Tony Slatyer interview — Part 3: the High-Level Panel on Water, its initiatives, and Sustainable Development Goal 6

In a further 20-minute follow-up to part one and part two of an interview with Tony Slatyer, he shares the latest updates on what is happening with the High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW). Tony focuses mostly on the opportunities for individual action and involvement with the priorities of the HLPW of SDG 6.

Interview topics

  • Recent developments regarding the High-Level Panel on Water
  • About the good practice guidelines for water data management policy
  • Plans for the HLPW at the 2018 World Water Forum in Brazil

Could you please tell us more about the latest developments with the High-Level Panel (HLPW) on Water since your last interview?

There has been a lot going on with the HLPW. It is hard to believe that the panel has been operating for nearly two years. It was set up to do its job within two years, the leading members of the panel have been very stable over that period, given that these are all serving Heads of Government and Heads of State, who are all subject to political cycles. As a result, the panel has been able to get into some detailed work completed on just what the solutions are for dealing with the great challenges the world faces with water management and sanitation improvements. The way the panel has been working is that the countries of the members of the panel have been working together to pull together policy ideas and analysis that the leaders can then use to pull together a final narrative and call the world to action, which will… is now in the state of final preparation.

The panel has already, of course, put out quite significant statements at the United Nations General Assembly in 2016. The panel issued its action plan, which contained its theoretical framework for how it was going to think through water and sanitation issues. Also, some panel members made particular announcements at that event. For example, Australia announced the Water for Women initiative, which was a major program by Australia. Then, in the General Assembly in 2017, just a few months ago, the panel issued a major statement on sanitation, which was a call to the world to take this issue much more seriously. It set out some principles and objectives that the panel was advocating for it.

Since then the panel has been working through a very wide range of issues, water, of course, is not a singular issue around pollution, water sharing, or water pricing or any one thing. It is a very comprehensive agenda and one of the panel’s key messages is for people to just understand how comprehensive it is. You cannot solve the problems without looking at all these issues. The panel is finalising its messages for an announcement in the next month or so. World Water Day is coming up on the 22nd of March and you can expect by then that the panel will have made its views clear to the world. The types of issues that are being worked through are identified in the action plan that was released last year, so it will be no surprise to you, to the global community, the types of issues the panel is working through. For example, they include the concept of valuing water and the issues around water efficiency, how to understand water better, water data, issues around national cooperation on water, partnerships at a domestic and global level that need to be forged, the sanitation agenda, and the issues to improve outcomes globally in sanitation, and so on.

So we’re also expecting that the panel’s products will emerge in some different forms. There will be a standard document, which sets out the panel’s thinking in some detail and it will have supporting material. So, if people want to dig deeper on particular issues so that they can understand where the thinking came from, they can.

We are also expecting that the panel will have materials that can be distributed on social media and other channels because our objective is to get the message out.

It’s a political action, the first audience is the political leaders of the world; but of course, political leaders answer to their people and really, the audience is the world as a whole. The people of the world can support and agitate for the types of reforms that are needed but also support these political leaders. So, a willingness to implement these difficult reforms, because they are always difficult in water, is needed. When you’re dealing with a scarce or limited resource, you’re dealing with different value systems in society, dealing with extremely challenging targets as we have under the SDG 6, to achieve in just 12 years. These are very difficult decisions for governments and for societies, hard policy choices have to be made, prioritisation has to be reset, the whole of society is affected. So nobody should be surprised if these are challenging issues for governments and communities to work through. The panel tries to be clear about that and will try to be clear about that, I’m sure, in its final statements.

The HLPW report is set to be launched in mid-March this year: what can we expect?

Well, I think I probably, largely answered that question already. I’m not, of course, going to run through the details of the panel’s outcomes because they are still being finalised and it’s up to the members of the panel to make their own statements. But, as I said, if you want an indication of the types of issues that will be dealt with by the panel, then people should have a look at the action plan that was issued last year. what you can expect is more precision, more information, and more useful material about what people should actually do. We have probably spent enough time talking about what the problem is, how difficult it is, and how challenging it is. The question is what can governments now do, particularly those governments that have the largest gap to fill between their current achievements in water and sanitation and what they have promised under SDG 6. There’s a lot to do. The issue is just what realistically can be done and the panel is trying to focus on that.

Can you tell us about the good practice guidelines for water data management policy that were recently launched in conjunction with the UN-Water Meeting held in Rome earlier this year?

Yes, it’s very exciting. So this is happening because of the HLP and Australia’s membership, the Australian Prime Minister offered quite early on in the life of the panel to take a lead on the data work of the panel. We are doing this because we believe that evidence-based policy is really important and when governments and authorities are making decisions about something as important as water, it should be based on good information about that water, as well as about a whole lot of other things. But, you’ve got to start with information about the water: where is it; if it’s groundwater, what are it’s recharge rates; if it’s surface water, what are it’s flow patterns and it’s reliability and so on. How much is in the system, how is it flowing? Now in many countries that are taken for granted, that information exists. But, in many other countries, there is very little information of this type. The measuring equipment and so forth that might have been installed decades ago has been washed away in the last flood and nobody can afford to replace it. These are huge actual practical problems. So Australia proposed this and the HLPW has adopted the idea of a World Water Data Initiative, where the whole world will get behind trying to improve this situation.

The World Water Data Initiative has three key elements:

  • first, a policy element: how do you get the policy settings right at the national level to allow you to gather up the right information and use it in the right way?;
  • second, the harmonisation government:  how can we ensure that all the various analytical tools and data set sources that are available, particularly say from remote sensing, for from the international community are reliable and harmonised so that it is easy for the poorer countries to access and use that material?; and
  • third, an innovation agenda in data: what are some really bright ideas on how to reduce the costs and complexity of the water data system?

So our objective was to help countries that are in the weakest or most challenging situations to make the best possible use of water data at the lowest possible cost. How do we bring down the cost, reduce the complexity, improve the efficacy of the data?

So, that brings us to the good practice guidelines for water data management policy that we launched just a few weeks ago. This is the first practical product of the World Water Data Initiative. They were jointly launched by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, which led the preparation of the document; and the World Meteorological Organisation, which has supported this effort and has co-badged the document. They set out basic principles for water data management: how as a government should you be collecting, holding, distributing, and using the data that you have; how can you improve that data in line with the principles of setting up. It’s not a very thick document, everybody should have a look at it who is interested in this topic. We think it should be a great help to governments that have the most to do in this area. We would encourage all of you in the water community to familiarise yourself with this. It’s, if you like, a 101 course on water data management, written by experts from Australia, who have developed their systems for use in very difficult circumstances here. They have written this up in a way that will be really useful and relevant for developing countries.

What are the plans of the HLPW for the World Water Forum on the 18th of March in Brazil?

Those plans are under discussion with the Brazilian government presently. There will be a great platform to announce some of the panel’s outcomes. The joint secretary for the hub of the panel is in discussion with the Pacific government and the Water Council that is managing the World Water Forum on how that will work. We are hoping that we can have members of the panel explaining to the global water community at that event what is happening. Of course, during that conference, which goes for a whole week, World Water Day occurs, I think it’s on Thursday and on World Water Day, there will also be events going on all around the world. In New York, at the United Nations, there will be the launch of the International Decade on Water. All these events are happening at just the right time because it means that there will be lots of cascading news, information and initiatives about water, all happening in one week. That means that we hope, the momentum will build, the general public will take an interest, the awareness level in the world will go up a notch, and the panel’s ideas will then play into that momentum and help show people, yes, there is a way forward. There are ways these issues can be dealt with. It may be difficult, it may be controversial, they may be applied in different ways at different locations in different countries, but there are ways forward, and we would be encouraging more governments to get behind this challenge.

Are there any last words that you’d like to say?

Look, I would finish just by encouraging… if you’re watching this it means you’re interested in water issues. Everybody should be interested in water issues because they are existential for the future of our people, the global environment, and society. So if you’re watching this, please help get the message out. Get the message out about how important these water issues are and how important SDG 6 is, the great global challenge of safe water, and sanitation for all people by 2030. It’s a fantastic challenge and it’s a fantastic opportunity for the world to do really great things that will improve lives for millions or billions of people in the future. So I would ask if you are a person who cares about these things and I hope you all are, exercise leadership in your own right, get the message out, help us promote the panel’s outcomes if you agree with them. We’ll wait and see. Even if you don’t, get the message out anyway and raise how important these issues are and encourage your political leaders and the community around you to get involved. Thank you.

This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN.

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