Five key takeaways from World Water Week 2021

IWMI participated in a record 31 sessions at this year’s virtual event. Here are some of our key takeaways.

This year’s World Water Week ran just two weeks after the release of the IPCC Working Group 1 report, which warned that humanity is facing ‘code red’ thanks to the climate crisis. To some degree, the report, and its overwhelming message of urgent need for change, dominated the virtual event’s sessions.

Watering crops at sunset. Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI
Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI

Henrika Thomasson, Director of World Water Week and Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) Communications finished the week with this striking comment: “There is water in everything. The water cycle is broken. We need to fix it. And the result of this week shows that we can. I hope that people look back on World Water Week 2021, and say ‘That was it, that was when the world began to focus on water’.”

IWMI participated in a record 31 sessions at this year’s virtual event. Here are some of our key takeaways:

  1. Young people must be involved

Executive Director of SIWI, Dr Torgny Holmgren expressed how good it was to see new faces at this year’s World Water Week. “We have experienced new connections being made between new and old partners, working together to find solutions to the problems we’re facing across the globe, and that’s what I’ll take with me to the future.”

As part of the week, 38 young rapporteurs from across the world took part in all the sessions and kept track of the actionable solutions.

Youth was frequently discussed in IWMI’s sessions too. One of the key messages that came out of the session ‘Breaking the Silos’, says Stefan Uhlenbrook, Strategic Program Director at IWMI, is that young people can and should be involved in creating change in the water sector.

“Youth are eager to make a change beyond simply using social media,” he says. “Governments, private companies, international organizations and NGOs should embrace risks, and dare to give opportunities to youth and young professionals.

“One of the ways they can do this is by promoting youth empowerment by facilitating capacity building, providing fair internships, and ensuring entry-level employment opportunities exist in the water sector.”

  1. We can’t just view water in isolation

If we simply view water as a separate entity that needs to be ‘solved’, there’s a very good chance it won’t be. “It is increasingly realized that water plays a very central role, but cross-sectoral cooperation with other sectors (food, energy, ecosystems, urban development) is critical,” says Uhlenbrook. “Moving from a water-centric view to a multi-centric approach across scales is required.” Referencing the theme of World Water Week 2021, he adds that “Achieving resilience faster is critical to respond to the challenge of climate change, to minimize effects of possible future pandemics, and to develop along more sustainable pathways.”

Rachael McDonnell, IWMI’s Deputy Director General, agrees. “In various seminars, the need to find solutions through breaking down silos and thinking across sectors and other boundaries was critical,” she says. “Not all water solutions are found in the water sector, with agriculture developments of particular importance. The role of the finance and the private sectors were of vital importance in the scaling of these solutions.”

  1. The climate crisis loomed large throughout discussions

The specter of the latest IPCC Working Group 1 findings remained present during World Water Week events and discussions.

“The water cycle is going to continue to be highly disrupted, which has implications for our communities and economies,” says McDonnell. “The focus on climate resilience, the central theme of Stockholm World Water Week, ensured the challenges and solutions were highlighted in many of the sessions.”

One young rapporteur, Chipango Kimboyo, interviewed during the closing plenary, spoke to the need to ‘build more resilient and fair societies’ and a ‘drive to get away from business as usual’ to solve the climate crisis.

  1. We need to amplify discussions around water

McDonnell hopes this year’s conversations are amplified and expanded beyond the water community in the months and years ahead. “The solutions to climate adaptation are complex and need to involve multiple ministries, multiple companies, and multiple actors,” she says.

“One arena explored in various sessions was the role of nature as a moderator of climate change and this has to be expanded going forward to ensure multiple areas of impact across some of our biggest global challenges are met. COP26 will carry this theme forward and hopefully further invigorate and catalyze the changes and engagement needed.

“Part of that amplification must include strong communications. Having good research is one thing, but communicating it effectively, and not just preaching to the choir, will highlight the urgency and relevance of water across other sectors too.”

Speaking during the closing remarks of the ‘Rice Fish’ session, McDonnell said: “We, as scientists, need to shout louder about our case studies, the numbers, and the evidence and benefits of our work… and think about how we can articulate new ways of thinking that allows development and tradeoffs”.

  1. Covid-19 has exacerbated water inequalities and further highlighted the need for resilience

Covid-19 has shown how important it is for everyone to have access to clean, safe water. Several of this year’s sessions examined the impact of Covid-19 on water, sanitation and hygeine (WASH), but also explored the crucial role of decentralized water services and the importance of their resilience to external shocks.

The World Bank and Isle Utilities convened one particularly informative session in this regard, highlighting the impact of Covid-19 on sanitation facilities and drawing on data from a worldwide survey. “Inadequate access to WASH is so important during Covid-19, specifically for the 1.5 billion people across the globe who work in global supply chains,” says VK Madavan, from WaterAid India.

“The recovery from Covid-19 presents an opportunity to build resilience in food systems,” adds Alvin Lopez from the Asian Development Bank. “We require a more integrated food systems approach to boost natural capital, public health, climate resilience, and nutrition security in the medium to long term.”

During the ‘Carrot, sticks, equity: managing over-pumped groundwater sustainably’ session, Mark Smith, Director General at IWMI, flagged how groundwater can play a pivotal role in reducing inequality. “Where there are vast groundwater stores, are also often places where there are over-pumped aquifers. It’s clear using groundwater can improve livelihoods and income… New approaches are being piloted and tested: more sustainable approaches, including fallowing and wastewater reuse,” he adds. All these elements can support a more sustainable water management system, highlighting the need for resilience as water inequality grows.

We want to hear from you!
Did you attend Stockholm World Water Week? Which were your favorite sessions and key takeaways from this year’s event? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

To find out more about IWMI’s participation in this year’s proceedings in Stockholm, check out our World Water Week 2021 landing page.


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