Reflections on World Water Week 2018: Water, Ecosystems and Human Development

World Water Week is an annual conference convened in Sweden by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). Over nearly three decades, World Water Week has become a key event to connect with others in the field, to learn from each other, and to develop a shared agenda for ensuring global water security. At this year’s conference, I had the honor of representing International Rivers as a speaker on two panels about community water tenure and transboundary river basin governance.

This year’s theme, “Water, Ecosystems and Human Development,” couldn’t have more perfectly aligned with the work International Rivers has been building with local partner groups around the world. Our freshwater systems are under pressure as populations grow and vested interests compete for our finite resources. With our focus on strengthening river movements, supporting the human rights of environmental defenders, and pushing for better ways to produce energy and to govern and protect our rivers, I’m proud to be representing International Rivers at this conference of experts and practitioners.

At the community water tenure panel organized by Rights and Resources Initiative and the Environmental Law Institute, my fellow panelists presented preliminary findings from what I hope will be groundbreaking new research to better recognize and and uphold communities rights to their water, as well as increasingly recognized rights to their lands and forests. Global efforts to secure the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities to their forests in the last ten years have shown to be cost-effective, sustainable solutions to reducing deforestation. I hope that this research will prove helpful in the work of International Rivers and our partners as we seek to apply these lessons to water issues and change the way that water is governed. Alongside RRI and ELI, we look forward to making this vision of recognized community freshwater tenure a reality with indigenous peoples and local communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America. 

Highlights of World Water Week 2018 have included sessions and discussions on the roles of women in water management, community knowledge creation and citizen science projects, the hard real politic of infrastructure development and investment, and the dam building industry’s positioning around climate change.
Highlights of World Water Week 2018 have included sessions and discussions on the roles of women in water management, community knowledge creation and citizen science projects, the hard real politic of infrastructure development and investment, and the dam building industry’s positioning around climate change.

I was also pleased to present at another panel about how to address the role of hydropower development in transboundary river basins. New guidance is being released on the development of hydropower in the Mekong basin and we were asked to share our thoughts on this latest development. This was organised by GIZ and Multiconsult, drawing on experience in the Mekong region and the Okavango Delta. Basin-scale planning is now well understood to be best practice, but too often projects are proposed in isolation. Dam projects that do not emerge from a comprehensive basin assessment, and cumulative assessment, cannot claim to be sustainable. The cumulative impacts across a basin are simply too great.  

While we agree that better laws, policies and procedures are desperately needed in many river basins where hydropower projects are proposed, our experience in the Mekong, and indeed, around the world, is that they have been too easily overridden or ignored. Quiet diplomacy has been shown to have limited efficacy. When it comes to the ‘rules’ of dam-building, we need all actors, including donors and host governments, to ensure accountability for inaction and non-compliance.   At the moment this is left too much to NGOs, to communities, and to academics. 

The game changer in this could be the financiers of the infrastructure standing up to not fund projects that are pushed through below basic good practice standards.  Financiers need to be vocal in calling out sub standard projects if they are to avoid significant financial risk and maintain credibility, and if they want to avoid sub-standard high impact, high risk projects. The same goes for hydropower developers if want to claim sustainability within their industry. 

This year’s World Water Week also marks the launch of the Alliance for Freshwater Life – a global collaboration to halt losses of freshwater biodiversity through research and dialogue on freshwater ecosystem conservation and policy. International Rivers is glad to see greater efforts initiated by conservation leaders and experts to protect freshwater biodiversity in this era of extreme threat. The Living Planet Index, which measures trends for vertebrate species, shows a 76 percent decline for freshwater species that have been tracked since 1970 – a dramatic loss that is nearly twice the decline measured for terrestrial or marine ecosystems. 

Water infrastructure, particularly dams, has consistently been found to be among the leading causes of decline of freshwater biodiversity and ecosystems. The basins projected to be most impacted by future hydropower expansion also include many of the most important rivers for freshwater fish harvests, such as the Mekong (2.6 million tons per year), Ganges (730,000 tons per year) and Amazon (450,000 tons per year). The Cambodian Mekong provides a striking example, with 80% of the protein consumed by the people of Cambodia coming from wild capture fish harvest from the river, which will lose nearly half its fish productivity if a series of main-stem dams are constructed as proposed. 

Water underpins all 17 of the global sustainable development goals – but more than that, water is the source of the ecosystems on which all life depends. When water resources are poorly governed and irresponsibly damaged, everyone is impacted, though marginalized communities often receive the brunt of the most immediate negative impacts. I look forward to the collaboration ahead with fellow attendees of this year’s World Water Week, as we push for greater community participation in the decisions that affect their rivers and their lives.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018