Stockholm Water Week 2017: what is new in the world of water, WASH, and the SDGs?

By Karen Delfau, IWCAN

The last time I went to Stockholm Water Week was eight years ago. Since then, many of the conversations remain the same, but many more have shifted. In particular, what I noticed was the emphasis on practical outcomes from Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPs), and new approaches to financing innovation and wastewater solutions.

In her article 5 takeaways from Stockholm Water Week, Sophie Edwards discusses how the SDGs have given new life to WASH solutions. There are a number of non-piped innovative approaches developing across the world, particularly in urban areas, to address challenges around faecal sludge management (FSM). Highlighting projects such as Clean Team in Ghana, Edwards explains how container-based sanitation is helping to provide solutions for communities, where latrines and septic systems are not an option. These CBS approaches allow for waste to be recycled into fertilizer or treated safely, leading to fewer health and safety risks for communities that cannot deal with waste on-site.

WASH and FSM are very much a part of addressing water security challenges and wastewater provides a tremendous opportunity when it is regarded as a resource and not a nuisance. It seems like we were having this conversation about stormwater about 10 years ago, déjà vu. Stockholm World Water Week was focused on wastewater, and exploring innovative approaches and best practices for its management and reuse, all the while respecting and building upon the other SDGs and the principles of Integrated Water Management. In line with this theme, and to develop a set of takeaways, here are my top-5 learning points from Stockholm Water Week.

A view of the opening plenary during the Stockholm World Water Week by the Stockholm International Water Institute. Photo by: SIWI

Rethink financing and funding

Although some organisations will continue to rely on grant and donor funding for their work, the trend now is towards developing a business case around water initiatives. This, for me, was best exemplified by the release of the new book developed by the International Water Management Institute (IMWI) – Resource Recovery from Waste: Business Models for Energy, Nutrient and Water Reuse in Low- and Middle-income Countries. The approach that this book takes, I think, reflects the trend that is driving change within the sector. Business options for energy, nutrients and water recovery are detailed in this book, where 24 innovative business models are presented. These business models are formed following an in-depth analysis of over 70 empirical cases. Furthermore, 47 cased from around the world are described and evaluated in a systematic way.

On the flip side, funding agencies and banks are looking to invest in these business opportunities, particularly to support the circular economy. In the IWA-hosted session entitled Water in the Circular Economy: Progress, Potential, and Financing, Ambika Jindal, VP of ING’s Sustainable Finance Team, spoke about the opportunities that private banks have to work with development banks to learn from one another and to “strengthen the pipeline” in terms of value of money spent and positive global impact. In her talk, she identified three key risks that banks will need to address to fully engage in this space: technology risk, operational risk, and market risk. From the side of any proposal or financing request, projects will need to address each of these risks in order to succeed. Technology risk refers to having the best available technology, of which there are plenty of available options. This risk is seen as fairly easy to address. Operational risk refers to having the capacity to operate the technology over the long-term. Jindal says that companies need to engage in dialogue with banks to be able to make sure they have put into place whatever is necessary to minimize or negate the operational risk. The third risk is market risk, whereby it should be evident that there is a market for the product or service that is being developed. Pilot projects can help tremendously in addressing any risk associated with the marketplace.

Envisioning the water utilities of the future

Futurism has been a popular topic over the past year or two, and the concept of Water Utilities of the Future was one that was explored in Stockholm. There was even a session on it.

Two exemplary instances of the future of utilities, however, were highlighted in other sessions: The Hong Kong T-Park and Lis-Water. These two examples represent very different contexts, but they are both incredible stories of having a vision and making that vision a reality.

EU funding has helped Portugal to develop a new European standard for water governance. In particular, Portugal now has an institutional and regulatory framework, explained Jaime Baptista, that has allowed for the utility to be able to become a European leader in the utility space through effective governance. This example was contrasted with the context of India, where there is no national regulator. In his poster presentation, M Kulshrestha explained how a lack of utility regulation has led to poor performance, resulting in what is effectively a governance crisis for Indian utilities.

T-Park in Hong Kong tells another story. This multi-use community facility and wastewater treatment is the result of significant investment and a far-reaching vision. Without funding limitations, what would your future utility look like? Hong Kong has answered this question with their $2 billion solution — T-Park. This facility is not just a treatment plant, it is an ecological reserve, an architectural achievement, and a community centre, complete with pools and spas for Hong Kong residents to enjoy — accessed even by public transport. In addition, the energy produced by the sludge treatment goes directly back into the grid, powering an average of 2000 households.

The key messages here are that utilities of the future need to be visionary, and they need to be backed by a robust and effective governance framework. What does your utility of the future look like?

Water and innovation: watch this space

In the early part of 2017, I interviewed Zenia Tata of XPRIZE. We spoke about the tremendous potential for innovation in the water sector, and the need to think about innovation exponentially, not only incrementally. The conversation I had with her opened up my perspective as to how global water challenges can be addressed, and at Stockholm Water Week, I was able to see the potential of innovation and sense the momentum building on the global political stage to support innovation in the water space.

In one of the final sessions, Bill Costello, from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, announced the upcoming launch of the WaterInnovation Engine, which is scheduled to be formally launched this month during the UN Global Impact Leaders Summit 207. This initiative will be carried out by two implementing partners: The Global Innovation Fund, who is leading the water data for farming initiative and is managing the secretariat of the Engine, and Global Challenges Canada, who is leading the Engine’s urban sanitation initiative.

There are likely other innovation funds and initiatives being developed, and this area will be a space to watch over the next 5 to 10 years, as good ideas attract seed funding for pilots, and then build the support to evolve to a stage where they will be snapped up by banks for financing.

The need for convening disruptors

Much of what happens at Stockholm World Water Week is in the connections that built and developed over the course of the week between individuals and organisations. Reconnecting with colleagues and just asking them what they have learned over the course of the conference and exploring what they are thinking about most at the moment can lead to some valuable insights.

As we practitioners work to address the challenges around realizing the SDGs, we are asking ourselves how we can be more strategic and effective in our approach. In a discussion with Katie Spooner, Head of water at Business in the Community in the UK, she brought up the need for the role of convening disruptors. What does this mean? Effectively, many professional areas that touch on water are rooted in other sectors and disciplines (engineering, law, economics, community development, utilities, NGOs, donor banks, business, etc.). There is an emerging need for individuals equipped with logical frameworks, language, and specialty knowledge to be able to convene these various stakeholders and then propose disruptive approaches and solutions.

Over the course of the week, a number of organisations and individuals emerged as leaders in this space, and I just want to recognise them briefly:

  • The International WaterCentre for providing Integrated Water Management training through the systems thinking lens for global practitioners;
  • Asia P3Hub for its work with convening ‘unlikely’ stakeholders and facilitating programs for change across the Asia-Pacific region;
  • Earthwatch for working with HSBC and other corporate entities to support long-term sustainability, leadership, and systems thinking at all levels of the bank;
  • The Alliance for Water Stewardship who is working to support industries to become leaders in water stewardship across the Asia-Pacific; and
  • The Australian Water Partnership and in particular the new CEO Nicholas Schofield for his vision to take communications and partnerships to the next level to address water scarcity challenges throughout the Indo-Pacific and in doing so work to achieve SDG6.

SIWI, Inclusion, and the challenges of 1 to 3-minute presentations

Last but not least, as an attendee and presenter at conferences, I always like to look at what works and what doesn’t with the structure, format, and organisation of any conference. In this regard, I would like to applaud SIWI for implementing its ‘gold standard’ approach, whereby a discount is offered to sessions that met the following criteria:

  • Gender representation At least one-third of your event presenters, panellists and speakers, are female. The aim is balanced gender representation.
  • Young professional representatives At least one of the presenters is a young professional, i.e., under 35.
  • Innovative format Event organizers present using an innovative format, such as a world café, ignite talk, mini-meeting, energizer, etc.
  • Discussion and audience interaction some 25 per cent of event time is allocated for audience discussion if using the lecturing format. Other formats may already incorporate discussion.”

SIWI also did everything possible to make the conference paperless and ecological, with an app and no big paper brochure available to navigate session presenters and summaries. Their lighter footprint in terms of consumable items (no conference backpack or plastic name tag holders, for example) should receive recognition and applause. The vegetarian lunches with occasional meat options show respect and alignment with the purpose that brought us all to Stockholm for the conference. This kind of approach should be the norm more than the exception.

In an effort to be inclusive, however, some of the presenters were only given one to three minutes to tell their story. On one hand this gives you a flavour of the related posters and work that are available within a theme, but on the other hand it is a difficult format for the brain to manage, and I found myself taking photos of the ones that struck me and interesting although I unfortunately never had the chance to follow up and get more information.

Each attendee walked away with different key learnings and takeaways. We apply the lens of our professional experience and absorb what we can, which is always a lot but never enough. From the overall experience to the quality of the knowledge shared, to the mood and energy levels of the participants, each and every conference is different.

What did you take away from Stockholm World Water Week?

What have you learned at a conference lately?

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