In pursuit of innovation at World Water Week 2023

This year, World Water Week broke with traditional themes by showcasing innovation for a ‘water-wise world’. The foremost annual water conference brought more than 15,000 participants to Stockholm – physically and virtually – to rethink how we can responsibly manage water with the aid of innovation. With more than 20 events as well as a booth, GWP played its part in putting water at the centre of development.

A prelude with UN-Water

For GWP the week started early this year, with a thematically aligned United Nations Water meeting taking place just before the curtain rose on World Water Week. GWP’s Senior Water Resources Management Specialist Colin Herron was at the meeting to lead talks and facilitate breakout groups among the 35 UN-Water Members and 45 Partners, presenting a GWP-drafted background note on ways to accelerate innovation.

“Innovation is the antidote to business-as-usual,” Herron reflected. “If we want to achieve our global targets, we need to encourage the adoption of innovation at every level and in every organisation. The only way of being sure of failure is to avoid adopting innovation.”

Innovation up front

The UN has committed to five accelerators for the implementation of SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation, one of which is innovation. GWP and UN-Water picked up the baton on the first day of World Water Week by co-convening the session Activating the innovation accelerator of the SDG6 Global Acceleration Framework (click on “Explore the programme”). The session featured innovations in data, finance, governance, and capacity development, highlighting that there is no single sector that has the monopoly on innovation. Colin Herron, as moderator, declared, “through this session, we planted the seed of innovation in our collective minds, to boost efforts to achieve SDG 6.” See video recording, article in The Water Diplomat.

It would be easy to assume that the innovation talk was all about new technologies, but the world’s water challenges require much broader kinds of innovation than that, including social and governance-related innovations. As the week went on, for example, GWP also hosted sessions that addressed related themes, including cooperation innovation and the SDGs, as well as sessions on innovative climate resilient water infrastructure, and innovation for equal and inclusive water and sanitation services (see programme flyer).

Confronting drought

Our water challenges are many and overlapping, but if one challenge demanded attention   this year, it was drought. GWP held a session on Cooperation for drought resilience (click on “Explore the programme”), asking participants to consider the integration of drought risk governance, monitoring, and action well beyond the longstanding actors. As GWP’s Senior Water & Climate Specialist Valentin Aich put it, “partnerships happen when private companies, civil society and government work together on something that was traditionally considered a government task.”

The focus continued with the session Connecting water, DRR and climate change: Towards World Water Forum (click on “Explore the programme”), which brought a disaster risk reduction (DRR) lens to water and drought with an eye to the upcoming Forum. Then, in a third event on the topic, GWP took the conversation to Innovative tools and approaches for hydro-climatic risk management (click on “Explore the programme”), sharing the latest tools and exploring the synergies between drought and flood risk mitigation.

Collective action now

The spirit of collective action is strong following the UN 2023 Water Conference, not least within the newly formed RETHINKING Coalition. In Stockholm, the session Rethinking collective action and investment planning for a water secure world (click on “Explore the programme”) allowed some of the diverse stakeholders to gather again, share lessons learned from past approaches, and use them as input to identify the root causes of the water crisis. GWP’s Global Water Leadership Programme Coordinator Lesley Pories declared, “The members of this coalition are committed to stepping outside of our respective roles and mandates and charting a new blueprint for collective action.”

Later, GWP’s Knowledge Management Assistant Yelysaveta Demydenko participated as a youth representative  in the High-Level Panel: Follow-up on the UN 2023 Water Conference (click on “Explore the programme”). Here, there was also acknowledgement that collaboration isn’t just about harmony. “Doing things differently requires listening to the criticism – after all innovation is born through disagreement,” Demydenko emphasised. Another session in the same spirit – addressing the most water-intensive sector, and one that is no stranger to disagreement – was the GWP-hosted Multi-stakeholder collaboration in agricultural water stewardship (click on “Explore the programme”).

IWRM Action Hub

The IWRM Action Hub was very visible at World Water Week and was among the online platforms and communities of practice featured in Collaborate to accelerate: Innovating for future-focused water security (click on “Explore the programme”). This session was for anyone wondering where multi-stakeholder collaboration is happening, and wanting to test, validate, and embed future-focused innovation in water. Participants interested in the communities and tools on the IWRM Action Hub then had an opportunity to join the on-site workshop Accelerating governance change through social innovation and communities of practice (click on “Explore the programme”), which equipped them with new tools for innovation before they returned home.

From the GWP Regions

This year’s World Water Week also allowed GWP regions to highlight their innovation approaches to achieving water security. TEC Chair Vadim Sokolov, representing GWP Central Asia and Caucasus, spoke on Enhancing local resilience through water-culture-innovation nexus. In a side event of great regional interest, GWP participated in the Global Consultation on accelerating the UN 2023 Water Agenda in Africa. GWP Southern Africa then convened a discussion on Strengthening partnerships to build drought resilience in Southern Africa, bringing the drought conversation to a regional level where the economic and human stakes are very high.GWP South America hosted a talk on Efficient use of water in the private sector in South America, whileGWP South Asia discussed Gender equity for inclusive water management in South Asia. Explore the programme to find out more about the regional sessions.

Of rules and values

Laws and well-enforced conventions will have to support, not hinder, innovation. At Promoting innovation in transboundary cooperation through Water Convention tools, participants discussed how the UN Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes could lead to that kind of support. GWP’s Senior Network & Transboundary Water Cooperation Specialist Yumiko Yasuda brought to the table a practical guide for the development of agreements supporting pan-African water governance and international water law training. Yelysaveta Demydenko also spoke at two back-to-back sessions on thorny issues of law and cooperation: Is international water law ready to face future challenges? and SIWI Corner: Transboundary water cooperation.

In another session, Values-based decision-making for innovative water governance, GWP’s IWRM & Knowledge Management Specialist Laurent-Charles Tremblay-Lévesque looked beyond rules to the values that shape them. “Recognising and reconciling the diverse values held by stakeholders engaged in water management is the cornerstone for attaining IWRM,” Tremblay-Lévesque said. This was a welcome reminder that values are behind everything we make – including our innovations.