World Water Week to Focus on Urbanization

A slum on the Jari River in Pará, Brazil. (Photo: ©CI/Enrico Bernard)

Every year around this time, some 3,000 people — scientists, policymakers, NGO staff and others — come from all corners of the globe to Stockholm, Sweden for World Water Week, the most respected annual meeting on freshwater issues.

Water is much more than just lakes and rivers and wetlands. It is also the moisture in soil that supports crops and forests; the rivers that produce energy through hydropower, process coal for electricity, and cool nuclear power stations; the water that flows into homes and factories in small towns in South Africa and mega-cities in China and through waste treatment factories back into the environment.

In Stockholm, CI’s participants will concentrate on building relationships with partners who are also advancing work on freshwater research, environmental health, livelihoods and poverty reduction.

The theme of this year’s meeting — which kicks off on Sunday — is “Water in an Urbanizing World.” Across the globe, an increasing amount of resources from surrounding natural areas are being drawn to feed growing cities. This can negatively impact the health of watersheds upstream and the delivery of water downstream.

Interestingly, many of the cities that have the biggest influence on freshwater policy may not have not obvious connections to water. Here’s a highly subjective view of a few of the global “capitals” of water policy, and why they’re so important:

  • Stockholm: World Water Week is managed as a conference by an amazing non-profit called the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). The meeting is only a small part of what they do, but they play a huge role in global water discussions and leadership about best practices by being excellent hosts. Sweden is a world leader in thinking about sustainability, and lot of groups like the Stockholm Environmental Institute (SEI) and the Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC) work far beyond Swedish — and European — borders. Of course, Stockholm is also just a beautiful city, almost resembling Venice with many rivers, wetlands, and the ocean never far away.
  • Singapore: Singapore is a kind of hyper-modern city-state, surrounded by ocean, marshes and the country of Malaysia. While I don’t think Singapore will ever be considered a hub of sustainability like Stockholm, the government recognized its precarious hydrological position years ago and began hosting Singapore World Water Week every year. It’s taken off very well, not least because it has a strong Asian focus.
  • Washington, D.C.: Washington is important because it is a seat of water policy leadership and talent. Many agencies such as the US Geological Survey, NOAA, the EPA, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the USDA and even USAID are deeply concerned about water management practice, and they often serve as models or points of reference for the rest of the world, dating back to the nineteenth century for some key issues such as basin management.
  • Delft and The Hague, Netherlands: The Dutch have been managing water in creative, dynamic ways for over a thousand years, when they began reclaiming land from the sea. Much of the country is below sea level, and its citizens recognize that a failure to manage their freshwater supply will also get people killed. As a result, they created a national Water Ministry over 300 years ago in The Hague. The city teems with water professionals and water-related organizations. Just down the road, in the 1950s the Dutch sponsored the formation of the only university run by the United Nations: the Institute for Water Education in Delft. UNESCO-IHE (as it is known) has a strong technical focus and has prepared thousands of individuals — including dozens of water, agriculture and environment ministers from around the world — in state-of-the-art water management.

John Matthews is the director of CI’s freshwater climate change program. Stay tuned next week for updates from World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

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