by Jeremy Allouche, STEPS Centre Research Fellow

Here’s our first blog from World Water Week – some call it ‘the pilgrimage of water’. Well… the price of the pilgrimage (about £650) makes it difficult to attend and it remains very much an elitist club. In this regard, one always wonders how useful these high-level international events are and whether we are not repeating the same stuff again and again.

The disconnect between the conference and the world outside is sometimes too evident: while the international media reports on the floods in Pakistan and the droughts and floods in Niger, here the focus of the conference is on partnerships between water professionals and projects around new sexy ideas on water. Although water quality is the focus of the conference, climate change is another hot topic here: mainstreaming water and climate change, governance and capacity building for water and climate change, etc…

Still, the big highlight of this morning was the session on “Revisiting the Large Dam Controversy”. Although the World Commission on Dams (WCD) report has been criticised (especially around implementation guidelines), there has been some consensus around the principles and values it articulated. But now, with the development of climate change adaptation strategies and the arrival of new financiers, some fear that the new context (WCD+10) may end this fragile consensus.

Two quotes stood out from the session:

Kader Asmal: “The water situation is now worse than it was ten years ago in Africa despite the promising ‘numerical’ numbers, and water quality is deteriorating.” A useful reminder from Prof. Asmal on the limits and hidden realities of water statistics.

John Briscoe: I didn’t note his exact words, but to paraphrase, he suggests that governments are the legitimate actors; multi-stakeholder forums cannot impose any norms and guidelines on dam building. (To do him justice, read his article on the politics of the WCD in Water Alternatives.)

As somebody who had worked in the World Bank for many years, this view seems quite surprising. What autonomy do countries with structural adjustment programs have? Leaving it all to governments doesn’t help us in dealing with 1) dam building and the issue of transboundary water resources and 2) political economy problems – as raised by many participants at today’s session.

The session was certainly interesting, but there was a lot of confusion between principles and guidelines. Some may feel that reaching a global agreement on common principles is an illusory goal. But principles are undoubtedly an issue to reflect on and push for, given the formidable legacy of the WCD process and report. Moreover, establishing principles also opens up a space for national and local dialogues and the elaboration of guidelines at a range of levels.

Finally, a couple of interesting questions to think about:
> can we learn something from the WCD process for the land grabbing issue?
> how can we include social and environmental issues in the risk assessment process in order to allow more space for deliberation before the design phase?

That’s it for now – more from World Water Week soon. Our lunchtime session is tomorrow at 12.45 – follow the link for more details.

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