Last Friday was the closing day of the sixth World Water Forum in Marseille. If fora are the places where solutions are to be found, initiated or co-created, what solutions did this forum yield? One may appreciate the efforts the host organization made in organizing the forum and in organizing a whole range of technical field trips along with it. To answer the question that possibly triggered you to read this blog, I was not. I did not attend. Was I supposed to attend? Well, it depends on who I am, what the purpose of the forum was and who their prospective participants were.
Thanks to the advocacy of our own ministries quite a number of players from the Dutch and Dutch-related international knowledge infrastructure were present at the forum. When I met someone working with a consultancy firm responsible for a substantial water program in the Netherlands last Friday I asked him the same question? What would his firm have to gain from the World Water Forum. His answer was clear - not much. To his understanding the forum consisted of quite an incrowd of people that like to see their names appear in highly regarded scientific magazines and publish articles that will support their status as experts. And I have to say, reviewing the website I saw the name of my former director Dr. Safwat Abdel Dayem appear, questioning the moderators where and how he could post his solution. He was an important figure to me in my first encounter with the Dutch water sector abroad, while working for the Drainage Research Program in Egypt. Not only important for me, but also for teamleader of my project, and as soon learnt for a whole bunch of engineers that tried to contribute their technical knowledge into Egyptian water management.
The Egyptian-Dutch relations were well developed and to my understanding a much larger percentage of people living in the Nile delta owed their reasonbly well functioning water infrastructure to the Dutch connection. How come I never came accross any ICCO's, Oxfam's or any other NGO at the time? I only knew about government departments, Dutch consultants and Egyptian counterparts, all in a myriad of friendly (and sometimes less friendly) relationships. I definately gained a lot and should still thank Dr. Safwat for his contribution to the jumpstart of my career. My most successful contribution to the Egyptian water sector was getting the Mohandis Zarf (drainage engineer) and Mohandis Rai (irrigation engineers) talking to each other about controlled drainage. Two departments in one government office of the Ministry of Public Works and Water Resources and even the Ministry of Agriculture participated! I belief it was there where the first seeds for the ¥OURWORLD initiative were sown. Different worlds, meeting each other. I abstained from the deliberations agreeing for the workshop language to be Arabic. I only made sure some minutes were taken, and only after the workshop was finished I had a clue about what had ben discussed (eventhough I could express my basic needs like bread and water in Arabic).
So where are we now? At a forum of the type in Marseille also different worlds are supposed to meet. One major challenge, many scientists reflecting on it, each offering their insights. Did these bring new solutions? I observed a few outsiders bringing in some language that most of the participants may have felt a little bit uncomfortable with. Corbatjev and Izabella Teixeira, Environment Minister of Brasil made some sharp observations as also reflected upon in my article at the U® learning and exchange space. The Brasilian Minister pointed to the endless string of conferences serving to polish the profiles of individuals, clearly challenging the very existence of the forum to which she had been invited, confirming the view of the individual I talked to last Friday.
So then, what is there to gain from fora such as the World Water Forum? Wanting to re-engage myself with the water sector I felt I had a possible solution. Where two departments do not seem to communicate, have them both talk with yet another department. Suddenly they will find out that they speak the same language. Any outsiders presence offers the possility to explore other venues and windows of opportunity unseen before. I therefore challenge the water sector to make an effort to open up to the unusual suspects. A first promising presence of a civil society stream in this forum is much appreciated. However, don't limit these to water related client organisations. Invite those with entirely different interests and focus areas. Some may use the water for healing purposes (holy water in Ethiopia), for sanctification purpose (Ganges water in India) and for the establishment of political boundaries. The real solutions may not be found in the technical. They may need to be be found in the spiritual, societal and political. Though quite a bit of civil society presence acknowledged this potential contribution, it did not substantially influence the engineers' debate. Who knows, the die hard water engineering companies may also soften up and those absent this time may regain interest in joining the debate as they have to deal with people's realities all the time while designing public infrastructure, whether acknoledged by the cliient organization during the project inception phase or not.
(unfortunately this solution did not make it to the www.solutionsforwater.org website due to some technical constraints with registration)
My name is Reinier van Hoffen.
Click here for a summary.
Also find the text of a lecture Dr. Achterhuis held at the 2012 Bilderberg conference.