Interview with Dr Letitia A Obeng, GWP Chair

Posted: 2009-10-22

Dr. Letitia A. Obeng took over the reins as Chair of the Global Water Partnership (GWP) on 1st January 2008.

Given her strong background in water and development we asked her about GWP and its role in sustainable development.

Ms. Obeng, on taking up this mantle what do you see as the major challenges ahead for the Global Water Partnership?

I am learning about the Global Water Partnership and its many strengths, so my views will evolve as we work together over the coming years. The GWP is truly a unique local, regional and global partnership. Over the past 10 years the GWP has expanded considerably at the country and regional levels. I believe that our strengths are also our challenges. We need to continue to work to find ways to strengthen the “partnership”, linking the different levels together even more effectively. There are real opportunities to support sustainable integrated water management by exchanging knowledge within and among countries and regions, and at the global level. I look forward to working with everyone to meet this challenge and help the partnership maintain its relevance and value at all levels.

Strengthening our partnership underpins what I see as our second challenge. Much progress has been made during the implementation of the previous GWP strategies: advocating for sustainable water management; delivery of technical assistance and tools; building networks.... However, we currently face the challenge reaching out to nonwater policy and decision makers who are responsible for economic growth and development in their countries. In my view, IWRM is very much about political and economic management. At the end of the day, those in government who take development decisions, need to be well informed to make the right choices and trade-offs related to the use and preservation of the water resources in their countries. This is everyone’s business, not just water professionals who already know the implications of poor water management. National IRWM water plans and strategies must be fully owned by economic development leaders if they are going to be sustainably implemented for the good of a country and its people. The GWP can help water professionals and decision makers engage others, to ensure that IWRM is truly an integral part of the development agenda.

You may have heard talk about IWRM as “controversial” and “unproven”. In your view, what do you think GWP needs to do to maintain IWRM high on the global agenda?

Actually, it’s a good sign that people are talking about IWRM. There are two important areas where GWP must do more. Firstly, as I noted, it is crucial that IWRM is part of the economic growth and development agenda of the countries that GWP serves. Every country should have its own integrated water resource management plan based on water availability (free flowing, shared with neighbours, or stored in lakes and dams) and decisions on responding to competing demands (for domestic, industrial and agricultural use). IWRM is about making the right development choices, whether it’s about building a “good” new dam to store water for an economically viable use, or supporting farmers to switch from producing a high water consuming export crop to one which requires less water so that the water “saved” can be used for another development purpose. Also, IWRM has to take the current climate change debate very seriously. The changes in our environment are having an impact on the availability of water. GWP can help think through appropriate actions to address this in our different countries and regions. GWP should continue to support countries as they develop and adapt their water management plans. GWP should also work to ensure that the IWRM decisions are part and parcel of each country’s economic growth and development plan.

The UN has designated 2008 as the International Year for Sanitation to enhance awareness and accelerate progress towards the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target to halve the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by 2015. In what ways do you think that GWP can contribute towards addressing this issue?

I can’t tell you how delighted I am that the world is focusing on sanitation in 2008. For too long, we in the profession have paid lip service to sanitation, adding it as an afterthought in our water supply service delivery planning. Yet, it is crucial that we contain human waste, and treat is as needed to ensure that it does not continue to pollute water resources, and endanger people’s health. Water Supply and Sanitation management are an integral part of sustainable IWRM. It is imperative that the GWP contribute by joining with the lead partners in the International Year for Sanitation and support countries to progress more quickly towards their MDG Sanitation goal. We need to consider whether or not our tool kit addresses this subject sufficiently. There is a wealth of knowledge out there about human waste management – containing the waste on site, or transporting it to treatment plants, treating and recycling it. We need to be clear on what messages we can share with decision makers and their populations in our partner countries to help them better plan, promote, construct, finance, implement and manage sustainable sanitation services. We can use our advocacy and technical advice systems to this end. I do not expect us to lead, but I do believe that we have an excellent opportunity to help achieve the goal.

The Global Water Partnership spans over 65 countries in 13regions. Though every GWP region is unique they also face similar water challenges. What is your message to them at this time?

I spent a large part of my 25 years at the World Bank, working, either directly or indirectly on water-related issues. I know the crucial role that water plays in development, as countries struggle to grow, reduce poverty, tackle climate change, preserve their environment and manage limited resources. This year we will shape our strategy for 2009 and beyond. I ask everyone to contribute to this process. Let us know how we can best work together to keep GWP relevant locally, regionally and globally. This is your network, your partnership. Help shape it for the future.

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