Amidst water managers

The Stockholm Water Week brought together a wealth of ideas

Published: Friday 30 September 2005

On August 22, 2005, participants from more than 100 countries gathered at the Swedish capital, Stockholm, to deliberate development of water resource infrastructure, water supply and sanitation, and pollution management. The occasion: the Stockholm Water Week. Organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute (siwi) since 1991, this annual event has become a common platform for experience-sharing among water professionals, decision-makers and activists from all over the world.

The opening ceremony witnessed rich deliberations on water management. Inaugurating the symposium, Lena Sommestad, the Swedish minister of environment, called for greater democracy to manage water in a sustainable manner. In her keynote address, Buyelwa Patience Sonjica, the South African minister for water affairs and forestry, emphasised that African countries require large infrastructure to store and distribute water. "But mere infrastructure development won't be enough," retorted Mariela Garcia Vargas, a Columbian delegate. "The involvement of communities holds the key to sustainable water management," she added. Garcia Vargas held up a women's group-run water treatment system in the Cali region of her country as an example of sustainable water management. Sunita Narain, director of the Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment (cse), this year's Stockholm Water Prize (See box: Water Prizes 2005) winner, cautioned: "If the hold of the high-level bureaucracy is not broken, spending on water resources will become unsustainable".

Anxiety The symposium reached fever pitch when 1,400 people debated large water infrastructure projects. Not surprisingly, there was no consensus. Asit K Biswas, of the Mexico-based Third World Centre for Water Management, tried to strike one by suggesting, "A judicious mix of small and large hydro-infrastructure projects".

How could the water week go by without discussions on water supply and sanitation in the context of the un's millennium development goals (mdgs)? And indeed, the tardy progress over the attainment of this mdg was cause for concern at the un water seminar -- one of the side events at the conference -- on August 24, 2005 . There were anxious calls for country-level coordination to integrate water and sanitation issues in poverty reduction strategies.

But once the anxiety had subsided, there were some concrete ideas to attain the water and sanitation mdg. F or example in a paper entitled Political economy of defecation, cse representatives showed how decentralised sewage treatment is critical for resource-poor, developing countries. Ron Sawyers of Mexico shared his experiences on urine harvesting -- a way to deal with eutrophication (profusion of minerals in a water body leading to a reduction of its dissolved oxygen content).

Climate change The lack of data on the relationship between depletion of water repositories and climate change was cause of much disquiet. A seminar convened by the International Association of Hydrological Sciences, concluded, "The lack of global commitment to long- term hydrological observation networks is a major reason for declining ability to make effective decisions on climate change". There were also concerns over toxics entering the water cycle. Eva Sandberg, director general, European Environment Commission, rued, "What we know about hazardous chemicals is much less than what we do not know". The symposium called for better monitoring systems, it also emphasised the need to extricate information on hazardous chemicals out of the wraps of secrecy -- of that of government agencies and corporate bodies.

Besides policy matters, case studies on community-based water and sewage management attracted much attention. There was agreement that poverty alleviation needs both hard infrastructure and the involvement of people. But how to synergise the two? Narain explained: "Water management is about building people's institutions and empowering them to take critical decisions".

The week that concluded on August 27, 2005 brought together a wealth of ideas on water management. But it remains to be seen if the conclusions of the symposium are translated into concrete action.

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