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Water security at basin scale; the importance of power, politics and communication


With World Water Week taking place this week in Stockholm, I have been thinking back to the Water Security Short Course at the University of East Anglia (UEA) that I was lucky enough to attend recently. In this blog I share the key lessons I took away including the importance of setting our actions in the catchment context and considering power, politics and communications in our efforts to achieve water security at basin scale.

It was a fantastic week that has left me inspired, not only due to the wonderful academic lectures that have challenged me to interrogate by perceptions of water security, but also learning from the rich experience of course participants from who were from the research community, NGO’s, international development organisations, donors and government, based in countries as diverse as Nepal, Bolivia and Ethiopia

My role at WWF-UK is focused on supporting the achievement of sustainable water management in the river basins that are a priority for us, by engaging the private sector to mitigate water challenges shared by business, communities and ecosystems. These challenges are created not only by the physical scarcity of water but also by the way we are managing our water resources (which I learnt during the week is called ‘produced’ or ‘constructed’ water security).

One of my key takeaway’s from the week was a deeper understanding of the way that this produced scarcity manifests at the basin level. Case studies during the week provided real world examples of the importance of the local context. What was clear if that in each of these cases was that no one business, NGO, community group or government could support basin water security individually.

I have summarised below some of the recurrent themes that emerged across the week and the food for thought that this have given me for my water stewardship work here.

The Ramganga © Sejal Worah/WWFThe Ramganga, India. Sejal Worah, WWF.

The importance of power and politics

The impacts that power dynamics at the international, national reginal and local level can have on the equitable allocation of water to stakeholder in the basin, including business, communities and ecosystems.

The hydrology of basins alone is not a robust foundation to build from to secure the sustainable management of water. We need to understand the social and political processes that are underpinning water insecurity, to enable us to effective deal with shared water challenges in an equitable and sustainable way. This shifts us away from a focus on engineering solutions and infrastructure master planning recognising the importance strengthening the governance of water and integrated basin planning.

The need to setting actions in the catchment context

We need to consider whether the actions we are taking are going to deliver the impact we intend. Focus is often on individual actions, without consideration of the wider hydrological system in which the action will take place.

For example without a strong and enforced allocation plan for a basin, efficiency savings at farm or factory level may not result in improved water security in the basin. Water saved for example could be being used to increase production or could be allocated to another water user. We need strong policies for the management of water and for these to implemented and regulated effectively to ensure that well intended actions don’t lead to unintended consequences.

We need to get better at considering the range of activities within a catchment and taking a landscape approach to ensure that we are effectively managing trade-offs and supporting the strategic management of the landscape. The University of East Anglia’s ‘Web of Water Security’ provides a useful visual representation of the interdependence of issues and the complexity of the likely trade-offs.

Western Cape, South Africa Western Cape, South Africa. Green Renaissance

The need to consider the way we are communicating

The language we use to communicate can influence how effectively our messages are received.

For example the use of the term environmental flows. These flows are also important for a diversity of economic, social and cultural reasons, including for transporting sediment, which is important to support fish spawning and to help protect coastal areas from flooding. Using an alternative term such as priority flows or strategic flows could help to ensure a wider range of stakeholders.

The complexity of forecasting the impact that climate change will have on our water resources

The week highlighted the uncertainty in modelling the impact of climate change on basin hydrology, not least because the uncertain outputs of climate models are being fed into hydrological models that that their own inherent levels of uncertainty. The impact of climate change on our water resources also can’t be considered in insolation of social and economic change, which brings in another level of uncertainty.

Water stewardship: supporting basin water security

So how does this relate to my role? Our water stewardship programme at WWF recognises the importance of power and politics and the need to ensure that individual actions are leading to more sustainable water management at the basin level. Our approach is built on the recognition of the need for stakeholder’s to come together in basins to develop integrated solutions and influence the development and implementation of stronger policies to govern the way water in managed. We are supporting the development on 16 Water Stewardship Basin Strategies globally with our vision for each being that ‘freshwater resources to be managed sustainably and equitably to enable thriving communities, businesses and healthy ecosystems’. In each of these basins we have undertaken a detailed analysis to map company supply chains, operations & donor investments and identified existing platforms and initiatives, have identified drivers of risks and are working with key stakeholder to support and implement integrated solutions.

We are building in new ways to communicate water risks. Through our work we are developing the incentives for action by different actors by articulating what water means to the economy, catalysing them to come together and take action. For example WWF-Zambia recently published a report setting out the social and economic dependence on the Kafue Flats for hydropower, livelihoods, agricultural and freshwater supply to the capital Lusaka. The report highlights that if freshwater resources in the Kafue Flats are not well managed, it won’t harm just one sector or species but Zambia’s economy as a whole.

These kinds of narratives are helpful to kick-start multi-stakeholder collective action and get buy in to ensure resources are sustainable over the longer term and are supporting improved governance of water to address shared water challenges. Business can play a key role supporting such multi-stakeholder processes and a strong voice to help catalyse change.

Itezhi-tezhi Dam, water flowing out of retention basin. Kafue National Park boundary, ZambiaItezhi-tezhi Dam, water flowing out of retention basin. Kafue National Park boundary, Zambia. Sarah Black, WWF

There are a number of areas that the course has highlighted which I will continue to reflect on and ensure I am building into my water stewardship work as appropriate. For example the alignment of our water security and stewardship work. Currently our water security and stewardship work programmes are delivered fairly independently. We are working to strengthen the alignment between the work programmes, setting integrated strategies for basins that use stewardship as one mechanism to support the delivery of basin water security

You can find out more about our water stewardship work on our website. We would love to hear your experiences of using a water stewardship approach to support basin security. Contact us by email at waterstewardship@wwf.org.uk.

If you are interested in water security I highly recommend attending the UEA Short Course.

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