I did the unthinkable in London on Nov. 6; I spent a sunny, blue-sky day indoors. Cloudy, rainy weather seems to follow me whenever I get the chance to visit this great city, so it was tempting to stay outdoors.
No such luck and I was glad I didn’t.
I spent the day in the revitalized London Docklands at The Economist’s World Water Summit. The day was jam packed with impressive speakers, panel discussions and networking over tea breaks. Many of the leading voices and actors in the water space were present. Governments, development organizations, academia, civil society and industry were all well-represented. Importantly, there was also a wide geographic representation with participants from every continent (OK, not Antarctica but I did meet two people who had been there!).
The event explored the serious water challenges the world faces (developed and developing), which are intertwined and sometimes are the crux of politics, global issues, growth and finance—as well as ecosystems, human health, climate change adaptation and so much more.
Kicked off with a video welcome address from His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, the morning focused on potential next steps in addressing global water challenges, progressing water policy, the private sector’s role in the global water crisis, and framing the business case for water stewardship. Speakers included Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary-General, United Nations, Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister of the Environment and Water Resources, Singapore, and Ephraim Kamuntu, Minister of Water and Environment, Republic of Uganda.
After a stretch-the-legs, stand-up lunch (we’d been sitting all day, the Europeans do this routinely while in the United States we tend to move from office chair to lunch chair and back), the afternoon shifted to sustainable agriculture, urbanization and public health, cross-stakeholder collaborations for water security, sanitation and ecosystems. Among the headliners were Mohamed Yousef Al Madfaei, Executive Director, Integrated Environment Policy and Planning, Environment Agency, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Árni Mathiesen, Assistant Director-General, Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Sanjay Wijesekera , Global Chief of WASH, UNICEF, and Yvo de Boer, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and current Director-General, Global Green Growth Institute.
I am always proud of how far the Coca-Cola system has come on water stewardship and humbled by the many, respected and experienced organizations that are partnering with us. Representatives of our partnerships at the conference included Dave Tickner, Chief Freshwater Adviser, WWF, Brian Arbogast, Director of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Barbara Frost, Chief Executive, WaterAid, Sam Parker, Managing Director, WSUP, and Giulio Boccaletti, Global Managing Director, Water, The Nature Conservancy.
I represented Coca-Cola on the last panel, “Ecosystem approaches to water: beyond the nexus,” along with Sergio Campos, Division Chief, Water and Sanitation, Inter-American Development Bank, Dave Tickner of WWF, Mette Wilke, Director, Division of Environmental Policy Implementation, United Nations Environment Programme, and Geoff Townsend, Industry Fellow, Ecolab.
Dave made an impactful statement regarding how we typically refer to water in such debates—that is, as simply water. The thing is we don’t experience water just as ‘water’ rather through intense and intimate life and livelihood moments and milestones in lakes, streams, and rivers. Dave’s point was that we often miss the important personal and emotional connection we have to rivers, lakes, streams, and even groundwater. Lumping ‘water’ in with other abstract terms such as ‘mining’ or ‘oil and gas’ removes us from the very connections to water that makes the issues so critical to solve.
I focused my points in two main areas: avoiding the demonization of water, and the multivariant challenges of the food, water, and energy nexus. When we speak of water efficiency and conservation, it’s easy to say “use less water.” I certainly agree no one should waste water or use too much when the ultimate source is unsustainable. However, using water, even a lot (whatever you equate that to), isn’t necessarily a negative thing (like pollution, litter, carbon emissions). Life takes water, sometimes even ‘a lot.’ How much you use is critical but also where and when you use it, and who else there wants to use it, including nature, is important. I suggest you can give a life-giving, infinitely renewable, wonderful resource a bad rap when you solely focus on not using it.
Lastly, the nexus is a huge challenge for us all (to me the biggest we will ever face) because it represents the conflict of resource limitations (e.g., energy supplies, land, water in a time and place). In times of abundance, you could arguably use all the water you need for energy production (e.g., dams, cooling water, process water), move somewhere else to grow enough food, and source pristine rivers, lakes or streams for your water. We can’t do that anymore and that means we can’t look at solving one challenge, such as food production without looking at the impact on water supplies and the ability to produce energy.
The views expressed in this post are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of World Wildlife Fund.