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Reflections from the water's edge

14 September 2010

Have you heard the one about the King of Sweden, the Yangtze river dolphin and your favourite brand of beer? No? Well, let me explain...

I spent last week in the lovely city of Stockholm. I make a point of heading that way at the tail end of every summer. My visits are only partly due to the fact that Stockholm is a cool place to hang out though. I go mainly because of World Water Week.

The World Water Week conference, run by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), brings together researchers, industry bigwigs and policy wonks from around the globe, all concerned about our planet's increasingly stressed water resources. This year marked the 20th anniversary of the event and a seminar to celebrate the anniversary was held in the presence of His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustav.

SIWI's aim for World Water Week is to "build capacity, promote partnership and review implementation". Unlike some conferences, nobody pretends that it will produce grand proclamations or binding inter-governmental commitments. The event is, basically, a talking shop - but in a good way. It provides an opportunity to strengthen relationships, and share knowledge, with partners.  Last week, for instance, I met with contacts in organisations as diverse as Wetlands International (a Netherlands-based NGO), the UK government's Department for International Development, the European Investment Bank and IKEA.  I also got the chance to present results from WWF's freshwater work in a couple of seminars.

Regardless of the official conference theme - this year it was about improving water quality - every year sees a focus on the big water issues facing the world.  One recurring topic is the need for better provision of clean water and adequate sanitation facilities to the world's poorest people. The implications of climate change for water resource management is another favourite. There are always workshops focusing on particular regions; this year it seemed that there was a stronger-than-usual representation from Latin America.

For my organisation, WWF, water is one of the world's most pressing environmental problems. The planet's freshwater ecosystems are being destroyed at an alarming rate. This poses substantial threats to people as well as wildlife with the poorest communities often being deprived of water and other aquatic resources such as fish.

Disappointingly, there wasn't much specifically about habitats and species in this year's World Water Week agenda, despite the fact that 2010 was declared the International Year of Biodiversity by the UN.  But WWF launched a landmark report on the status of the world's river dolphin populations. 

There are seven species or sub-species of river dolphin around the world and many, especially those in Asian rivers, are endangered. The Yangtze river dolphin is probably already the first cetacean (whale or dolphin) to be driven to extinction by human carelessness. The remaining river dolphin species are suffering from pollution, over-use of water and the construction of dams among other things. They are the canaries in the water management coal mine: if their numbers recover, it means we're managing our rivers and our water more wisely. If they don't, we'll have got it horribly wrong.

In WWF's view, one opportunity for improving the situation stems from the increasing engagement of large companies in the debate about water. The private sector invests substantial sums in the use, and sometimes abuse, of natural resources. If there is a business case for companies to invest in better environmental management then this will give governments and others a significant nudge in the right direction. Rising water scarcity, and consequent increases in corporate risk, may well provide this business case.

A number of initiatives are working on water stewardship approaches based on this water risk concept. In Stockholm there were several sessions focusing on these initiatives, including a session which I chaired looking at solutions to water scarcity and pollution associated with cotton production in India and Pakistan.

Along similar lines, WWF and SABMiller, along with our partners GTZ, presented a report describing results from the first year of our Water Futures partnership. The report sets out the water footprints of SABMiller's operations in Peru, Ukraine, Tanzania and South Africa - four countries in which the twin spectres of water scarcity and climate change are likely to pose shared risks to business, communities and biodiversity.  Over a good dinner (and, of course, a beer or two), we told our peers about our work to date. In the best traditions of World Water Week, there was a lively debate about how our organisations could best work with others to reduce these shared risks.

Sadly, the King of Sweden couldn't be there to witness it. Maybe next year.

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