Friday Re-cap – Closing Plenary

Here are three key messages that I took from the Closing Plenary session at Stockholm World Water Week.
  1. Women and girls are disproportionately responsible for water gathering, responsible for management of water on smallholder farms, and are under-represented in decision-making in water related issues.
  2. Eliminating food waste is the “low hanging fruit” for increasing the amount of food available globally, without extra water, land, or inputs.
  3. The private sector is critical for any long-term sustainable management of food and water resources.

Here are my full thoughts.

Women and girls are disproportionately responsible for water gathering

Lakshmi Puri at 2012 World Water Week.
Copyright Patrick Keys, All Rights Reserved.

Women spend more than 200 million hours per day collecting water.

– Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director of UN WOMEN

That number is horrifying. 200 million hours every day. 200 million. In a given week that is a billion hours. Can you imagine what a billion hours of extra (productive?) time could mean for the world? Lakshmi Puri  gave an amazing presentation about the gross inequity that exists with regard to women and their responsibility for managing water globally. Based on her presentation, I was astonished that there was not a greater emphasis on the disproportionate representation and involvement of women, during the weeks events. “We need to recognize women as water resource engineers and managers.”

Lakshmi Puri suggested that inequity in access to water for women perpetuates “the intergenerational transfer of poverty and disempowerment.” The fact that this transfer of poverty and disempowerment disproportionately affects women and girls needs much, much more attention – and action.

Eliminating food waste is the “low-hanging” fruit

“25% of irrigation water is lost due to food waste,”

– Line Gordon, Assistant Professor at Stockholm Resilience Centre

The volume of wasted food is staggering, and the volume of water to create that wasted food even more so. Apparently, about 30-50% of food is lost ‘from field to fork’ (link to IWMI’s 2008 report) as a result of: 1. on-farm lack of storage, 2. use as animal feed (which doesn’t produce meat and dairy), and 3. loss in distribution and at the household level. See the figure below, from the 2008 IWMI report.

The discussion of food waste (necessarily) entered into the discussion of overconsumption. “We can reduce consumption and still have a very good lifestyle,” said Colin Chartres, Director General of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). This was echoed the day before by Dr. Aditi Mukherjee of IWMI, this year’s Norman Borlaug Field Research and Innovation award recipient, when she said “”We should be talking about per-capita consumption.”  She called for a  greater focus to be placed on developed world overconsumption, rather than only focusing on unsustainable groundwater use in the developing world. Although I don’t think that we should focus on one and not the other, I do think that she is absolutely right that it makes know sense to focus all our efforts on farmers who are trying to feed themselves and their families, while having almost no focus on developed world consumers making themselves fatter and fatter.

This overconsumption discussion inevitably led to a discussion of nutrition and why people are so fat. Peter Bulcke, Nestle’s Chief, said “In the developed world we have taken away the sovereign responsibility of people. We should bring that back.” I tend to agree with this in part. In the US in particular, people are always looking for someone else to blame for their problems (e.g. “McDonalds made me fat”, “My job is really stressful, so I have to eat fast food”, etc). Sadly, this refrain is all to familiar, and although its completely ironic that its coming from a company chief that sells (among other things) COOKIES, for behavioral change to actually take place at a deep level, at some point people need to take ownership of their own dietary decisions.

The private sector is critical

A fantastic speech was given by Peter Bakker, of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD). “I don’t think planet Earth is talking to us anymore; she is screaming at us.” He directly compared the number of children that died (1200) during the World Water Week gala the night before. He suggested that we shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back and spending tons of money on those types of activities when there is so much other work that needs to be done. I actually think I agree. I wonder how much money would be saved by having a very modest event with food eaten in a cafeteria, etc. $10,000? Maybe $20,000? More?

…you should really eat vegetarian at these places

– Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development

Likewise, he made an astute observation (that myself and my fellow junior rapporteurs made earlier in the week), that “you should really eat vegetarian at these places.” Especially with regard to all the chatter about waste, overconsumption of animal products, the observation that the World Water Week contains a very water-intensive diet is worth changing.

Something else I liked from his speech was that he defined a term. Followers of this blog will know I like to discuss definitions, but he went for defining “sustainability” as –

Sustainability is ‘9 billion people living well, and within the limits of the planet.

– Peter Bakker

An excellent, though general, hope for the world. He acknowledges that everyone should ‘live well’ implying not starving and having clean water to drink. He does observe that not everyone will be to afford the same suit that he is wearing, but that doesn’t mean they can’t live well. The observation that there are limits to the planet is also critical, and he goes a step further than everyone else by observing that without agreeing peacefully about how to manage our resources, that those resources will be taken from one another by force. We don’t live in a Kumbaya world, but rather a world where if governance fails, there exists a vacuum of lawlessness. A sobering, but necessary, reminder

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Any way you slice it, the Closing Plenary session was far more insightful and informative than I ever expected it would be. Finally, a classic moment was during the youth presentation there was a request to see hands of who would be retiring in 10 years. It was a forest of arms… To me this suggests that there needs to be stronger engagement with the brightest youngest members of the water resources community to ensure that the leaders of tomorrow can learn from the successes and more importantly, the failures, of the leaders of today.