Key takeaways from Stockholm World Water Week

Sept. 15, 2023
Innovative mindsets, holistic strategies and fresh funding approaches — three key takeaways emerged from Stockholm World Water Week.

In the few months between the milestone United Nations Water Conference in March and World Water Week in August, countless communities have been hit by whipsaw conditions of alternating floods and droughts exacerbated by wildfires, earthquakes and geopolitical conflicts.

Data released earlier this month by the World Resource Institute showed that 25 countries, housing one-quarter of the global population, now face extremely high water stress every year.

As wild swings in extreme weather and water stress become increasingly common, our mission to achieve the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 of ensuring access to water and sanitation for all grows more urgent. The reality is that we are falling behind.

A fragmented, country-by-country approach to modernizing water infrastructure is emerging. That must change. We need concrete ideas and actionable plans for how the international water community can support countries in accelerating progress to SDG 6. No single organization will solve water, but collectively we can break from the status quo and modernize our systems to be more efficient and less carbon-intensive.

That is why World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, is so crucial. Themed "Seeds of Change: Innovative Solutions for a Water-Wise World,” the event focused on innovation as a catalyst to kickstart the Water Action Agenda — a key outcome of the U.N. Water Conference in March.

Experts from the private, public, non-governmental, and academic sectors joined to explore the ideas and solutions needed to solve escalating water challenges, and the multi-stakeholder approaches required to accelerate innovation.

As the water industry strives to drive transformation, moving from water crises to water security, three key takeaways emerged:

Takeaway 1: The need for a holistic, strategic approach

We still have too much individualism, misalignment, and prioritization of personal agendas. This fragmented approach limits the development of common transformative goals and collaboration, which is in stark contrast to the holistic strategy required to ensure resilient and safe water systems.

We need to urgently clarify a model of governance and regulation that will drive performance and protect citizens — not just between utilities and businesses, but at a continental, even global level.

There is great power in the collective. For instance, in the European Union (E.U.), uniting the efforts of member states under a cohesive and adequately funded strategy is vital to meeting Europe’s economic and environmental ambitions.

This strategy should include an assessment to align water legislation with the E.U.’s climate, economic and digital objectives. It also requires a resource management plan and alignment of water directives that will ensure the long-term viability of the sector and a framework that promotes cross-sectoral innovation and decarbonization.

We need a similar approach in the U.S., where the President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) is calling for the creation of a Department of Water, or an equivalent cabinet-level agency, to deal with the looming water crisis and ongoing cybersecurity threats.

With November’s COP28 in the United Arab Emirates on the horizon, we have an opportunity to highlight the global need for water strategies that can unite local water governance, better protect global resources and address the climate crisis.

Climate mitigation and the resilience of water services are not conflicting objectives. We have plenty of examples around the globe that show these are complementary goals that can enable circular growth, drive cost reductions and facilitate massive possibilities in avoiding and reducing carbon emissions.

Takeaway 2: Fresh funding approaches to unlock transformation

Advanced technologies exist to make water and sanitation more accessible and affordable for all, but they are not getting to market quickly enough. Often, the reason behind the delay comes down to funding and the limitations of capital-focused public procurement regulation and rigid utility business models.

Currently, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that E.U. member states’ funding for water infrastructure is 20 to 30% below what is needed to deliver adequate access to water and sanitation. To move from plan to progress, a dedicated European Water Fund to support E.U. countries in their implementation efforts will be critical.

We have plenty of proof points on the financial merits of a variety of technologies — from the daily energy-cost savings of a high-efficiency pump to the long-term capital savings that nature-based treatment or a digitally enabled decision support system can deliver. However, pointing out that these solutions will quickly pay for themselves is not particularly useful if a water manager has no way to fund the upfront costs.

A key topic in Stockholm was the need to support healthy cash flow for water managers. We need to adopt new strategies that will support a long-term shift to cost-saving through driving efficiencies and identifying additional revenue streams from circular economy approaches – particularly those that view wastewater as a resource-rich asset, rather than merely a by-product to be disposed of.

One way to achieve this would be to increase government funding options that can be a catalyst to provide the short-term bridge toward the transformation of infrastructure. The E.U. taxonomy for sustainable activities will boost the number of loans available, but this process is still very much in its infancy.

To put it plainly, innovation is not just a question of technology. To accelerate the transformation of the water sector, we also need to embrace more innovative ways to fund and deliver our projects globally. We need to challenge the way we run businesses and pilot new financial models to deliver truly sustainable services.

Takeaway 3: Empowering young people to change mindsets

Outside of the need to adopt holistic approaches and identify new funding mechanisms, one proven way to inspire innovation and unlock transformation is to tap into the potential of our youth.

One inspiring event in Stockholm organized a group of motivated young people eager to tackle the greatest challenges of our time — the Stockholm Junior Water Prize (SJWP).

The current SJWP generation is inheriting plenty of problems. We have an obligation to empower them and embrace the innovative mindsets they have when it comes to solving them.

Take the winning project, developed by Naomi Park from the U.S.

The ocean absorbs nearly a third of airborne carbon dioxide emissions, alongside the 1.3 million gallons of crude oil spilled into it annually, to the detriment of marine biodiversity and human health. Park developed a method to simultaneously remove these contaminants using styrofoam, taking a troublesome waste product and using it to help solve pressing issues.

The water sector’s transformation will be driven by people, for people. It will be driven by those taking seats in government, managing wastewater treatment plants, and running innovative start-ups and companies. All of us need to challenge our current mindsets and listen to those bringing out-of-the-box thinking, such as the young talent that contributed to the SJWP.

In conclusion: The need for unity and healthy confrontation

In Stockholm, we, as a water sector, agreed that the transformation of the water sector needs a unified strategy including all stakeholders, the proper funding to support it, and a change in mindset.

However, change is not happening fast enough. Globally, stakeholders have a variety of incentives and agendas that are exacerbated by climate and socio-economic injustices.

A panel discussion entitled “Resilient Mitigation: Water as the Key to Unlocking GHG Goals” discussed the reality that, to accelerate our sustainable development goals and build comprehensive strategies, we must stop shying away from confrontation.

It is not enough to talk about transformation. We must be open to healthy and constructive conflict with policymakers and those from other sectors to approach problems with a collaborative mindset.

World Water Week is one of the best forums for moderating these confrontational conversations. This can be a catalyst to develop the new governance models and innovative approaches that we need to protect our water resources and provide resilient, affordable access to water and sanitation for all. 

About the Author

Alexis de Kerchove

Alexis de Kerchove is the senior director of client sustainability at Xylem. Since joining Xylem in 2011, he has had multiple global and regional management roles in Process Engineering, Business Strategy, and Vertical Marketing. With a pure-play background in the water sector, he is an expert in water and wastewater management.

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