Water Security: less talk, more action

andrew-hamilton-oxford-university

Professor Andrew Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University © REACH

Water security is an increasingly urgent and complex challenge facing society, both rich and poor. Over 200 people from 20 countries met to debate using a risk-based framework to respond to the global and local challenges at the Water Security 2015 conference held at Oxford University on 9-11 December.

The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Andrew Hamilton, welcomed Ministers from Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya who led discussions on the significance and shared challenge of water security for countries in Africa and Asia.

‘Water security is an issue of life or death for Bangladesh’ said Mr MA Mannan MP, State Minister of Finance and Planning. The country’s population, especially the poor, are highly vulnerable to water hazards, including frequent floods, droughts and arsenic-contaminated groundwater.

The World Bank and Oxford University presented new evidence on the global status of water security risks, showing the scale, urgency and cost of the challenge. Findings from the OECD and Global Water Partnership report ‘Securing Water, Sustaining Growth’ provide the economic rationale for investment in infrastructure, institutions and information.

Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University said: ‘investment finance needs to have a sense of where the priorities lie. We have developed a common language to look at the scale of the risk, evaluate the benefits of risk reduction, and make proportionate interventions and investments in water security.’

The conference continued with a focus on water security and poverty in Africa and South Asia, marking the first year of REACH: Improving water security for the poor. The programme is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), with a £15 million investment in water research. DFID’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Charlotte Watts, flagged the programme as critical to providing robust evidence needed for designing and implementing water security interventions.

Professor Charlotte Watts, Chief Scientific Adviser, UK Department for International Development © REACH

Professor Charlotte Watts, Chief Scientific Adviser, UK Department for International Development © REACH

Gaining government support will be key for REACH to bring about transformational change beyond its focussed ‘Water Security Observatories’ or study sites. Attendance from three State Ministers from Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya – the countries where REACH works – was an important step in building these science-policy partnerships with senior academic, enterprise and policy collaborators.

Ato Motuma Mekassa, Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Ethiopia, shared his country’s vision: ‘It is my Government’s ambition and commitment that all Ethiopians especially women and children have a future where they can live, learn and grow without the burden of water insecurity both in terms of water quality and quantity.’

Mr MA Mannan MP, State Minister of Finance and Planning, Bangladesh (left); Ato Motuma Mekassa, Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Ethiopia (right) © REACH

Mr MA Mannan MP, State Minister of Finance and Planning, Bangladesh (left); Ato Motuma Mekassa, Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity, Ethiopia (right) © REACH

The Cabinet Secretary of the Ministry of Water and Irrigation in Kenya, Mr Eugene Wamalwa, spoke of unprecedented floods taking place in his country. Referring also to recent floods in Cumbria in the UK, he said that water is a global issue that connects us all. He tweeted with enthusiasm about his support for REACH and willingness to work in partnership to find new solutions to water insecurity.

Dr Rob Hope, REACH Director, Oxford Universityl (left); Eugene Wamalwa, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Kenya (right) © REACH

Dr Rob Hope, REACH Director, Oxford Universityl (left); Eugene Wamalwa, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Kenya (right) © REACH

Mr Sanjay Wijesekera, Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene at UNICEF, highlighted the drive towards achieving universal access to water and sanitation, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The need to address inequalities and target the poorest and most vulnerable is a priority across the SDGs, and in UNICEF’s work, he said. UNICEF is a global practitioner partner in the REACH programme with strong collaboration across regions and countries in Africa and Asia.

Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF © REACH

Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF © REACH

Three Country Diagnostic Reports on Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya were launched at the conference. The reports illustrate significant but complex interactions between water security risks and poverty. Each Country Diagnostic Report outlines Water Security Observatories where REACH will focus its work over the next seven years.

Speakers from a session on ‘engendering water security’ showed how gender is a thread that weaves its way through all water security issues, from disasters, to water supply and sanitation, water management and technologies, and climate change resilience. The different values, needs and uses of water by men and women, and boys and girls, must be considered, to ensure that policies are effective. Eight parallel sessions convened panel discussions by senior policy, academic and enterprise leaders on issues of finance, monitoring, climate, poverty, health, data science, political accountability and groundwater.

In final remarks, REACH Director Dr Rob Hope said: ‘REACH will generate outstanding science to support policy and practice to improve water security for millions of poor people. The focus is on research with purpose and not producing academic papers that will gather dust.’

A call for partnerships and action was crystallised with the launch of the REACH Partnership Funding.

Presentations, audio and video will be available on the conference website soon – www.watersecurity205.org.

See the social media summary of the conference on Storify

Conference photos