Tony Slatyer interview — Part 4: the outcomes of the High-Level Panel on Water

In a final interview on the High-Level Panel (HLPW) on Water, Tony Slatyer, special adviser on water to the Australian Government discusses the outcomes of the HLPW and its final report. The panel operated for two years to raise awareness and promote the importance of SDG 6, which all governments have committed to achieving by 2030, just 12 years from now.

Interview topics

  • An overview of the HLPW final report
  • ‘Water’s promise: Making every drop count’
  • Practical outputs and policy recommendations
  • How to contact the HLPW for more information

An overview of the HLPW’s final report

Two weeks ago, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, the representatives of the High-Level Panel on Water (HLPW) handed over their final report to the Secretary-General of the United Nations at a ceremony event.

The panel has operated for two years. Its job was to raise awareness and promote the importance of Sustainable Development Goal 6 which, in summary, is that all governments have committed to achieving safe water and sanitation for all their people by 2030, which is only 12 years from now.

The panel was set up to raise political awareness of that challenge and the importance of achieving that goal.

Members of the Panel presented their outcomes to the Secretary-General in several ways:

Firstly, they presented a report called ‘Making every drop count — an Agenda for Water Action‘, which sets out the panel’s views on what needs to be done to achieve the promise of safe water and sanitation for all people in the timeframe that’s been committed. The report isn’t very long, compared with many of these sorts of things: it’s around 30 pages.

Second, they issued an open letter to all Heads of Government of the world, which is publicly available, setting out the key messages that the Panel wanted to disseminate to them.

Thirdly, they released a video on these issues, and it’s a short video, only three minutes long.

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In short, the authoritative outcomes of the Panel are at that HLPW website — as well as lots of further material. For example, for each of the recommendations, there is a package of supporting material, for people who really want to ‘drill-down’ into what’s behind that recommendation … the thinking behind it.

The panel member countries and their representatives — any of us — can explain further what the Panel intended, and we welcome people to contact us via the contact Panel on the HLPW website.

It’s very important and very positive that we now have clarity as to solutions to this great challenge. Because the consequences of not getting there are so significant and the potential benefits of getting there are so great for social betterment and the betterment of life in the world. It’s terribly important that governments take these issues very seriously and prioritise them at the national level. The HLPW has tried to encourage that, the attention at the political level and the Panel has set out the steps that it believes need to be put in place to get there, and some practical materials to help.

The HLPW video: ‘Water’s promise: Making every drop count’

The video on the HLPW website has three key messages::

  • Turn it off;
  • Turn it on;
  • Turn it up.

In the video, the panel is saying, “it’s time that we all turned off denial about how difficult and important these problems are; turn off the pollution; turn off the causes of the challenge that we have.”; and “it’s time to turn on the solutions — and that there are solutions, as set out in this report.”

This is very good news. We have a monumental challenge. All governments have that monumental challenge but there are ways of addressing those challenges, so:

  • we are being asked to turn on the solutions, the innovations, investment, the ideas, and the political will that is required to get achieve those solutions;
  • we are being asked to turn up the way we do things: turn up the energy, the intensity with which we face the challenges …. and;
  • we being asked to turn up the heat on those that are not performing well in this great challenge.

That is the key message of the video. It sets out clearly the panel’s purpose and objectives, for everyone to understand.

The open letter to global leaders

Also on the HLPW website is an ‘open Letter’ to leaders of the world. This letter is intended to reinforce the message that water challenges must be addressed at the national level.

Leaders cannot rely on other people to solve this problem for them. Our leaders, our political leaders, made a commitment – a very ambitious commitment, but a very important commitment that has a fantastic opportunity for every country. Their commitment is to make better, to improve the conditions in each country’s society in the way the leaders have promised.

The letter reminds leaders of that commitment, and the need for sound policy at the national level to be put in place to deliver solutions.

The letter is also making the point that everybody who reads it has a role to play. It is not just the political leaders to whom it’s addressed. The letter ends with the statement: “Whoever you are, whatever you do, wherever you live, we all have a shared responsibility to change the future of water”.

This is a resounding call from the panel for everybody to get behind this agenda. Even though the letter is addressed to the political leadership of the world, we hope that many many opinion leaders and people in society will read the letter, and take initiative from the letter and be incentivised to do so.

Outputs from the HLPW

The work of the HLPW has resulted in two types of outcomes. There are recommendations on policy — policy changes that need to be put in place at the national level by the international community to make it possible to achieve the SDGs. Also, there are practical outcomes: products that have been issued during the life of the panel which countries can use at a practical level to help them get guidance materials and so forth.

Practical outputs

Australia has led the development of several practical outputs:

  • There’s the WaterGuide, which is a fairly simple but important iteration of the key measures that policy needs to have, to create incentives for people to use water efficiently. Without those incentives, water would be wasted, so it maps out key elements of the core policy elements that are good practice in all societies.
  • Second, we have just issued a guide to managing water for the environment: this similarly gives practical advice to governments.
  • Also, Australia has issued guidance material on water data management: how to improve the foundations for policy making through better information.

These are examples. Other practical outputs have been developed and published by a number of countries during the life of the Panel. For instance, the Netherlands has led a major initiative on valuing water, giving principles and a bit of a tool kit, in preparation on that.

It is at the policy level that the content of the HLPW’s report, Making every drop count: An agenda for water action, will really drive change. Practical things will help drive the change, but unless you have the policy initiatives in place it will be very difficult to achieve change.

The policy work of the panel starts from the premise that the world is not ‘on track’. If matters continue as they are, many countries, most countries, will not achieve the goals they have promised to achieve.

In other words, the status quo is not good enough. It is a hard message but a very important message. The water situation in some countries is becoming worse — going ‘backwards’ — and that claim is supported by United Nations-published information.

Some countries are ‘on track’; most are not ‘on track’. That observation is a big ‘wake-up call’ that the report makes, to start the policy discussion.

Situations and conditions have to change. Many things have to change. The report sets out its approach to that problem.

Previously, the panel has publicised its conceptual approach to dealing with the need for change, through thematic themes and areas, the underpinning requirements around data, around valuing water, around governance, and so on..

Headline policy recommendations by the HLPW

New elements are the key recommendations, developed by the panel and publicised in this final HLPW report. The primary audiences for the recommendations are the political leaders and opinion leaders of the world.

Many of these recommendations will be difficult to implement at the political level. Otherwise, they would have been begun and the world would be on track. The world is not on track because the recommendations are so difficult.

The panel knows there’s nothing easy about changing countries’ water situations, and therefore, the more people that understand and are willing to back these sorts of recommendations, the easier it will be to implement them at the political level. It’s very easy just to keep criticising political leaders for not achieving goals or for not implementing particular changes that are difficult at the local level. Instead, to be a constructive party or partner in this quest, the important thing is to be able to work with governments and help them do the difficult things that have to be done.

Here are some headline recommendations, among the many recommendations in the report.

  • In the issues around sanitation, the recommendations are to focus on the service delivery models; on the most vulnerable communities; the importance of gender; and the reality that the burden of poor sanitation outcomes largely falls on the women and children who are put at great risk due to failed outcomes in this area. On the sanitation front, the panel is recommending that all countries, or those that are able to do so, get behind the ‘water and sanitation for all’ partnership which is a very universal and comprehensive agenda of change and raises the priority of this issue in national policy.
  • There are recommendations on disaster management: essentially, that the key approach is to prioritise preparedness and over-response. That is, be better prepared for disasters in all sorts of ways. The Sendai Framework sets all that out, and should it lead to less cost and trauma involved in responding, particularly for waterborne disasters. It is recommended to deal with the risks up-front, which is a risk-management paradigm rather than the ‘wait-and-see-and-respond’ paradigm which has tended to govern the handling of many disasters.
  • In terms of building resilient economies, the Panel is arguing harder for more focus on water use efficiency, and measures to respond and be ‘on the front foot’ with water use efficiency. The WaterGuide is mentioned above, which advises having policies that create incentives for efficiency. Australia will also prepare practical guidance on how to achieve efficiency in the irrigation sector. There will be an initiative to create a new international standard on how water-using equipment is labelled so consumers can have a better awareness of how efficient equipment is.
  • On investment, the Panel recommends that investment must double, or triple – some say it should even exceed that – in order to make it possible to achieve the goals for water. Many actions that are needed to support investment are laid out in the Panel report. The most essential is to improve the climate and also the ease of investing in water and sanitation services. That means taking the risk out of these services, as much as possible. That is not easy. It entails principles around pricing and capacity for the private sector to invest, and those are always going to be controversial at the local level and very difficult to implement politically. However, the increases in investment required — which are trillions of dollars — will not be achieved unless it’s safe to invest in this sector: safe for superannuation funds, safe for pension funds, safe for the private investment community. The language of the Panel is about improving the enabling environment and all that goes with that. There are also recommendations about disclosure of exposure to water-related risks and the need for the finance sector to be more aware of what it is getting into, both positive and negative. And for new forms of new financing vehicles to be established.

This is terribly important content: the goal cannot be achieved without a major increase in financing in water, which is about priorities. It comes down to the need for safety in investing more positively. When the water sector is a more attractive place for investment than it has been in the past, then the resources will flow in. There are plenty of financial resources in the world that could be invested in water. The issue to attract them into the water sector.

  • There are recommendations on the environment.
  • There are recommendations on the urban sector.
  • There are important recommendations about the importance of partnerships: how people have to work together; sectors of society that might have been at loggerheads need to come together over water.
  • There are recommendations on the issues of transboundary water, and the need for countries sharing watersheds (catchments) to collaborate very actively to share information and to develop standards they agree on for data, and they need to develop legal frameworks that will lock in cooperation going forward on these.
  • The report also makes comment around the importance of dealing with these issues proactively to head off future disaster, future conflicts and the displacement of people that can arise from that, which in turn can create major water challenges in some parts of the world – as we’ve seen recently with large numbers of displaced people.
  • Finally, there are recommendations about what the international system as a whole can do to support those countries that are trying to implement these policies. These recommendations include the use of the UN-Water Decade, which was launched on World Water Day (22 March), to provide a platform where countries can share their experiences and create new partnerships to work jointly through these issues. One of the Panel’s particular suggestions is that each year of the Water Decade be themed to a particular issue that the Panel has identified that needs to be achieved.

That is a summary of the policy content of the Panel’s work, as set out in their report ‘Making every drop count – An agenda for water action’. The report is only 30 pages long, which is quite short compared to many of these sorts of reports.

If you are interested and committed to achieving water action, you are asked and encouraged to read the report.

How to contact the HLPW for further discussion

The panel member countries and their representatives — any of us — can explain further what the panel intended and we welcome people to contact us via the contact panel on the HLPW website.

It’s very important and very positive that we now have clarity as to solutions to this great challenge. Because the consequences of not getting there are so significant, and the potential benefits of getting there are so great for social betterment, and the betterment of life in the world, it’s terribly important that governments take these issues very seriously and prioritise them at the national level. The HLPW has tried to encourage that, the attention at the political level. The panel has also set out the steps that it believes need to be put in place to get there, and some practical materials to help.

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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