In April of this year, Aither Director Will Fargher and Senior Consultant Amy Syvrud travelled to Washington D.C. to deliver a workshop on water policy and planning in response to scarcity in support of the World Bank’s ‘learning week’. The workshop was held at George Washington University’s Milken Institute with attendance from over 60 World Bank staff from the Water Global Practice. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Water Partnership supported the event, with ARCOWA and eWater Ltd also participating.

The workshop allowed Australian and international water resource management specialists to reflect on their experiences dealing with water scarcity. The focus was on defining the global water scarcity challenge, identifying barriers to change, and opportunities for overcoming those barriers. These are our five takeaways from the discussions:

  1. The water scarcity challenge in all its dimensions is growing, yet the causes vary. In many developing countries, scarcity can be a result of water pollution, poor infrastructure and ineffective governance. Scarcity related challenges appear in many different contexts, and are often far removed from drought.
  2. Demand side responses to the water scarcity challenge are often overlooked in favor of those on the supply-side, including as a result of the difficulty in confronting entrenched patterns of use, and strong political support for new physical infrastructure.
  3. A lack of accessible, fit-for-purpose data and information on water availability and use is inhibiting progress and preventing effective design, implementation and enforcement of water policies and regulations in many regions.
  4. Government agencies responsible for whole of government funding and policy coordination need to be at the decision-making table in order to drive effective water policy and planning decisions based on an understanding of inter-agency or whole of government priorities and any trade-offs involved.
  5. There is significant benefit to be gained from sharing practical experience and evidence of success. A framework such as WaterGuide has value in identifying priority policy improvements and investments in different contexts, by highlighting the fundamental elements of improved water management.

Workshop participants concurred that new responses to water scarcity are required in the context of competing demands for water, widespread pollution, climate change, ineffectual financing, and poor governance. It was recognised that the cost of slow or inappropriate responses is too high, and the benefit of timely, targeted and informed action is substantial.

While in Washington, Will and Amy also met with water experts at the World Resources Institute and The Nature Conservancy. Conversations with these organisations reflected these same conclusions and are consistent with the findings released in recent news articles. Recently, the New York Times published an article stating that ‘a quarter of humanity faces looming water crises’ and warned that more water stress is in the forecast. Betsy Otto of WRI was quoted in the Guardian stating: “The picture is alarming in many places around the globe, but it’s very important to note that water stress is not destiny. What we can’t afford to do any longer is pretend that the situation will resolve itself.”

The task is urgent, so learning the lessons of the past is essential to success. Australia has lived this journey through three decades of water reform experience which provide lessons and insights that others can learn from. WaterGuide frames Australian learnings in a way that is of immediate assistance to decision makers outside Australia and provides a starting point for dialogue and partnership. Aither looks forward to continuing the collaboration with the World Bank through a follow-up workshop later this year focused on WaterGuide applications in practice.