Stockholm World Water Week 2015: is water reaching a tipping point?


Stockholm World Water Week 2015: is water reaching a tipping point?


Stockholm International Water Institute ran its 25th Silver Jubilee World Water Week 23-28 August on the theme ‘Water for Development’. It was an ambitious programme, an extraordinary event; and I’m still feeling the buzz.

This year the Stockholm Water Week had a particular sense of urgency, coming as it did at the end of August, just one month in front of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 to be held in New York on 25 – 27 September – where UN member states will decide on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – and three months ahead of the annual Conference of Parties (COP), taking place this year on 7- 8 December at COP21 in Paris, also known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference.

A heightened awareness of the upcoming climate talks in New York and Paris permeated the Stockholm Water Week and there was a tangible sense that, this time, water has to be placed right at the centre of these negotiations. As Torgny Holmgren, Executive Director of SIWI, pointed out at the beginning of the week, the effects of climate change are now clearly hitting us through the water cycle and we need to act.

With one of the SDGs – SDG 6 – expected to be a dedicated water goal ensuring the global availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation there are grounds for optimism; but clarifying a strong and effective message on water to take to COP21 was still a recurring talking point throughout the Stockholm agenda.

Another recurring talking point was the necessity for the heavy water using businesses to have a stronger presence at these discussions, whether they take place in Stockholm, New York or Paris.

To a very large extent, that is already happening. The Stockholm Water Week started out 25 years ago as a modest sized symposium for scientists and researchers but has grown well beyond its original academic remit. Today it is known for bringing together not only academics but NGOs, government aid agencies, international financiers and, increasingly, huge businesses with financial impact. Pepsico, Coca-Cola, BP, Shell, General Mills, Unilever, IKEA were among the private sector for- profit companies that attended and spoke at this year’s Stockholm Water Week.

But the question remains and was brought up frequently during sessions last week: where are the others?

There are other private sector business stakeholders out there who need to start showing up to these discussions on water, not only because their bottom line depends on their having a secure water supply, but because their adaptation of sustainable water management practices would make a decisive contribution to solving the global water crisis.

I left Stockholm feeling optimistic, though. At Wednesday’s high level panel on raising the profile of water towards COP21, Junaid Ahmad (World Bank Group) had asked whether water, or, perhaps, the way people viewed and valued water, had reached a ‘Tipping Point’.

Up to now the thinking has been that water is a separate sector inhabited by separate water professional tribes; but there could be a shift emerging in the way people are starting to think and talk and talking about water, not as something that separates out into different labelled units, but as the primary source of integration underpinning our cities, communities, environments and economies.

As such, water presents risks which are so tightly interrelated, they cannot be assessed or dealt with accurately without taking the broadest possible view of its cycle.

That phrase which Junaid Ahmad referred to, the ‘Tipping Point’, made me think, of course, of Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller by that title, back in 2000. Gladwell’s main point, demonstrated through a series of intriguing and unusual examples, was that human communication isn’t really all that rational, but goes by its own set of counterintuitive rules. We think that change happens gradually through step by step, sometimes grinding, application of effort.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s world of the Tipping Point, however, a moment of critical mass that arises after a build-up of small events can tumble over into a rush of unexpected, radical, epidemic-like change that is well out of proportion to the progress that preceded it.

Tipping Points can go either way, of course; but the good news here (let’s stick with the good news), especially when applied to water and the upcoming talks in New York and Paris, is that people have the capacity to radically transform their behaviour on a massive scale if they have the right kind of message to spur them to action.

We need that kind of transformation now.

The Global Water Summit on 19-20 April at the Jumeirah Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi recognises that private, for- profit business has  a significant capacity to change the way we manage and value water.  We invite the heavy water-using industries to join us at the Global Water Summit, an event designed by and for business leaders.

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