examples of this progression is the large international conference. Often called “megaconferences,” these massive gatherings have become increasingly popular sites for debating nascent global environmental governance—a concept encompassing the people, processes, and institutions that guide the management of natural resources.

Megaconferences attract a spectrum of expertise, garner widespread media attention, and draw both enthusiastic praise and sharp criticism. On the one hand, these events provide important opportunities to enhance networks and share information, and may lead to improved coordination and management of the world’s natural resources. Side meetings and alternative forums, hosted nearby, often bring key issues (such as the role of water privatization) onto mainstream policy and decisionmaking agendas. On the other hand, megaconferences have been criticized for their enormous costs, carbon footprints, unclear objectives, uneven attempts at inclusionary participation, weak declarations, and unsatisfactory outcomes. Venues are often mazelike, schedules dense, and hallways packed with participants numbering in the thousands. Papers on goals and policy principles are common; case studies are frequent, but focused plans for implementation are rare. Megaconferences are routinely cast as massive “talkfests”: lots of good conversation, but discussions with incoherent structure and few tangible results. However, critics do not offer alternative means of seeking consensus and inclusion. Until these are promoted, megaconferences will continue to provide the preferred venues for international debate on water problems.

But are megaconferences the only manifestation of the trend toward global water governance? In spite of media buzz, megaconferences—while prominent and newsworthy—are only one piece of a larger global governing puzzle. These meetings are organically linked to and supported by a milieu of organizations, events, programs, and efforts operating largely on the international scale. The ensemble draws on common notions of institutional sustainability that include laws, policymaking processes, organizational forms, and activities that induce stability and resilience; thus, they permit institutions to transcend personal politics, withstand opposition, and preserve legitimacy over the long term. In this view, global water initiatives (GWIs) can be broadly defined as the institutional frameworks, organizations, special events, and awareness-raising campaigns that focus on global water-resources management.

The upshot is that GWIs are more than just highly visible international congresses. They comprise a broader institutional network of organizations and events that spans and stretches beyond the United Nations system, including regional bodies, professional and scientific associations, trade and business associations, philanthropic institutions, and developmental bodies. Some relate to the programs launched for a specific time period—for example, the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade (1980–1990) and the International Year of Freshwater (2003). Others are timed to fit established programs and schedules; examples of these are the annual World Water Week, the biennial meetings of the Intergovernmental Council of UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme, the triennial meetings of the International Water Association, and the quadrennial gatherings of the World Meteorological Organization’s Commission for Hydrology. Still others are functional organizations with specific objectives and agendas, such as the World Water Council and the Global Water Partnership. These sorts of institutional arrangements are broadly referred to as “initiatives” to indicate their purposefulness. In the realm of water governance, GWIs are a global constellation of goals, interests, topics, specialties, and expertise.

The global phenomenon of GWIs, however, has been infrequently studied and poorly understood. Some recent work has outlined the main problems with megaconferences and reviewed experts’ perceptions and preferences. But a pointed discussion on the history and future directions of these initiatives remains nonexistent. How and when have GWIs formed? What knowledge trends were they responding to? What are their organizational connections? In what ways have they succeeded and failed? And perhaps most importantly, where and how can the most effective GWIs be nurtured and enhanced to maximize their contributions to global water governance?

Before examining these questions, however, an immediate one arises: Why is an appraisal of GWIs important to solving world water problems? While water is increasingly addressed through global networks such as megaconferences and other GWIs, it remains a local problem with local effects. Evaluating the reach and breadth of these networks is crucial in determining whether GWIs themselves are truly global or are more commonly “local”—limited to particular cities and the hallways of yearly conferences. In other words, to what degree have they achieved a truly global scope and impact?

Furthermore, the work of GWIs remains important to good governance, even though immediate local impacts are rarely clear or measurable in the short-term. GWIs, in fact, provide the networks that fit together “local” modes of water management. For example, the Fourth World Water Forum (WWF4), held in Mexico City in March 2006, represented a critical opportunity to coordinate research and policy, consolidate knowledge of water science and management, encourage new ways of information-sharing and “mega-networking,” and develop strategies for the future. The largest international water conference to date, the WWF4 brought together about 12,000 participants from diverse sectors and attempted to tackle a long list of timely issues, including global climate change, local participation, water privatization, and approaches such as “integrated water resources management.” GWIs such as the four World Water Forums and their organizer, the World Water Council, and the various water-related programs of the United Nations have been applauded for heightening political and media awareness of high-profile water issues. How initiatives like WWF4 became global in the first place, however, remains key to understanding the value of GWIs in governing world water resources.

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