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Published on: 30/05/2024

How does high-level political commitment drive change? And will it propel us faster towards achieving universal access to sanitation and water: a world where everyone is guaranteed full enjoyment of their rights to water and sanitation.

That was the challenge set by Laura Chinchilla, the former president of Costa Rica during the access to sanitation and water session of the Bandung Spirit Water Summit of the 10th World Water Forum. Her remarks set the stage for 90 minutes of dialogue on sanitation and water services between former Heads of States / Government and sector stakeholders.

Political leadership prioritising water and sanitation

We heard about the political leadership that is prioritising sanitation and water around the world. India, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic are some recent examples. But these are still exceptions. The Heads of State Initiatives, launched in 2023, is supporting partners to engage the highest levels of political power and working to increase the number of political leaders that make sanitation and water a priority. Leading up to the 10th WWF in Bali, the outgoing president of Indonesia published a decree making enhanced commitment to water and sanitation a key part of his legacy. All countries can show such leadership. 

While drinking water might be less trendy than digital transformation, no city or country will prosper without it, Laura Chinchilla reminded us. “Water and sanitation are arteries of development”. 

“When there is political will, there is a way…even if you are not a rich country”. As president of Chile serving two terms, Michelle Bachelet had a huge agenda working across all kinds of water challenges. How many heads of state can roll off such a comprehensive water agenda as they look back on their period in office? It needed a long-term vision, says Michelle Bachelet, but there are elections every four years, and the big strategies rarely attract attention or votes. Another challenge is the breadth of the nature of water issues and the large number of agencies involved. In Chile, the appointment of a tsar or coordinator on water was vital to produce a strong and coherent response across government. 

The previous World Water Forum was held in Senegal. This was one step along the path of leadership that Senegal has also been taking to elevate the issue of water. They have been a leader in the Continental Africa Water Investment Programme (AIP) and will likely co-organise the next major UN-conference with United Arab Emirates. Cheikh Tidiane Dieye, Minister of Hydraulics and Sanitation, Senegal sees financing as the big problem, calling for much more global solidarity to make finance available at low cost where it is needed. 

Interestingly, Saroj Kumar Jha, the World Bank Group's Water Global Practice Director, frames the challenge differently. “We don’t have a water crisis, we have a water management crisis”. He reminds us that developing country governments allocate less than 2% of their budgets to water, and too big a chunk of that is not even spent. He makes a strong call for national leadership. “You can’t expect a difference with 2%”. “This is not leadership”. Arguing that lots has been done to build a finance pipeline, the immediate challenge is governance and more transparency. Particularly the creditworthiness and accountability of utilities. Too many don’t even audit and produce reports. Governance, he says, is the first step to get money flowing. “We have good conversations globally but leadership on this has to come from countries”. 

A global movement inspiring the most forward-thinking leaders

It takes strong leadership to get all the right policies and strategies in place, to mobilise domestic resources, and to get those finance flows working, says Cecilia Scharp (UNICEF's Head of WASH, Climate and Environment). That’s why with the Sanitation and Water for All partnership, the Government of the Netherlands, the WASH think tank IRC, and other partners have created the Heads of State Initiatives (HOSI). It tries to nurture “a global movement inspiring the most forward-thinking leaders”. We need to celebrate the commitment in Indonesia says Cecilia Scharp, but also South Sudan who will shortly sign the first compact in Africa.  

The tagline of the 10th WWF - water for shared prosperity – while laudable ended up feeling perhaps a bit naïve. At times the mood in Bali was more critical, especially from marginalised stakeholders and youth. Michelle Bachelet had also made the point in the Bandung Spirit Water Summit session that leadership and good governance give space to all perspectives and voices in water decision taking.    

At the same time, the parallel People’s Water Forum that was scheduled to be held 40 kms away, was closed down. 

In current times, the weaponization of water in war is a terrible development. It is illegal but that does not stop it happening. A wider concern about the broken system of international cooperation lies behind this. The rules are being broken.  

It needs another kind of leadership. Looking back to the 1955 Bandung Conference, which was followed up by the Non-aligned Movement and even the setup of the UN itself, there is hope that the UN could be reformed and be made fit for purpose in a new world.  

So, a couple of big challenges were put front and centre in Bali. The 10th WWF is calling for political leadership in countries, and globally to drive a new era of water cooperation. 

Acknowledgements: This blog was compiled by John Butterworth, Vida Duti and Erma Uijtewaal 

IRC participated last week in the 10th World Water Forum held in Bali, Indonesia


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