World Water Development Report 2023: the importance of cooperation and partnerships

30 Mar 2023 by The Water Diplomat

World Water Development Report

The United Nations World Water Development Report 2023, dedicated to the theme of partnerships and cooperation for water, was launched on the 22nd of March 2023. The report emphasises the role of cooperation, emphasising the importance of partnerships in accelerating progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 6 on water and sanitation.

Although SDG6 consists of an ambitious framework of 8 targets and 11 indicators that capture different dimensions of the water cycle, currently, countries are still predominantly reporting on progress on the first three indicators – related to drinking water and sanitation – rather than on the newer indicators on water quality, water stress, integrated water resources management and water related ecosystems.  Since 2020, it has been clear that progress in achieving SDG 6 has been slow and that in some areas, efforts need to be quadrupled to achieve SDG 6 by 2030.

In the report, partnerships are presented as an important means to improve water governance and decision making, also by stimulating innovations and supporting efficiencies in implementation. A key example, as well as one of the foundations of agricultural water use, is the basic institutional building blocks of rural water use, i.e. Water User Associations. These WUA’s bring together water users around the management of a common resource, and if well managed, they provide an effective form of joint decision making, transparency and accountability around local water decisions. As urban areas continue to expand, in many areas they enter into direct competition with rural areas, and many governments have begun to cap agricultural water use in order to secure more water for urban areas.          

Another example of water partnerships is the partnerships that are formed around watershed protection: utilities have an interest in protecting watershed for long-term water security, rural communities have an interest in protecting themselves against both water shortages and floods. Water funds can bring together partners from a broad range of interests including cities, industries, rural communities and environmentalists to collectively invest in protection of upstream areas that preserve the integrity of the water cycle.         

In human settlements, effective stakeholder involvement in planning and implementation leads to services that are more appropriate to the needs and resources of poor communities and increases public acceptance and ownership of systems. Water operators’ partnerships (WOPs) connect established, well-functioning utilities with others that need assistance or guidance. The resulting improvements in capacity and performance can facilitate utilities’ access to financing for infrastructural investments, supporting further extensions or improvements in services.

In short, nearly every form of intervention in water requires some level of partnership. Such partnerships are by no means guarantees of success: as attested to many years ago by the likes of Elinor Ostrom, there are both positive and negative incentives to co-produce sustainable development outcomes. However, there is evidence to support the idea that some basic principles of successful cooperation exist. The first of these is that inclusive stakeholder participation promotes buy-in and ownership around public programmes. Secondly, diversity expands co-benefits and improves performance. If a diversity of actors with different interests manage to achieve collective action around commonly agreed objectives, this leads to a broad range of co-benefits and therefore improves performance. Thirdly, a broad and integrated approach that involves actors from outside the strict confines of the ‘water community’ can deliver a range of complementary solutions to a diversity of challenges. Fourth, the quality of  data underlying decision making is a key to effective decisions. Furthermore, an open and transparent exchange of data and information is also integral to effective cooperation and builds trust between partners. Fifth, collective action creates additional opportunities for financing: having a strong business case for investment depends strongly on the strength of institutional arrangements, and cooperation can serve to lower the barriers to investment.