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The SDGs bring a new sense of urgency, focus and realisation of the great challenge ahead.

It’s always difficult to distil the cacophony of Stockholm World Water Week into a set of handy soundbites. And there’s also always the danger of projecting the things you want to see onto the swirling mass of plenaries, workshops and serendipitous encounters in coffee bars. With that caveat, here are some impressionistic thoughts on what was bubbling in Stockholm this year.

IRC's CEO Patrick Moriarty wearing a WASH systems nerd t-shirt

Private finance

Finance for sure – and not just because I took part in a fascinating session on private finance and equity (about which more in next month’s Amplify). It’s great to see the World Bank’s still newish Global Water Practice thoroughly engaged and leading on this, and their new paper on commercial finance is an important addition to the debate. While finance is indeed crucial, and the blended financing stuff looks potentially promising, it’s important not to see it as the new silver bullet. The reality, as the Bank sets it out, is stark. We’re an order of magnitude away from the levels of finance needed to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (US$ 114 billion needed per year versus the US$ 16 billion per year that was spent between 2000-2015) – and while it’s easy to say that “public finance and tariffs can’t cover it” – there’s no proof yet that private finance can or will fill the gap. And of course in the end, it all has to come from either tariffs or public finance (in the form of subsidies) or possibly payment for nutrients or power (in sanitation) – the question for now is whether private money can ease the sector’s chronic cash-flow problems in the short term.

Sustainable Development Goals

The reason for the huge gap in finance is, of course, the jump in aspiration that’s embedded in the SDGs.  Particularly the quantum leap of moving from an “improved source” to a “safely managed drinking water service” – and let’s be clear, this leap is a very good thing!  The impact of the SDGs was omnipresent in Stockholm, and if something’s changed it is perhaps a new sense of reality and sophistication that this brings: a sense of reality framed by the JMP's latest report and the Banks number crunching. On a positive note, the SDGs are also, at least in some cases, leading to greater ambition and political will. Ghana’s first ever Minister for Sanitation and Water Resources (full disclosure – the Minister's attendance was partially supported by IRC) made a series of strong commitments to increased funding and progress; underlining the simple fact that without strong Government leadership the sort of sea change needed in the more off-track countries simply won’t happen. 

Local entrepreneurs

There’s no doubt that a big part of the solution is going to be provided by local private sector service providers, and this year’s Stockholm had an inspiringly broad set of “WASH as business” sessions, dealing with everything from small water enterprises to container based sanitation and faecal sludge management.  My feeling, and it’s just that, is that compared to five years ago many of these business models are now proved and replication ready.  Perhaps as important, there’s a far greater sense of realism as to what scaling and replication will involve: patient capital but, likely more important, buy in and financial support from local government.  Because, while it’s great to highlight the potential for the private sector to step in – whether as service providers or financiers – it will only happen where they see that Government is serious.

Agenda for Change

On the WASH Systems side of things, it was great to take part in our third Agenda for Change breakfast where we were happy to be able to welcome new members to the club (CARE, Splash and Water for Good).  We were also able to share real progress since last year, in particular a first draft of the Agenda for Change’s “roadmap” - setting out the “how to” of WASH systems strengthening in our partner districts and countries.  While not all members of the Agenda for Change, it was equally exciting to have been part of a pre-Stockholm meeting of large group of partners working together on the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s ambitious new Water Strategy: a strategy that is fully aligned with Agenda for Change principles and approaches.  And lastly, a shout out for the World Bank’s newly published research on “Rural Water Supply: Metrics for Sustainability”, developed by Agenda for Change partner Aguaconsult supported by IRC’s Stef Smits and using a similar building block approach.

Summing up, the challenges posed by the SDGs are becoming increasingly clear, along with the acknowledgement that solving them is going to take vast increase in sums of money and dedication from Governments – and all of us.  While it’s great to see more and more business solutions moving beyond the proof of concept stage, there’s still a way to go in terms of seeing these as realistic recipients of large-scale investment.  And, ending on a glass-half-full note, there’s welcome growth in the sophistication of discussions and of solutions being put forward.  The sector is moving and, I feel, accelerating. Fast enough? Only time will tell.

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Disclaimer

At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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