Monday, 13 September 2010

WHOSE KNOWLEDGE COUNTS AT WORLD WATER WEEK 2010?

by Timothy Karpouzoglou, research student, SPRU

World Water Week (WWW) 2010 is over, leaving me with some questions. Is WWW really about "opening up" or about "closing down" the debate on water resource management?

The overall theme for this year WWW has been water quality. WWW aims "to highlight positive action and new thinking towards water related challenges and their impact on the world’s environment" and also to "deepen the understanding of, stimulate ideas, and engage the water and development community around the challenges related to water quality". These are all valid and urgent concerns in moving the debate forward.

So what is this new thinking? Some of it can be seen as more of the old thinking restated with today’s policy buzzwords. "Water quality" is still decided by scientists, talking to scientists about the science behind the solutions. The framing of the problem was often about the right technology. Common effluent treatment plants and wastewater treatment plants are commonly-suggested solutions, even if the costs associated are too high and unaffordable in many parts of the developing world.

However, it was good to see the importance of stakeholder participation being included even in some more technically-centred debates, even if it was not always clear what type of participation is desired. Maybe participation is about "letting the people find the solutions themselves", as one engineer from the Pakistan Water Authority wholeheartedly supported.

Encouragingly, juxtaposed with the general air of technological optimism, ideas about "non-linearity", "complexity" and "resilience" have also entered the debate. Friday’s session on resilience, uncertainty and tipping points, convened by the Stockholm International Water Institute, provided a new perspective and sparked a lot of debate. The session was also interesting because it encouraged people to think across each other’s own research and professional experiences. But it seemed to me that social concerns - and particularly the importance of poorer communities that are dependent on vulnerable ecological contexts - were not touched upon enough. How can "systems" thinking become more relevant to the concerns of poorer and ecologically marginalized people?

More generally, my experiences at World Water Week 2010 have also made me wonder: for whom is this event most important? What kind of dialogue can WWW achieve? The clearly divided opinions highlighted by the session on the World Commission on Dams+10 present the challenge of how dialogue can move forward, when the norm is for people to agree to disagree. For those working on water and sanitation, this challenge is not easily solved.

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