The acute need for innovative approaches to the water crises affecting large swathes of the world was debated at last week’s World Water Week in Stockholm.
World Water Week 2023, a five-day meeting which ended on August 24, highlighted the scale of the challenges facing a world where reliable clean water supply can no longer be guaranteed in an increasing number of places and focused on how best to develop innovative solutions.
The annual event convened in Sweden by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) brought together 15,000 participants from 193 countries and territories either at the venue or online.
SIWI’s acting executive director Karin Gardes told delegates that while the term innovation was often associated with new technology, the concept also needed to embrace innovative approaches to governance, finance, values, and culture, as well as looking through a gender lens.
There were also calls to learn about innovative ways to use and share water resources, based on the experience of indigenous peoples. Representatives of around 20 indigenous groups attended the meeting.
Speakers said there should be more stress on establishing how to make transformations, rather than just listing problems. There was also a strong focus on intergenerational dialogues and learning from each other, SIWI reported.
The need for “source-to-sea” thinking was another key theme, as the need to take a holistic view of freshwater, coasts and oceans to maximise their benefits of their resources, rather than treating them as separate entities.
This was apparent in projects developed by the winners of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize, awarded at the conference to those in the 15-20 age group. They included a method of removing ocean carbon rand soluble oil-in-water contaminants, a system to remove nanoplastics from water and a project seeking to understand the interaction between shrimp production and water resources based on a source-to-sea approach.
The 2024 World Water Week is due to focus on cross-border cooperation over water resources, one of the thorniest issues for the sector. Gardes said interest in bridging borders had grown, as the impact on addressing water issues on other dimensions of society had become clearer.
”Having said that, while the interest is great, there are still many people who are unsure how to go about it and how water diplomacy can be put into practice,” she said.
Water access and sanitation are areas where impact investors are playing an important role. Impact Investor has reported on various innovative initiatives of various types tackling water issues in recent months.
In March, for example, Incofin Investment Management launched the Water Access Acceleration Fund, seeking to raise total capital commitments of €70m. The objective is to demonstrate that investing in the safe drinking water market is a financially viable proposition even in low-income regions. Meanwhile, in April, Climentum Capital said it was leading a €6m Series A investment in Stockholm-based Wayout International, a startup producing container-sized water treatment facilities that can bring locally sourced clean water to remote areas of developing countries.
Donors failing to deliver on pledges
While some investors are addressing the challenge, there is a long way to go. Just how acute pressure on water resource have become is thrown into sharp relief by data released by WaterAid to coincide with the meeting. The NGO is working in 27 countries with the goal of achieving universal access to clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene.
It said 771m people around the world still didn’t have clean water close to home, while almost 1.7bn did not have a decent toilet of their own and more than 300,000 children under five died every year from diarrhoea-related diseases caused by poor water and sanitation.
WaterAid noted that this year’s World Water Week falls roughly midway between the adoption of the UN-backed SDGs in 2015 and their targeted completion date if 2030, but that the NGO’s research showed that major donor funding to support the provision of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to the poorest and most vulnerable communities had fallen by a third since the SDGs were agreed. SDG 6 seeks to ensure safe drinking water and sanitation for all.
Aid to the water supply and sanitation sector fell by more than aid to any other area of development during the first years of the Covid pandemic, despite the emphasis on handwashing as a preventative measure, WaterAid said.
Sunny Singh, WaterAid’s Global Advocacy Adviser, described this slump in funding from donors, including G7-member states Canada, France, Germany and the UK, as a worrying indication of how committed world leaders were to meeting SDGs. He said the lack of financing for crucial projects was a “death sentence” for many in the world’s poorest countries, which was already having far-reaching and devastating consequences.
“At a time when the global economy is on its knees, investing in WASH makes economic sense. In fact, it would be more costly not to act now. Every $1 spent on hygiene saves $16 on healthcare,” Singh said.
The NGO called on donor countries to close the gap between what had been promised and what was being delivered, and to honour commitments on SDGs.