By Lyla Mehta, STEPS Centre Water and Sanitation convenor
It’s my fourth day at World Water Week, the annual mecca for policy-makers and players from the World Water Council, the Water and Sanitation Programmes (WSP), Stockholm Water Institute, WaterAid, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), as well as several UN and bilateral agencies such as DFID and others who can afford to pay the entry fee. Most people seem to come for networking, meetings, dinners and drinks, to launch new initiatives and reports… and occasionally even to attend the odd session.
I’ve been doing the same, though I had hoped to be more excited by some of the sessions and workshops. Most of them have been highly technical, with many of the same global perspectives and declarations that we have been hearing for a long time. But this is probably a reflection of how mainstream most talk about water is, be it in the media, policy or research realms.
This year’s focus is on water quality: a very timely issue, since worsening water quality and pollution are increasingly affecting human health and wellbeing, as well as the integrity of ecosystems. Still, as a sociologist, I found that the sessions have lacked critical social-science analyses about diverse perceptions of risk and water quality; how water quality affects different social groups differently; and the politics of standards, monitoring and risk assessments. In fact, an American anthropologist told me that her proposal to host a seminar on the cultural dimensions of water quality had been rejected by the organizers. Is the water and sanitation domain as represented in global foras still a bastion of engineers, economists and natural scientists?
At the opening plenary, Dr Rita Colwell, 2010 Stockholm Water Prize laureate, drew on over 35 years of research to demonstrate the reach and spread of cholera pathogens. She described how the use of a simple old sari cloth can keep cholera at bay, if used as a water filter. It would be interesting to hear more about how local practitioners and policy makers could draw on this research to create the right institutions to fight this deadly disease.
It’s also heartening to see that the conference includes many sessions on sanitation, with many practitioners, policy makers and academics not shying away from using the word “shit” to talk about different strategies and approaches to end open defecation. This more direct language is, at least in part, thanks to the Community-Led Total Sanitation movement. Every day two million tonnes of shit are released in water bodies.
For me, the highlight of the conference was the session on “Revisiting the Large Dam Controversy” hosted by the very exciting online journal Water Alternatives. It’s been 10 years since the World Commision on Dams published its landmark report, which provided guidelines for dam-building, covering social, environmental, economic and institutional aspects. This was the only session I attended where there was passion and debate, not surprising due to the topic even though a few were hoping for more blood-letting! Ten years on, there has been much progress. WCD guidelines are now mainstreamed in many new and ongoing projects all around the world. The WCD principle on the “right to consent” is also gaining acceptance in many global organisations and institutions.
Still, there are many ideological rifts and no clear consensus on ways forward, with early opponents still openly rejecting the WCD process and conclusions. This was exemplified by the words of ex-World Bank official John Briscoe, who proudly stated that the WCD and similar commissions should pack up since they are often rejected by dam-building nations who reject their guidelines. But Briscoe didn’t seem to do himself or his former institution any favours by continuing to ignore the fact that water resources development remains a highly contested process, often shaped by forces in the wider political economy. Moreover, southern governments who claim to be ‘democratic’ may not necessarily be representing the interests of the poor and marginalised through dam-based development.
On Tuesday afternoon in a session on water and the city, I was struck by the massive differences between water and urban planning in the North and South. In many affluent cities of the global North, water is an aesthetic element in urban planning and can be an objet d’art.
By contrast, in our session on Liquid Dynamics on Wednesday, we presented STEPS research in peri-urban areas to show that water provision for many is non-existent or of highly dubious quality, leaving poor residents to fend for themselves: either by acquiring water through illegal means, or by paying exorbitant prices. Still, even here, poor residents give different meanings to polluted water bodies, and find different ways to cope with worsening water quality and inadequate access. Our session also had presentations on the politics of risk assessment and regulation, and how regulation has largely been framed as a technical discourse, thus leaving out the perspectives and interests of the peri-urban poor.
Unfortunately, I missed some interesting events on Wednesday that coincided with our event. In the afternoon I struggled to find something to keep me awake. A PhD student wondered if there was an Alternative Forum run by critical NGOs that take place every three years. But there was none and she left to check out Stockholm. I went to my favourite spot in the conference, the café where I meet up with old friends. I ran into several people there who proudly told me that they had only attended one or two sessions so far, spending most of the time networking and in meetings. As I wrote this blog, I looked around for other blogs on WWW. But apart from this blog, I couldn’t find any: were most of the sessions so dull that nobody feels compelled to write about them?
Stockholm WWW is an extremely well-organised and well-publicized annual event that attracts most of the well-heeled in the water sector, especially from the global North. It’s become a big jamboree that everyone in the water sector feels compelled to attend. In reality, most of the action takes place over drinks, coffee and dinner and through networking. There are some interesting insights in smaller seminars and side events, where the seating capacity is quickly exceeded. There was some passion and energy in smaller events. Most of the official programme, though, is business as usual – with very little passion, true concern for water justice, or critical debate. It feels like a lot of old water in old bottles.