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Water: Tenacious, Collaborative Responses to a Global Crisis

Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.

MBA student, malady Sean Peters gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Water: Tenacious, sales Collaborative Responses to a Global Crisis’.

Access to water has never been more critical. The 2016 World Economic Forum Global Risks Report Water lists water as among the top 3 risks for negative global impact, and is ranked as the highest perceived risk over the next ten years. The newly minted Sustainable Development Goals list goal number 6 as to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”.  But how do we get from where we are today to a world where everyone has access to clean water and sanitation? And what can we learn from the last twenty years of work by development organizations, foundations, and social entrepreneurs?

Starting off Day 2 of the Skoll World Forum, J. Carl Ganter (Managing Director and Co-Founder, Circle of Blue) opened our discussion with three accomplished panelists:

  • Eleanor Allen (CEO of Water For People), journalist and photographer, reports on global freshwater issues (competition between water, food and energy
  • Neil Jeffery (CEO, Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor), WSUP
  • Gary White (CEO and Co-Founder, Water.org).

Water - Sean

The discussion opened with an overview of the differences that have emerged over the past twenty years in trying to manage water globally. The first major difference is that there are many more organizations paying attention.  Gary White, who started this work in the 90’s, noted the incredible proliferation of water-focused organizations in recent years. “When we started, we were one of the only ones,” White said. ‘Today, there are hundreds.”

The tone has changed as well. Twenty years ago funders didn’t understand the problem. “We used to spend 90% of our funder meetings simply explaining the problem to them, and in the end funders just wanted magic bullets in the form of new, catchy technologies” noted Jeffery. “Today, this is no longer a technical issue. The problem now isn’t that we don’t have the technology – we do. The next hurdle is trying to stimulate the demand side.”

So how do we stimulate demand? Part of the problem is access to financing. Currently low income people around the world pay a premium for water or sanitation services, but don’t have access to financing that could make these costs lower for higher quality access. By opening up financing and providing access to high-quality technology (water pumps, toilets, etc) at affordable prices, the short run benefit is healthier communities that are spending less of their time and money on getting access to water and sanitation. The hope is that over the long run these kinds of models will “pull” future financing and greater impact. “At this point we know what works and what doesn’t on the technology side”, said Allen. “We need to build these markets so that access can persist beyond the engagement with NGOs.“

While much progress has been made, there’s a long way to go. The session concluded with a universal message that is important for all of us to remember:  The importance of collaboration between people, between organizations, and between institutions. “At Skoll, we build relationships,” White said. “We’re all in this together. It is critical that we work together to solve these problems.”

Follow Sean: @sean_robert