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Advocating an expanded approach to collective action for water

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Advocating an expanded approach to collective action for water

Scenic huge artificial water basin of the Colorado River.

Collective action is a key component of water stewardship as framed by organizations such as the Alliance for Water Stewardship and the CEO Water Mandate. These initiatives can be impactful at the watershed scale, as they engage multiple stakeholders in addressing shared water risks. But I believe something is missing to increase the rate of progress in addressing these challenges.

Essentially, it's a matter of how we mobilize diverse stakeholders, in particular across industry sectors, to address water challenges. In my opinion, there is an inadequate level of effort on building and implementing cross-industry and cross-stakeholder initiatives, especially ones that will help the solve water scarcity and quality issues related to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 (the one focused on clean water and sanitation).

I formed this opinion after attending several global and regional water conferences over the past two months, It has become clear that despite best intentions and a recognition that solving water challenges requires a diverse stakeholder group, those focused on addressing water issues still operate in silos. 

Let me explain; keep in mind that these observations are a bit, or you may believe mostly, generalized. Every year I participate in a global water conference that is well attended (about 3,000 people) by academics, NGOs, the public sector, multinationals and individuals. The theme changes from year to year and has included issues such as water and energy, water and agriculture, etc. While these topics are essential in the discussion of energy-water-food nexus risks, the event still struggles to attract major players from the agriculture and energy sectors. Many food and beverage companies attend, but global agricultural companies and traders are seldom present and smallholder farmers are under-represented. This is also true for energy and resource companies. Although industry organizations representing these sectors usually attend, the major players typically don’t. The result is that there is little opportunity for engagement with key global companies within critical industry sectors.

This issue doesn’t just apply to this conference. I was at an event on the Colorado River Basin that focused on issues such as state and international water allocations, the "drought" and policy issues. The private sector was woefully under-represented except through NGOs. 

My concern about the siloed nature of the water sector also applies to water technology events — multinationals, NGOs and academics are typically not in attendance to a significant extent.

While attendance at conferences doesn’t tell the entire story of collective action in the water sector, I believe it does signal the need for dynamism in building cross-sector programs and strategy to address water challenges. There is an opportunity to broaden our view of stakeholder ecosystems so we are not always ranting in an echo chamber. Consider the potential value of an expanded ecosystem in the water sector to ensure economic development, business growth, social well-being and ecosystem health.

I am particularly concerned about the pace of progress as we face the deadline to achieve SDG 6 by 2030. We don't have time for business as usual.

What has to change? I believe we need to do more of the following.

  • Establish ecosystems (PDF) of stakeholders across industry sectors dedicated to solving specific private and public sector issues. An example of such an ecosystem is the Cross-Sector Biodiversity Initiative, a partnership between IPIECA, the oil and gas industry association; the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM); and the Equator Principles Association "to develop and share good practices related to biodiversity and ecosystem services in the extractive industries. The initiative supports the broader goals of innovative and transparent application of the mitigation hierarchy in relation to biodiversity and ecosystem services."
  • Further expand the role of water funds to include actions beyond conservation. Water funds have been successful in cost-effectively addressing water risks but could be expanded to fund innovation and scaling of new technologies (digital water technologies) and business models (water as a service).
  • Proactively include industry in watershed level public policy programs. For example, why not establish a Colorado River Basin coalition of industry stakeholders with a commitment to support state and regional water public policy programs within the basin? This will require developing a platform for public sector, NGOs and companies to engage in dialogue and commit to actions to address issues such as the over-allocation of water and readily available access to water data.
  • Engage the information, communication and technology (ICT) sector. These companies should be encouraged to broaden the reach of their water footprint and stewardship programs to focus on how ICT technologies actively can be deployed to increase water efficiency, reuse, recycling, resource recovery, etc.

The "wicked" problem of water will not be solved with the same suspects and the same solutions. There is a lack of exponential progress in addressing water issues. We need to engage a broader group of stakeholders to solve 21st-century water challenges and be more like the tech sector — driving invention and innovation. These challenges will not be solved via more presentations to siloed stakeholder groups.