Tony Slatyer interview — Part 1: the High-Level Panel on Water, its initiatives, and Sustainable Development Goal 6

An interview with Tony Slatyer, a special advisor for the High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW) for the Australian Government. He discusses the mandate of the HLPW; SDG 6 and its importance for achieving other SDGs; and Australia’s role in the World Water Data Initiative through the HLPW.

Tony’s previous roles include having been head of the Water Division and its predecessor Divisions of the Commonwealth Government for over nine years. Prior to this, he was directly involved at the Division Head level in the making of the National Water Initiative, the Living Murray and other national water reforms of that time.

Interview topics

  • About the High-Level Panel and Water and its specific role in driving action on SDG6
  • The World Water Data Initiative and what it means for countries trying to implement the SDGs
  • How water professionals can get involved in efforts to meet the SDGs

Can you give us an overview of the High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW) and its responsibilities?

The HLPW comprises the Heads of State and Heads of Government of 11 countries of the United Nations, one of which is Australia. The panel formed early in 2016 at the invitation of the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the President of the World Bank and its purpose is to champion the importance of Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6)at the international level. SDG6 is a very ambitious goal to ensure that all people have access to safe water and sanitation by the year 2030.

Water is seen as a critical prerequisite for the achievement of many, if not most, of the other SDGs. Outcomes in health, the environment, education, poverty reduction, and sustainable agriculture, for example, cannot be achieved unless the water goal, SDG6, is also achieved. In that context, an innovative new process was seen as particularly important, hence the panel.

My interpretation of the rationale for forming the HLPW was that there was a perception that some political leadership would be necessary to achieve this important water-focused goal. The panel was established in order to try to break through some of the perceived barriers by adding a level of political advocacy to support and boost the conventional mechanisms already in use by the international community.

The panel is asked to come forward with new ideas on how to help the world achieve SDG6. Panel members have worked together and produced an action plan which was launched at the UN General Assembly last year (2016). As well, the individual members of the panel are responsible for advocating and championing particular initiatives and actions that are elements of the Action Plan. For example, the Australian Prime Minister is championing initiatives around water data, around water use efficiency and around innovation in the water sector; other leaders are championing other elements of the panel’s action plan.

The action plan identifies data as a key enabling requirement to achieve SDG6. Australia offered to champion that particular action and has developed a proposal, the ‘World Water Data Initiative’, which has been now adopted by the HLPW and is on the panel’s website. Although the panel winds up in March 2018, initiatives like this will have a life of their own once they have been adopted by all the relevant agencies and global processes.

Every action in the plan is different. For example, the Netherlands is leading an initiative on valuing water for all its community and social and economic and other values and what sort of process ought to be gone through in society to figure out what it really wants out of its water resources. That’s a totally different process from the data initiative, with a more regional focus, setting up a new dialogue which the HLPW believed was a very important dialogue to occur at the national level. It does not involve pre-existing national or international frameworks, whereas the data one does. Another example is the actions around sanitation: their focus will be very different and around infrastructure and around financing mechanisms. There are 17 actions in the plan and it’s a very considerable agenda but each action has its own features in terms of how it interacts with governments and the international community.

What makes the HLPW different from other UN water organisations, how does it actually function, and what is your role as Special Adviser?

The panel is distinct from other UN water organisations in its capacity to advocate directly at the Head of Government and Head of State level — the capacity to raise awareness, to generate media interest, to do things that politicians can do those big meetings of officials and conventional organisations will struggle to do.

Also, the panel is a short-term process rather than an entity. It was set up to try and kick start and ‘put a bit of fire’ into all the other processes that are going on. It has only a two-year life and is not comparable to the other ongoing parts of the [UN water] architecture which exists: it’s really a different type of thing altogether.

The panel functions through meetings of its senior officials, called ‘sherpas’, and also through each of the 11 Panel members championing particular actions. Although several of the panel members were at the UN General Assembly, where the action plan was issued, in general, the members do not need to meet in person. Instead, the sherpas bring ideas from their Head of State or Head of Government to meetings of officials every two or three months where the background work is done. A gathering of the full Panel is not necessary — though if a number of them were to be in the same place at the same time, we would take full advantage of that.

The sherpa meetings typically involve not only people with good knowledge of their Head of State and Head of Government or good access to their Head of State and Head of Government but also people with good subject matter knowledge. That ensures there is a degree of mutual assurance around the ideas that are being generated in the panel so that everybody can be comfortable with everybody else’s proposals.

As Special Adviser I support the Prime Minister of Australia in his role as a member of the Panel. For the last 15 or so years, I’ve been responsible for advising the Australian Government on water policy matters at the national level — I was involved in framing the comprehensive water reforms in Australia known as the National Water Initiative and more recently in implementing the Murray-Darling Basin reforms. On my recent retirement, the Government engaged me to assist in the HLPW process.

What is the World Water Data Initiative that Australia is championing for the Panel, and how does it affect the achievement of SDG6?

Information about the state of water resources and how they’re being utilised is seen as fundamental to any government that is trying to make rational policy decisions about the management of its water resources. Therefore, enabling countries to collect water data and deal with issues around collecting water data is seen as important in achieving the rest of SDG6.

The World Water Data Initiative, which Australia is advocating and proselytising on behalf of the Panel, is the data initiative that the HLPW has adopted. Australia presented the initiative at the World Water Congress in May 2017 at Cancun, Mexico — a major congress of the water community organised by the International Water Association. With the initiative now having been acknowledged in the communique of that congress, there will be a much broader understanding of what we’re trying to achieve through the water community.

The Initiative is very ambitious:

  • it is aiming to provide policy guidance to all governments on what kind of institutional and legal arrangements work best for managing water information.
  • it also has a harmonisation objective aimed at ensuring that as much as possible we are all talking the same language when we’re talking about water and monitoring and measuring water resources — and that is very important in bringing down the costs and complexity of understanding water information.
  • it also has an innovation component. Australia is already supporting an innovation challenge which is inviting the best and brightest brains around the world to figure out how to support the poorest farmers, smallholder farmers, by providing them with useful water information, through their cell phones. For example, they might receive information about the water that they can access, so they can decide how to make the best use of it at the farm level — in planning crops, say.

Many countries have perfectly good access to water information and data. The focus is on giving an opportunity to countries which do not have such access.

The data initiative is operated through capacity at the national level, and it is supported by international effort aiming to achieve:

  • good harmonisation and alignment between existing multi-lateral data efforts
  • new technologies
  • good policy guidance material which nation-states can then adopt and pick up and use and take advantage of, and
  • good opportunities for poorer countries and communities to make the very best use of all the international effort at the lowest possible cost.

The initiative is aiming, as much as possible, to assist national capacity and support national capacity by reducing the costs for nations to gain access to reasonable information about their water resources, which currently is a very costly endeavour. We are not trying to create some new multilateral architecture or empire and we are not pushing anything onto anybody.

Essentially, with the data initiative, Australia has come up with some ideas of how to enable countries and communities to access data at a little less cost and a little more easily. For those that want to be in a position to make evidence-based decisions about their water resources, and to take advantage of new technologies and policy guidance and everything else which is available, then the Initiative is available for them to use as they wish.

It is the responsibility of every UN member country that adopted the Sustainable Development Goals to implement them, including SDG6, in their country and if possible to assist other countries to achieve them. Within Australia, we also have to account for the achievement of SDG6 and its associated processes domestically before 2030. At the right time, coordination processes will be activated to ensure that is on track. Currently, our effort is mostly concentrated on framing implementation strategies through the HLPW and giving the Prime Minister the best support we can to participate in that process, and ensuring that our aid resources are also supportive of water reforms that eligible countries are undertaking.

SDG6 is an important goal at the UN level. What about in everyday life: how can others help achieve it, and where can we find out more detail?

SDG6 is an incredibly ambitious and worthwhile endeavour for the global community. It is utterly and unambiguously positive. It only makes the world a better place. I do want to encourage everyone to help achieve it.

We should do anything we can to help the world move closer to a situation where all people can access safe drinking water and sanitation services that provide them with the dignity and health outcomes that we should all be able to afford in this world. Achieving SDG6 will reduce conflict; it will reduce poverty; in every sense, it will enhance our natural environment; in every sense, it will make the world a better place. It is hard to think of anything that is more worthwhile to commit effort to than this SDG.

Personally, I want to invite everybody to get on with any steps you can take towards achieving this goal: to talk about it and mobilise your peers and colleagues and exercise the leadership that is needed if we are going to reach SDG6 in the next 13 years which is our global objective.

You have a leadership role to play, whatever your profession, whatever your skill and mandate, wherever you are in the whole landscape. You can lead by inspiring others, encouraging others, showing others the way of raising public awareness, talking about the concepts and importance behind SDG6. Everybody, from the most junior [worker] or young scientist to the wisened gurus in the world, can all exercise that leadership. You only have to look at the basic facts and statistics around how far we have to go in the next 13 years, how much good can be achieved, to start to create conversations and new thinking about that.

Don’t be afraid to bring forward radical new ideas that could contribute, at any level. The World Water Data Initiative is one example of that at Head of State and Head of Government level. At every level of the global community, this goal needs all possible good ideas to be expressed and to be brought into whatever governing body framework you work with. Put up your hand; get involved. These are things every one of us can do wherever we are working and wherever we are sitting.

To read more about the HLPW, find the website of UNDESA, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The Panel has its own sub-website at that address, or search for ‘High-Level Panel on Water’.

Tony Slatyer is the Special Advisor for the High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW) for the Australian Government. He played a significant role in implementing of the Murray Darling Basin reforms.

About the HLPW

The last HLPW meeting was held in Cancun in March 2017, where a statement was released. Australia, through Tony, has a specific contribution and role in the workings of the HLPW. There is also a description of the details of the panel on the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs website. The HLPW is a short-term panel, which will be dissolved by March 2018.

The HLPW was established to break through a range of perceived barriers to ensure that people had access to safe water and sanitation by 2030 as established in the SDGs.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is a member of the HLPW and launched the Water for Women initiative of $100 million at the panel.

The HLPW and SDG6

The UN released an Action Plan, summarizing the areas of action required to achieve SDG 6, as well as the other SDGs.

Tony mentions achieving SDG 6 is an enabler for achieving the other SDGs like agriculture, education, health, and poverty reduction.

Australia’s aid priorities for supporting water management are aligned with achieving the SDGs globally.

Initiatives related to the HLPW

The World Water Data Initiative, adopted by the HLPW, is an ambitious initiative to provide policy guidance to governments and is promoted by the Australian Government.

An initiative undertaken by the panel, which Australia is championing, is the innovative challenge to help smallholder farmers get water-related information to their cell phones so they can plan their forward crops and use the water they have access to.

The initiative was presented at the XVI World Water Congress, organized by the International Water Resources Association, held in Mexico from May 9 to June 3.

The Netherlands has also been promoting an initiative on valuing water to figure out what the society wants from its water resources.

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Interview quotes

 

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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