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Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

World Water Week - Water Cooperation, Building Partnerships: Some Reflections

Elizabeth Shope

Posted September 6, 2013 in Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment

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I spent the last week in Stockholm, Sweden at World Water Week, an international water conference held annually in Stockholm which brings together a wide ranging group of individuals from dozens of countries and hundreds of organizations to discuss a water-related topic which changes from year to year based on UN-Water’s choice of topic for the year’s World Water Day. This year, the topic was Water Cooperation, Building Partnerships. Nearly 3000 people attended, including youth and seasoned professionals, government officials from many countries along with a number of development banks, NGO representatives, implementers of development projects, scientists, economists, business people and more. While we didn’t quite end the water and sanitation crisis this week, or solve the world’s water security and scarcity issues, I am hopeful that the week brought us a step or two closer. World Water Week provided the opportunity for people to share stories of success and failure, along with technological and policy advances. It also succeeded in facilitating important dialogues between environmental professionals and water professionals; scientists and practitioners; funders and implementers; businesses, NGOs and governments; and setting the stage for next year’s focus: “Water and Energy – Making the Link.” I’m especially excited about this topic, as NRDC works in many areas that affect both water and energy: fighting dirty fuels such as tar sands oil which use a lot of freshwater and have to date created more than 65 square miles of toxic waste lakes, encouraging states to become more water “prepared” in the face of water scarcity and a changing climate, advocating for and educating people about water efficiency as an important means for reducing energy use and global warming pollution, and more. 

My week has been full of small meetings brainstorming ideas for partnerships, building new friendships, and learning about a wide range of water topics through seminars, workshops and side-events. I want to share a few of the ideas, technologies and concepts that I learned about this week that got me especially excited about water and hopeful that we have a chance at solving these complex issues.

Healthy ecosystems can help to increase water supply, improve water quality, and provide greater crop yields, improving the well-being of families. This isn’t really big news, but I attended a session on Sunday entitled “Nature based solutions: opportunities for cooperation to meet water objectives for WASH, Agriculture and Conservation” and it’s some of the specifics that are so fascinating: Degraded lands can decrease soil moisture, groundwater and surface water resources in the degraded area, and can also cause an increase in flooding and increase in soil erosion from runoff and wind. The right combination of natural infrastructure and built infrastructure can catch water, allowing for an increase in groundwater and soil moisture recharge; an increase in water resources for household and farming water use in target area; and a decrease in flooding and erosion.

Ron Clemmer with World Vision presented one method of restoring healthy ecosystems that some organizations are working to implement on the ground: farmer managed natural regeneration. In the soil in some areas, there is an underground forest of sprouting tree trunks with 20 or more sprouts for each trunk. Farmers select stumps which will be used for regeneration and then trim and prune them in a way that maximizes growth of the trees while also promoting ideal growing conditions for their crops. This method has been successfully used to reforest 5 million acres in Niger, and additional land in other countries -- and is important not just for restoring forests and returning degraded crop and grazing lands to productivity, but also for maintaining still-healthy land.

Another factor that can affect ecosystems, agricultural success, access to clean drinking water, income, and more is the means of agricultural production. According to a presentation by Amir Kassam of the FAO, conventional land preparation involves regular tillage, and a clean, exposed seedbed. The effect of this is a loss of organic matter, significant soil compaction, and a destruction of biological life and processes. Soil should have 50-60% pore space which can hold water. When compacted, this can decrease to 20-30% – which is unhealthy for the ecosystem. Healthy/ecologically sustainable soil should have no or minimum mechanical soil disturbance; rather, seeds should be sewn directly into undisturbed soil, there should be organic matter covering the soil surface, and there should be crop diversity. This method creates higher yields, lower fertilizer and pesticides (which in turn creates less runoff), less machinery and labor costs, lower water needs. Seems like a win-win-win to me.

These are some of the reasons that a coalition of groups including NRDC is working on efforts to integrate water, sanitation and hygiene initiatives with freshwater conservation, ecosystem protection and climate resilience. 

(Information from presentations in the session by Colleen Vollberg of Conservation International, Ron Clemmer of World Vision, Sarah Davidson of The Nature Conservancy, and Amir Kassam of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)

We (the global we) should be doing more with satellite data (and crowd-sourced data) to assess risks and prioritize investments, and should be transferring this data and knowledge from scientists to NGOs, decision-makers, foundations and others. The last seminar I attended this week was entitled Water Scarcity and Risk Mapping Using Geo and Satellite Data and included presentations by Amy Luers with Skoll Global Threats Fund, Chuck Chaitovitz with the US Water Partnership, David Toll and Richard Lawford with NASA, Betsy Otto and Charles Iceland with WRI, Peter Gleick with the Pacific Institute, Jay Famiglietti with UC Irvine, and Aleix Serrat-Capdevila with the University of Arizona. The over-simplified version of this is that NASA has some really high-tech satellites that are able to measure things like precipitation, and soil moisture, and other information about groundwater loss,  glacier loss, and more can be extrapolated from other satellite data.

The World Resources Institute has a tool called Aqueduct that they put together with satellite data that measures and maps water risks, looking at both water quality and quantity issues. They have done analysis such as overlaying proposed coal fired power plants in China with the water risk maps, and found that 50% of total proposed power generation was located in areas with high or extremely high baseline water stress. Governments should take water stress into account when making important energy and agriculture decisions!

There’s also a lot of data out there that can help predict where there will be food shortages and malaria outbreaks and other disasters as much as several months in advance. The SERVIR initiative is doing just this – providing satellite-based Earth observation data and science applications to help developing nations improve their environmental decision making. For example, they have found in East Africa that looking at water inundation data alongside malaria data, there are malaria spikes in a region 4 months after flooding in that region.

Peter Gleick also spoke about crowd-sourcing data. Believe it or not, there are more people in the world who have cell phones than who have toilets, so there are also some crowd-sourcing data efforts underway where regions or utilities are collecting and disseminating information via SMS to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services.  

All this data is really fun to think about, but, as Richard Lawford emphasized, in order for it to actually be able to help people, the data has to actually get to the decision-makers in a useful form, and they have to be amenable to using this data in their decision-making processes.

These are just a few of the things I learned here. While NRDC has been working on global water issues for a number of years – including advocating for government action to make the way we give foreign aid on water, sanitation and hygiene more efficient and strategic – World Water Week has encouraged me to think about what more we could do. I will leave Stockholm on Sunday, more educated and inspired to forge new partnerships and strengthen the existing ones in my efforts with NRDC to help solve the world’s water issues. 

Women carrying water from unimproved source in Bangladesh credit water.org.JPGWomen carrying water from an unimproved water source in Bangladesh in 2006. Phtoto credit: water.org. There are nearly a billion people who lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.5 billion people who don't have a toilet. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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