During a session at World Water Week in Stockholm convened by UN-Water and the Global Water Partnership (GWP), participants were challenged to adopt innovative approaches towards data, finance, governance and capacity development. These topics had previously been identified as the main driving factors within the SDG 6 Global Acceleration Framework launched in 2020, when concern was already raised about the pace of SDG 6 implementation. The working session revolved around two main axes, i.e. ‘storytelling’- a sharing of experiences in the field of innovation by leading global water organisations – and the harnessing of existing commitments in the context of the Water Action Agenda.
Joakim Harlin, Chief, Freshwater Ecosystems Unit at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), opened with a summary of current global water challenges and highlighted the need for innovation. Harling emphasized that to meet the 2030 global water goals, we need to accelerate by a factor of between two and six times the current progress. He explained how the SDG 6 Global Acceleration Framework, launched in 2020, was the UN system’s response towards accelerating progress, and that innovation in this context includes but also goes beyond technological solutions, and should include policies, management practices and institutions, which should be taken to scale.
Colin Herron, Senior Water Resources Management Specialist at GWP, moderated the session and argued that innovation is the antidote to business-as-usual: to achieve global targets innovation must be adopted at every level and in every organisation.
In a keynote speech, Bernard Koh, Assistant Chief Executive at the Public Utilities Board of Singapore , (PUB) shared the journey that his country had gone through over the last 60 years, going from a situation where there was no proper sewage facilities and discharge controls, turning rivers into open sewers, and seasonal floods occurring regularly in low lying areas, especially when intense rain coincided with high tides, in the 1960s, to a country in the present day with 100% access to safe managed drinking water (SDG 6.1.1) and sanitation (SDG 6.2.1a) services. This success story, captured in an SDG 6 Country Acceleration Case Study, had required the adoption of several innovations, such as leveraging technology to overcome water constraints, enhancing water resilience through water recycling and desalination, thus using every drop of water repeatedly. He explained the fact that PUB manages the entire water cycle, which facilitates long-term planning and efficiency. Furthermore, he described how water is high on the political agenda in Singapore, dominating every other policy, and guiding long-term plans and goals, and that water is priced to reflect the value of its scarcity.
In the following section, four high-level panellists were invited to tell stories about their innovation successes. The first speaker, David Duncan, who leads the UNICEF Office of Innovation Sustainable WASH Innovation Hub as a Senior Advisor, spoke about the Sanitation Revolving Fund as applied in Ghana. The story started six years previously, when, realising that large part of the population were using public toilets and couldn’t pay for their own private toilets, UNICEF realised that the underlying problem was that the cost of interest rates for micro-finance was too high. UNICEF started looking at reducing construction costs, but really only took the edge off the problem at first, and therefore defined an approach with microfinance from banks, which made interest rates more attractive. However, getting internal approval for this approach was challenging, since facilitating loans was not typically UNICEF’s support model. Ultimately this innovative method was approved and successfully implemented and has led to thousands of homes getting their own toilets, with sufficient quality data to give financial institutions confidence that it could go to scale. He highlighted that institutional change is difficult but worth it, and that, during implementation, it is important to continue learning on your feet.
The second speaker in this section was Gustavo Saltiel, Global Lead for Water Supply and Sanitation at the World Bank, who spoke about an innovative lending instrument, which was payment by results, which was first implemented at the World Bank eight years previously. This approach, a dramatic change in the modalities of multilateral organisations, was first tested in rural sanitation in Egypt. Through this approach, the Bank disbursed funds against specific performance indicators, using the country’s system of safeguards, rather than the Bank’s. He explained that this new way of working had supported a shift towards service delivery as the objective, rather than an exclusive focus on building infrastructure, employing appropriate technology for the specific purpose required. Such a process had required a strengthening of the accountability and transparency mechanisms, through independent verification protocols, which helped the Bank to know whether the results were being achieved. It had implied a pathbreaking system of fiscal transfers, wherein the Bank disbursed funds to the national government, which in turn disbursed to sub-national governments, with the participation in some cases of civil society organisations and the private sector.
Third up was Cheryl Hicks, Senior Advisor, CEO Water Mandate, who focused on the CEO Water Mandate’s leadership initiative, the Water Resilience Coalition (WRC), with an elevated set of corporate ambitions, working through collective actions to achieve net positive water impact in 100 of the world’s most water stressed basins by 2030. The initiative started with the recognition that the business community could play a unique role in accelerating progress on water, and that action needs to be coordinated to have impact at scale, recognising that even the most pioneering leaders cannot achieve water security and resilience without working collaboratively. Beyond on-the-ground projects, this interest in driving collaborative solutions is also taking numerous forms. She presented two such examples, first corporate collaborative and targeted investments in water, going beyond philanthropy, through a portfolio approach which identifies capital market mechanisms that companies can jointly invest in, for shared impact. The first such co-investment was announced in March 2023, with five WRC corporate members contributing to a $140 million microfinance fund for water and sanitation access, with a pipeline of investment opportunities being identified in the billions. Secondly, she highlighted a collaboration with the European Space Agency to digitise water diagnostics and monitoring at the basin scale, to inform future investment decisions. In both cases, she highlighted that the innovation was companies going beyond their direct operations, leveraging their unique business expertise to address common water challenges.
Finally in this section, Abou Amani, Director of the Division of Water Sciences and Secretary of the Intergovernmental Hydrological Programme (IHP) at UNESCO, told a story about the SDG 6 Capacity Development Initiative, an innovative example of how the whole UN system was coming together to collectively accompany countries on the ground to identify and fill their capacity gaps to achieve SDG 6. He described how this process, which is driven by the demand by countries, with high-level national ownership, starts with a capacity needs assessment, putting in place a country-specific plan to meet those needs, in full collaboration with local partners, thus ensuring the appropriateness of support and buy-in from beneficiaries. He explained that the process was being piloted in two countries, Panama and Costa Rica, with an iterative learning process, and could soon be used for replication in other countries.
In the ensuing debate, panellists pointed to a range of issues involved in acceleration such as – amongst others - the need for ‘step changes’ rather than smaller, incremental progress, the importance of engaging strong local champions to increase the reach of government, as well as public sector innovation in the field of procurement processes.
In an interactive exercise focusing on solving the water- related challenges of a fictitious urban setting, Alexis de Kerchove, Senior Director, Client Sustainability at Xylem; Akanksha Jain from the Swiss Water Partnership Youth; and Christine Colvin, Head of Policy, Freshwater at WWF International traded ideas. The panellists agreed that essential elements include collaboration and good governance; sustainable financial strategies at a regional level (which exist for most other sectors); the need for an adaptable new cohort of experts in water, merging science and engineering, to work with AI; and democratising data. Other comments made highlighted the length of time needed to achieve change, the need to increase efficiency in the agricultural sector; understanding and rethinking the economic models that led to the degradation, embracing and empowering people, and focusing on doing the basics better before thinking of AI and technology.
In closing, Colin Herron highlighted the creative process of bringing together different solutions from the Water Action Agenda to achieve impacts on SDG 6. He noted that combining the 820 commitments of the Water Action Agenda would be an innovative pathway towards greater impact. He invited the audience to become innovation champions, taking home the mindset that innovation could help them achieve better solutions, working across sectors and stakeholder groups. On behalf of UN-Water, Mary Matthews, UNDP’s Interim Senior Technical Advisor Water and UNDP Ocean Advisor & Ocean Innovation Challenge Manager, noted that if the rest of the world doesn’t understand the water problems it faces, it will be difficult to make hard changes. She stated that there are many examples of great innovations, including those from Nature, and we should all help each other to learn from them. Noting that we have little time, and may have overshot the mark already, she insisted on starting now, adding that we need to incubate and fund innovations to help them pilot and grow, to transform the world we live in.