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Moving Towards True Collaboration: Synergizing Our Strengths

Posted from World Water Week in Stockholm by Kate Voss, September 5, 2013. This is the first in a series of three posts from World Water Week 2013. The second is called Groundwater: The Elephant Underfoot, by Sasha Richey.

www-logo-2013This year, the guiding theme of World Water Week is “Water Cooperation: Building Partnerships.” Throughout the week, sessions have ranged from talks on private-public partnerships to science-policy links, transboundary water management to stakeholder engagement.  Many water nexuses – energy, food, health, security – have been discussed, and a call for action towards a sustainable, holistic water management strategy has provided a guiding principle for collaboration.

Of course, building partnerships requires time to form trust and ambition to translate ideas into actions.  At the UCCHM, our aim is to move beyond a conversation about cooperation and towards tangible solutions.  Over the past few years, we have actively built partnerships to share our data and support informed water management decisions.  Our goal is to inspire action rooted in science.  During the opening plenary, Mr. Angel Gurria, General-Secretary of OECD, perfectly highlighted the role of data: “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”  Without comprehensive data about our water resources, any efforts to effectively manage our water systems will fail.

Participants at World Water Week discuss opportunities for collaboration.

Kate Voss, Sasha Richey and Jay Famiglietti  at World Water Week.  Photo by: Stephanie Castle.

Even though research is essential to understanding our global water problems, one significant challenge is to frame research in a context that is comprehensible for other water stakeholders: policy-makers, private sector industries, and the general public.  Communication is key.  Mr. Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, argued for the creation of a shared language to facilitate dialogue and to build a foundation for cooperation.  He described an ideal where “water is defined as risk” and we begin to value water in economic terms.  NGOs, governments, private companies, scientists – we all understand risk.  In our own work with the GRACE satellites, we can see risk in our global trend map where clear “hotspots” of water scarcity emerge, often in transboundary basins.

Yet even with the common terminology of “water risk” the obstacle still exists to link multiple stakeholders’ definitions with the goal to develop a shared strategy.  Typically this role falls to our policy-makers.  During a fiery session on Middle East water collaboration, Mr. Anders Jagersky explained that “when politics are not effective, we must move to track-two approaches: academics or civil society” to push water management.  This is exactly what we have attempted to do through our Water for Peace Global Outreach Campaign.  Starting with a trip to the Middle East last February, UCCHM is attempting to organize national water agencies, NGOs, and research universities in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine to share data and collaborate on a project to better understand regional water issues, particularly the sustainability of groundwater systems.

Through this initiative we are again realizing the power of data.  Despite the fact that political tensions may inhibit the respective central government agencies from collaborating, a research project based on shared data and a holistic study of water resources in the region is  an exciting and achievable opportunity for collaboration.  During our trip to the MENA region, we found that the data managers in the Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian water authorities all knew each other, conversed, and were aware of the need for a watershed-based, transboundary water management strategy.  These data specialists want to collaborate, and will be the leaders as we move forward with our project.

Trust, communication, and valuing the individual assets of each stakeholder forms the base of effective collaboration.  No session highlighted that more perfectly than a Tuesday evening seminar titled, “Cooperation Across and Within Jurisdictions and Levels for Good Water Governance – Local to Global.” The session was presented as a four-act play, “The Tragedy of the Absurd” – a fun, creative, and engaging approach to get the participants thinking about what true cooperation looks like.  It was communication at its finest.  While the presentation was filled with humor, movie clips, and witty dialogue, it also contained a subtle, yet profound commentary on the core elements of effective collaboration.

Act 2 of the Theater of the Absurd at World Water Week: Demystifying Stereotypes.  Photo by: Stephanie Castle.

Act 2 of the Theater of the Absurd at World Water Week: Demystifying Stereotypes. Photo by: Stephanie Castle

One of my favorite quotes was by Andras Szollosi-Nagy, Director of the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education.  After Act 2, a hilarious “demasking” of the stereotypes and clichés of key water stakeholders (private sector, scientists, youth, among others), he declared that, “to collaborate is to synergize our strengths, not demonize our weaknesses.”  For us at UCCHM, our strength is our data, our research.  We do not have the high-level clout of policy-makers, nor the endless funds of the private sector, but we do have an asset – data – that, when merged with political power and financial investment, can drive solutions.

At the end of the session, the audience was left with optimism and inspiration.  For me, it was one of the most exciting sessions at World Water Week because of the genuine emotions it evoked from the audience, not the typical lip service and perfectly tailored conversations.  People were sincerely excited.  As the final presenter, Mr. Adeel Zafar, Director of the UN University, summarized this hopefulness perfectly: “We are all here because we are passionate about water.  We have committed our lives to this endeavor.  We have that commonality even though we work in different sectors and approach these problems in different ways.  So let us build momentum from that shared commitment to collaborate for solutions.”