Stella Thomas Speaker and Rapporteur in Water Forum: Conserving our Most Precious Resource – Las Vegas, Nevada
While there was enough fresh water in the world overall, its distribution did not match that of the global population. Climate change, continuing population growth, urbanisation and altered dietary habits were all exacerbating existing problems of fresh water availability. But there was little new action at national or international level, though local and private sector decisions were making a difference in some places. In the end we might have to take the water to the people rather than expecting the people to go to the water, as had historically been the case. But this would mean much bigger investments than were currently contemplated.
The biggest single issue remained putting a true value on water, financially and in other ways, and allocating and pricing it accordingly. Progress here remained slow at best. The private sector might get ahead of governments and academia by starting to take seriously the water risks they faced, and pricing it into their investment and other decisions.
The nexus of water, food and energy was seen as a valuable lens through which to look at the issues. Most water by far still went to agriculture, so that changing the habits of farmers and food producers was crucial, preferably through the right kind of incentives. On the energy side, the linkages were complex, but at the end of the day energy producers had to pay a reasonable price for their high water consumption (hydropower was obviously a special case). The tantalising possibility of ‘arbitrage’ between water, energy and food was raised but not properly explored.
Public and private sectors needed to work together, rather than being seen as competitors. Water allocation and regulation had to be in the hands of public authorities, for legitimacy and accountability reasons, but the private sector then needed to be helped to find profitable ways of providing services and investing in infrastructure.
On the international side, we saw regional action as more likely to be productive than, for example, a new global water body. But international standards and norms could play a bigger role than currently. New ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ about water storage capacity and reduction of damage from water-related disasters could also be helpful. Big dams should not be excluded in looking at storage issues.
We identified no easy solutions but a number of pointers to the right directions for future action. Better international exchanges of ideas and best practice are still needed. But the biggest challenge remains lifting political eyes above the short term.