‘Implementation, implementation, implementation – just not necessarily in that order’

Leaders at 2016 World Water Week posed the crucial question of ‘how?’
Barry Aliman, 24 years old, bicycles with her baby to fetch water for her family, Sorobouly village near Boromo, Burkina Faso. Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

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“Implementation, implementation, implementation – just not necessarily in that order.”

This was the response of Angel Gurria, Secretary-General of OECD, when asked at Stockholm’s World Water Week what three priority strategies the water sector should be focusing on this year.

Stockholm — known as ‘the city on water’ — hosted the annual event for the 26th year, and this year’s theme was ‘Water for Sustainable Growth’. Much of the focus in the opening plenary centered primarily on celebrating the adoption of the sixth Sustainable Development Goal, on water and sanitation, and how it can be achieved. It was further posited how water could be positioned as an enabler for achieving many, if not all, of the other SDGs.

It was also emphasized that while 2015 was a productive year in terms of identifying targets and creating mandates, 2016 ought to be the time when these commitments are transformed into action. Finally, there seemed to be a reasonably universal agreement that such progress was only likely to be made by developing holistic solutions that integrated the objectives of multiple sectors.

There were two striking observations to be made from these early discussions. First, the parallels between the objectives of the water sector and those of the forestry (and presumably the agriculture, energy, industry, fishery etc.) sector(s) are apparent. Did the forestry sector celebrate the inclusion of target 15.2? Yes. Is there commitment to implementation efforts? Yes. Is there a perception that achieving forestry commitments is fundamental to the fulfillment of other SDGs? Yes. Are holistic solutions being pursued? Yes. Indeed, it appeared at times that if the term ‘water’ was substituted for ‘forest’, this could conceivably be a ‘World Forestry Week’. This is, however, encouraging as it clearly strengthens support for the notion of integration as a potential catalyst for progress.

The second observation is perhaps a cause for concern: while water is understandably the central focus and the sector was very well represented, the underrepresentation of other sectors (forestry, agriculture, the private sector and so on) was noticeable. This presents the question: how to achieve integration when the people being preached to are the already converted?

Challenges and solutions

As the week progressed, the congruence between water and forests moved beyond shared objectives to include both challenges and solutions. The challenges will resonate well with those in the forestry sector: a lack of political will, a misalignment of political objectives with technical capacities, questions about how to achieve gender equity, a lack of engagement from the private sector, a weak business case for investment in the sector, a need for a reliable monitoring framework, unclear strategies on how to incentivize commitments beyond project cycles and so on.

Interestingly, and somewhat depressingly, the solutions that were offered were similarly familiar: a greater commitment from all state and non-state stakeholders toward achievement of the SDGs, a requirement for governments to have coordinated policies to address targets across goals (with water fundamental to all), the development of a monitoring system that can provide regular evaluation of progress, improved management of natural resources, more sustainability and accountability requirements from the commercial sector, an improved dialogue with the private sector, and, of course, a more integrated multi-sectoral approach.

Sadly lacking from many of the discussions was the tricky question of how these fairly broad and generic solutions are going to be practically configured. It could even be argued that what are presented here are in fact not solutions at all, but merely recommendations.

However, herein potentially lies an opportunity. Perhaps it is not actually “solutions” that we should be looking for. Despite the ambitions of the SDGs, the global challenges of poverty, hunger, water security, and biodiversity conservation are not going to be solved in the near term. Therefore, rather than solutions we should be concentrating efforts on integrated approaches to better governing these issues.

It was noted that the SDGs provide a useful framework for action, and the very clearly defined set of targets certainly illustrate at the global scale what needs to be done. And despite the sectorial nature of the individual goals perhaps increasing the propensity for sectorial solutions, the call for holism seems to have been heeded.

At a sub-national level (where implementation efforts will be realized) efforts appear to remain in a developmental stage. Despite having implementation challenges of its own, an integrated landscape approach as a conceptual framework offers a potential starting point. With a focus on multi-stakeholder dialogue and adaptive management, a landscape approach attempts to integrate policy and practice, and better balance objectives to stimulate more sustainable landscapes.

With the fourth Global Landscape Forum scheduled for November, we have a forum that encourages sectors to engage beyond their silos, and it will be interesting to see if further progress can be made on integration, implementation and, importantly, the ‘how’ issue.

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