“Water for Sustainable Growth” — What are we talking about here?

Guest blog by Galen Hecht

Report from World Water Week, Stockholm, August 28-September 2, 2016

“We need a circular economy,” a different model, one that defies the structures that our lawmakers are accustomed to. To achieve water security and sanitation, we need a model that will create self supporting systems, an economy based not on linear growth, but on natural cycles like that of water. This was the resounding message at the finale of World Water Week, spoken by Pablo Bereciartua, Argentina’s Undersecretary for Water Resources, and Torkil Jonch Clauser, of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) who hosted the event.

Bereciartua, Clauser, and myriad other speakers outlined the need for clear action to be taken in water and sanitation worldwide. In the last year, water and sanitation were finally given status as a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). SDG 6 states that by 2030 there must be access to clean drinking water and sanitation for all the world. But SDG status does not mean much without implementation, Bereciartua said “there is consensus on the issue but no course of action.” And to create actions that are economically feasible and can be implemented functionally is a major hurdle.

Before I go on, I will just say that “water” in this context generally applies to drinking water and water for agriculture, and “sanitation” applies to wastewater treatment, clean facilities, clean rivers, lakes, and aquifers, and so on. Visit SWA Water Australia for wastewater treatment services.

During the opening plenary, Margot Wallstrom, Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs gave a grounding speech that lit upon the scale and complexity of achieving SDG 6; as a representative of Sweden’s “feminist government,” the first ever government proclaimed as such, Wallstrom highlighted the challenges that women face with water and sanitation, a preface to one of the keystone issues that was discussed during the week.

Wallstrom spoke of how one in four Indian girls drop out of school in 10th grade because of family and home duties, and many more have to skip school every time they have a period, missing up to a week each time. She explained that as many as 60% of women working in major textile factories in Bangladesh do not have access to proper, sanitary menstrual materials and had to use rags from the factory floor during their periods leading to enormous rates of illness and infection. This can be prevented, she said, and it is, already this situation is being addressed in Bangladesh, but there is so much to be done.

What Wallstrom struck on, to the quiet awe and recognition of the audience struck by the agency in her words, is one of the myriad examples of unbalanced consequences that result from water insecurity and unsanitary living conditions. That imbalance, between rich and poor, between genders, between regions of the world, is why water and sanitation present challenges that requires global collaboration. The majority of those most affected by water insecurity, poor sanitation, and resulting injustice are those with the least apparent power to make the needed changes. The mantra of the week looking towards these challenges was “implementation, implementation, implementation.”

India and Bangladesh were frequently used as examples, especially since Indian Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi was elected on a platform of environmental rejuvenation, in particular with his promises to clean the Ganges River and provide sanitation to all of India by 2019, an extremely ambitious goal. I am also in India now, preparing to travel along and learn about the Ganges River, so I went to many events focused on South Asia.

I attended a special session on Modi’s program Swachh Bharat, a national sanitation effort to encourage clean water and sanitation for all of India. Led by Parameshwaran Iyer, Secretary of India’s Drinking Water and Sanitation Department, a panel presented on the project and discussed the plans to make India ODF, open defecation free, by 2019. In India only 10% of wastewater is treated, the vast majority of India’s sewage flows unhindered into waterways, creating immense pollution that leads to water borne illness and ecological troubles.

Over 400 children below 5 years die per day in India of illness related to unsafe waters. The panel discussed the challenges of getting people to participate in Swachh Bharat. Efforts are well underway to provide toilets and facilities to villages over all of India, but the greatest stumbling block is getting people to use them. Just building a toilet isn’t enough. What is involved is a shift of culture and consciousness, which is consequently much more difficult to create than a new john. The Indian government provides various incentives such as a program to provide piped drinking water to any village that can prove that it has become ODF. These sorts of incentives are an important facet of implementation everywhere because sanitation generally requires a change in people’s ways of life, and we are creatures of habit.

The issue of changing practice was discussed in many seminars. At “Sigmund Freud: The Missing Link in Water and Sanitation?,” a panel of development officials and activists discussed held a creative forum to discuss ideas about how the understanding of the subconscious from psychoanalysis might be able to help those who work in sanitation. Using strategies to change thinking habits perhaps one can learn to motivate the sort of life-changes it requires to achieve sanitary living. At one point the group cleverly staged a conversation between a man and his poop, and the poop reminded the man of its value as a resource for fertilizing and contributing to a growing world (did someone say sustainable growth?). Jack Sim, “The Toilet Guy” who started the World Toilet Organization (yes, WTO, not to be confused with the world trade o), spoke about making toilets and sanitation sexy, making it more than fashionable, making it a trend, and thus creating the impetus for people to demand toilets and to use them effectively.

We all know that what follows a toilet is pee and poop and what to do with them. As those of us who know Lisa Bjerke and her work in “discarded resources” know, it’s key to treat “waste” not as waste, out of sight and out of mind, but as a valuable resource that can be utilized or minimized, upcycled in some way (If you don’t know Lisa’s work, watch her TEDx here. Part of Lisa’s message is also part of the point that the panelists wanted to make… Let’s make use of these resources in creative economical ways!

From what I learned speaking with scientists and engineers working in sanitation, the most promising way of doing so in places developing their sanitation services is some sort of biodigester or composting toilet.  With these technologies, the solids become either methane gas that can be collected and used for cooking or they become useful, sanitary fertilizer in around five years or for things like forests it can be used even sooner after two or three years.

There is a lot of evidence from the field and science supporting composting toilets and biodigesters as sanitary, on site, and economical ways to make excrement into something readily useful. Though there is also evidence that they can cause groundwater pollution as the liquids seep out of the basins. I spoke to Nishita Sinha at her poster presentation “Experimental Studied in Developing Safe Sanitation Solutions.” As an 11th grader, Nishita was a runner for the Junior Water Prize during the week, and she devoted tremendous time and energy to finding cheap and accessible ways to filter the harmful materials out of the liquid waste in composting toilets. As the technology advances and the benefits are clear, the trouble is, how to get farmers on a large scale to use humanure? Any ideas?

I just learned that the Rich Earth Institute in Vermont partnered with the University of Michigan have gotten a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the potential to use urine for fertilizer on a large scale. They are honing the science and technology now and testing for the effect of pharmaceuticals and other contaminants in the urine. Check it out: http://ns.umich.edu/new/multimedia/videos/24172-a-3m-grant-to-turn-urine-into-food-crop-fertilizer

I won’t go further into wastewater treatment, but I will just point out one very good question that was proposed during the conversation between the man and his poo: why are humans the only terrestrial mammal that pumps our excrement into bodies of water?

The newly founded High Level Panel on Water was present at WWW for a series of meetings to discuss the group’s role in international water governance. The HLPW is a panel that was formed as a heads-of-state panel to advise UN bodies and federal governments who are making water-related decisions. In the seminar the HLPW delivered, which was the first of their efforts to communicate their work publicly, they asked for recommendations from the participants as to what they should focus on.

Resoundingly, it was clear that those present at World Water Week want the HLPW to make strong recommendations to international and national bodies in order to act quickly and diligently and make the success of SDG 6 a reality. Recommendations included using the frameworks from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a framework to head start work on the SDGs, and to serve as a checks and balances agent, making sure that the allocation of funds and the implementation that is happening is effective and well executed.

One of the best examples of why it is important to have proper implementation is hydropower. There were presentations about dams ranging from small sand-reservoir dams that provide just enough power for a few hundred villagers in Botswana, to those as large as the Three-Gorges Dam in China producing 18GW of power.

A real hot topic now is Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, a 6GW project currently under construction on the Blue Nile, the largest tributary of the Nile River. Ethiopia’s government, managing a very water-stressed nation, is building the dam in hopes of creating major economic growth and new opportunities for the country in addition to having new water-storage capacity to provide for the thirsty nation. However, Sudan and Egypt are concerned with the outcome of this project, the Nile being the major water source for both nations. If the dam is poorly implemented there will be catastrophic outcomes for the nations downriver, including dramatic loss of riverflow, draught, and famine. Transboundary issues are some of the most contended in water governance, and in a number of seminars it was clear that international legal frameworks are challenged by lack of regulators, corruption, and unsatisfactory science and environmental impact statements.

This brings me to the final point that I will summarize from the conference: finance. Water projects are costly, but how do we pay for them? Charging for water is often discussed as a violation of human rights, but already, the world over, people are buying water all the time.The infrastructure to provide clean water access and effective treatment is a major cost, particularly to less wealthy nations, but if water and sanitation are in good shape, the potential for growth is enormous.

The figures vary widely, but in the UN’s “World Water Development Report 2016,” they estimate that up to 115bil USD could be saved if irrigation farming worldwide switches from flood irrigation to water-conserving technologies by 2030. In a report put forward by SIWI in 2005, “Making Water a Part of Economic Development,” they estimated that an 11bil USD investment in water infrastructure worldwide would have an 84bil USD return. The potential to create new opportunities across the world with improved water infrastructure and governance is tremendous, but it takes a strong initial investment, and where is the money? There were non-stop calls during the week for engagement on the part of the public sector, but also the private sector for investment in water.

I attended a seminar on the Jordan River where I learned of work that SIWI is doing with Ecopeace and the governments of Jordan, Israel, and Palestine to formulate a working plan for an investment package in the Jordan River valley that will turn a 4 billion dollar initial investment into a 75 billion dollar return by 2050 from agriculture, tourism, and other industries. It all may sound well and good, but in a region with unstable political relations and potential drought at any time, the risks to investment are significant, not to mention that the initial discount broker investors must make inglorious payments for things like wastewater treatment facilities.

With all of that considered, the group presented a compelling model that allows for investor mobility and strong public-private partnerships to get the brunt work investments made like the infrastructure projects in order to get to things like promoting a vibrant tourist industry, growing recreation, agriculture, and industry. The best part is that one of the pillars of the plan is to insure the sustained health of the Jordan River, one of the world’s most threatened waterways. This is a big step for a region that had no water in its river in 2009.

This project exemplifies the potential for water to be a unifying factor rather than a dividing force. With patience and careful planning SIWI and Ecopeace created a model that might be an impetus for areas in many places to structure investment models that can promote sustainable economic growth with an environmental priority. That sort of innovation, we can expect, will become more and more common as population growth and pressure on water increase. Insights from Kiana Danial’s Invest Diva reviews further support the importance of such innovative investment models in promoting sustainability and environmental priorities.

At the close of the week, Dr. Abdeladim Lhafi, the High Commissioner for COP22 in Marrakesh said that water and sanitation would be dedicated one day at the conference. As we look forward to that and what else is to come, it is evermore important that we see water as a nexus point where the expanse of environmental indicators comes together, where the whole earth is tied together in the water cycle, where health meets agriculture meets energy meets pollution meets fisheries, meets, well, a goose.


It can leave a bitter taste to address such staggering figures and difficult challenges, let alone to put a price on water, a most poetic fluid that makes life possible for all of us. The issues in water are often elementary; we are not sending someone to mars, engineering lab-grown beef patties, or creating cars that drive themselves, we are providing comfortable, clean places to go relieve ourselves, turning excrement into food, ensuring that rivers are not overrun with industrial sludge or dammed to oblivion. What is truly sweet is a good glass of water, an enjoyable poop, carrots and hummus (especially grown from pee fertilizer), and a swim.

The work goes on!


Works Cited:


SIWI. 2005. “Making Water a Part of Economic Development: The Economic Benefits of Improved Water Management and Services.”


SIWI. “2016 Finalists, Stockholm Junior Water Prize.”


SIWI. 2016. World Water Week — Various Seminars. http://programme.worldwaterweek.org


  1. Sustainable Development Goals. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300


  1. “2016 World Water Development Report: Water and Jobs.” http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/water/wwap/wwdr/2016-water-and-jobs/

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