Ripples & Waves

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Inclusive action for committed work to combat inequalities

(from the Budapest Water Summit)

Wednesday's forums and plenaries reminded us more than ever of why we are actually meeting here in Budapest. Several of the events that I attended addressed the human rights aspect of water and sanitation, the implications of lack of access, and why there is such a pressing need to act. Awareness of inequalities and inclusiveness where key words in the discussions. Who do we mean when we talk about the poorest and most suffering communities, and how do we reach them? How do we make sure that they are included in the discussions? Sitting in the conference halls surrounded by easily accessible drinking water and toilets, the 1 billion people who are defecating in the open and the 1, 8 million children dying each year from water borne diseases are far too distant from the discussions. We need to make sure that the dialogue on Post 2015 process and the development of the SDGs are not made without listening to the voices of the poor and most vulnerable, and ensure that we spur inclusive action for committed work to combat inequalities when pushing for a dedicated goal on water.

In the High-level panel discussion: How to WASH, Catarina de Albuquerque, UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, raised her voice and shared her insights on how to address inequalities in the context of water and the importance of proper monitoring, to be able to progressively eliminate inequalities. She expressed that by shaping initiatives to local conditions, they will have a greater chance of success. De Albuquerque stated that we have to go beyond good intentions, avoiding making the same mistakes as before, as we have an obligation towards the poor and marginalised.

Target c of Millennium Development Goal 7 (MDG7c) focusses on access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation and is significantly lagging behind in terms of progress. In reality, this means that the global community is not doing enough to provide a safe, healthy and dignified life for millions of adults and children. SIWI's 2013 Stockholm Statement advocates for a dedicated Sustainable Development Goal on Water because it is the poor and marginalised who are the most vulnerable to floods and droughts, to untreated wastewater and neglected water sources which offer poor quality water.

When discussing how to come together and push forward for water in sustainable global development, stakeholders representing governments, NGOs, the UN, etc., have different  priority areas and thoughts on how to ensure that we strive for a water wise world. What is clear though is the importance of keeping focused on what we want to achieve, and why. Touching base with other actors in the water community is for this reason inspiring and indeed valuable, and help us to identify where we are in the processes and see where SIWI can best contribute and engage to place water high on the Post 2015 agenda.

Other discussions today centered on the necessity of directing anticipated impacts at the micro level while respecting specific socio-cultural contexts of small communities, and the possible failures coming from lack of fair partnerships and zero consultations at a local level. This made me remember an interesting seminar I attended during World Water Week; Strengthening Community Managed W&S in Latin America. The seminar focused on how to strengthen community managed WASH-organisations in order to increase and improve equality in access to WASH-services. I specially remember the input from Mercedes Tinoco, Universidad de las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe Nicaragüense, Nicaragua; Case Study from Indigenous Communities of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast. She gave concrete examples of how sanitation initiatives became more successful when the local communities were involved in management planning, as the projects could integrate both social dynamics and cultural context perspectives.

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Sofia Widforss

Sofia Widforss
Programme Manager,
International Processes


SIWI at the Budapest Water Summit

Mr János Áder, President of the Republic of Hungary, welcomed us all to the city of Budapest and the summit, urging for all participants to cooperate in addressing water related challenges now, not later; "There comes a time when every glass spills over", thus calling for immediate action, so that we do not “pull our heads out of the sand to realize that we are surrounded by a desert of despair.” His rather personal approach set the tone for the Opening Ceremony where, on a later stage, H.R.H. Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, Chairman, United Nations Secretary General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, made the audience laugh with his vivid descriptions.

Mr Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations stated that water is the very key for sustainable development, and that a water secure world will need active cooperation from all sectors to be successful. He addressed waste water, the necessity to let water be the catalyst for cooperation instead of conflict, the water and food interlinkages, as well as water coupled to climate change. On sanitation he insisted that we need to scale up action, as diarrhea is causing the deaths and stunting of children, and said that it is very sad that as many as 1 billion people practice open defecation. Mr Ban Ki-moon lifted the various reports including the report of the High Level Panel and his own report, A life of dignity for all, among others, in which water has a predominant role. In this context, he touched upon the discussions on a dedicated goal on water. Thirsty after his long flight, he drank his glass of water saying that we need to be but very humble to the fact that water is indeed life.

The list of speakers gave promise to an interesting session, with among others, Dr Kandeh K. Yumkella, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and CEO - Sustainable Energy for All Initiative, Chair of UN-Energy, Ms. Irina Bokova, Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Ms Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization and Mr Michel Jarraud, Chair of UN-Water and Secretary General of World Meteorological Organization.


Mr Benedito Braga, President of the World Water Council agreed with the Secretary General that cooperation is the only solution, for which we all need to reach "outside the box" for  common strategies. Mr. Braga wanted to see a holistic and transformative development agenda where water is recognized as the thread tying the important pieces of the sustainability puzzle, realizing that water must have a dedicated sustainable development goal.

For the following days, the plenary sessions together with the Science-, Civil Society-, Business Leaders- and Youth Forum will compete over the participants' attention. My initial impression is that of a very well organized and successful conference where the central role of water in our development objectives will be discussed. Representing International Processes at SIWI I hope to engage in the dialogue on the role of water within the Post 2015 framework, and to interact on the policies, processes and coordinated efforts related to the development of a Sustainable Development Goal on Water.

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Sofia Widforss

Sofia Widforss
Programme Manager,
International Processes


[News Stream] The International Labor Organization puts sustainable development on the agenda

The International Labor Organization, ILO, is the UN agency responsible for all matters related to work. It is the only tripartite agency in the United Nation family. This means that workers, represented by the different national trade union confederations (LO, TCO and SACO in Sweden, and their counterparts in other countries), led by the International Trade Union Confederation - ITUC, constitutes a negotiating party. All national trade union delegates negotiate between themselves to develop a common position. In the tri-partite negotiation a worker representative act together with the representative of the employers, and representatives from all national governments, jointly agreeing on a final document that everybody is willing to sign. 

These three parties – workers, employers and national governments – meet at an annual congress, and this June (2013) the 102:nd ILO's annual congress takes place. Two topical themes are being discussed and negotiated on the basis of ILO-reports with the same names:

Employment and social protection in the new demographic context
Sustainable development, decent work and green jobs

Environmental sustainability has not been discussed at the ILO in 23 years. The 1990 ILO-congress had an environmental theme, but it did not give any major mark in the ILO's work until quite recently. In 2008, however, ILO published a report on Green Jobs. Since then, however, several reports on similar sustainability themes have been presented by the ILO.

The final document from this year's sustainability-decent-green-job-theme focuses on a few questions:

•    How does the changing environment affect livelihood opportunities and working conditions?
•    How can a “just transition” (to reach sustainable development) facilitate the creation of better working conditions and how can investments in new green jobs secure improvements in all three dimensions of sustainability – a well needed investment-led economy recovery leading to less social exclusion and better technology lowering the impact on ecosystems?
•    Which sectors and groups may be disadvantaged by such a transition in the short term, and how can policies ensure the sustainability-participation and -support of these groups by facilitating their "transition journey"? 
•    What have previous societal transitions taught us, both positively and negatively, that can be used to facilitate the necessary upcoming sustainability transition?
•    How should the ILO and its three negotiating parties - workers, employers and national governments - jointly work with sustainability transition issues in the future?

Some possible benefits of, and challenges to, a sustainability transition is stressed in the negotiated final document that will be presented.

•    A just transition will require significant investment which can generate many new green jobs in certain industries. This is also be an opportunity to promote improved working conditions in all industries, if decent work-conditions will be applied, and used as a good example to be copied. Other positive side-effects of more decent green jobs are better incomes for those who really need them, and better access to renewable clean energy, which will benefit a lot of people both socially, economically and environmentally. 
•    On the other hand, both the necessary restructuring of polluting sectors and the future necessary adaptation to environmental problems and climate change might lead to that jobs and families' livelihood will be threatened. In addition, poor families might find it difficult to have to afford any additional costs on their energy bills, which might appear then environmental impact will be taxed and new clean energy investments will have to be financed. These problems have to be addressed policy-wise, to get full support for the transition.

ILO's future role in enabling an equitable sustainability transition is outlined in the new Director-General Guy Ryder's first annual report. The focus is on the ILO:s centennial jubilee in 2019, and how the organization should work to prepare itself for the upcoming 100 years, with all challenges at the horizon, not at least socially and environmentally. Seven initiatives are proposed, three of which have a very clear sustainability focus:

•    The green initiative to give practical application to the decent work dimension of
the transition to a low-carbon, sustainable development
•    The enterprises initiative to establish a platform for ILO engagement with
enterprises which would contribute to their sustainability and to ILO goals;
•    The end to poverty initiative to meet the urgent requirement for an adequate living wage for all workers, through the employment and social protection components of the post-2015 development agenda;

ILO will in coming years consequently be an even more important actor bringing the sustainability development agenda forward. ILO might actually have a better chance of succeeding in doing this than other UN agencies as a very large portion of the world's social issues and environmental impacts are directly or indirectly linked to the world of work.

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Kristian Skånberg
Sustainability Economist at TCO


[News Stream] After Rio+20: Where is the Green Economy?

Those who watched the action (live or virtually) in Rio de Janeiro last June, when the world came together for the big summit on sustainable development, will remember that the Green Economy went from being a big idea that would unite the world and "place sustainability at the heart of economic decision-making," to being viewed with suspicion as a "controversial concept" that split the world along rich-poor lines. 

The critical words were hard. Some (mostly those from the developed or wealthy countries) were calling the actions of government in Rio a "betrayal" of the dream a Green Economy because they did not explicitly tackle the issue of growth. Others (largely from developing countries) viewed the Green Economy as a kind of ruse, on the part of the rich nations, to limit the growth potential of developing countries.

The final Rio+20 outcome document is a study in diplomatic compromise:  the Green Economy is "considered," "acknowledged," and "viewed," but it is not formally endorsed or adopted by the member states of the United Nations as the guiding principle that many hoped it would be.

Does that mean the Green Economy is on the way out? Hardly. The concept is continuing to work its way into the heart of policy-making around the world, just as the concept’s designers hoped.

The Rio+20 meeting should be seen not as a death knell for the Green Economy, but as a rite of passage, a tough initiation ritual for this new idea as it entered the rough-and-tumble world of international negotiations.

And: it survived the beating. In fact, the Green Economy is even riding the wave of Rio+20 deeper into precisely those regions of the world that expressed the greatest misgivings.

Consider, for example, this recent news story from Africa, "Green Economy Takes Hold in African Countries". The African Union and UNEP have moved forward with the concept, under mantle of the firm decisions taken at Rio+20 to advance the Sustainable Consumption and Production agenda.

One of the main focus areas? Water.

"Demand-side management of energy use and of water use in Uganda and Zambia have been undertaken under the [African Ten-Year Framework of the Programme on Sustainable Consumption and Production.] ... Others include a water saving initiative of beverages industries in Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe ..."

In the direct aftermath of the Rio+20 summit, Green Economy champions were sober, but not dispirited. "Rio+20 has helped the concept of a green economy take its first tentative steps into the world," wrote Oliver Greenfield, convenor of the Green Economy coalition. "The sustainable development community now has a mandate, albeit weak, for many of the things we wanted."

Indeed a direct textual comparison of the Rio+20 document with similar declarations ten and twenty years ago reveals that Green Economy and other previously alternative ideas have emerged, rather suddenly, as mainstream practice - recognized by a consensus of the world’s governments. Here is my own analysis of the Green Economy elements that Rio+20 recognized as the "new normal," but which were previously nowhere in sight in these international processes.

First and most important, the world's governments agreed that we are in crisis. This may seem a rather obvious point, but it is actually a breakthrough. The word "crisis" has been studiously avoided in previous such global declarations. There were concerns and worries, but no crisis. Rio+20 changed that dramatically. Now, world leaders acknowledge (in paragraph 20) that we have "multiple financial, economic, food and energy crises, which have threatened the ability of all countries, in particular developing countries, to achieve sustainable development." (One might have hoped that they would add water to that list of crises; but water does get substantial "recognition", in UN speak, and is mentioned over 30 times.)

Second, the governments in Rio recognized "the need for broader measures of progress to complement GDP." This provides an enormous boost to the niche topic where I made my own start in sustainability consulting, namely, the development of sustainability indicators. This fall alone, I will attend two major congresses on the topic of creating better measures of national well-being than the GDP, one sponsored by the Austrian government, the other a global forum in India, organized by the OECD.

Third, the nations of the world declared in Rio that they "support national regulatory and policy frameworks that enable business and industry to advance sustainable development initiatives taking into account the importance of corporate social responsibility." To rephrase, they want more CSR, and more companies embracing Green Economy practices ... and they want more policies to push companies in that direction as well.

Fourth, fifth, and sixth, the world's governments endorsed (the formal word is "encouraged") a life-cycle approach, sustainable design, and extended producer responsibility for the products they make. These concepts are cornerstones of the Green Economy. They are also essential practices for assessing, avoiding, and reducing negative impacts on the world’s water resources.

The positive post-Rio news does not end there. Those who attended Rio (I did not) generally report that while the UN negotiations were dispiriting, the buzz of energy and innovation that characterized the rest of that once-a-decade global happening was exciting and inspiring. Business, education, civil society, local governments and many other sectors are not waiting around for the world’s leaders to tell them how to save the planet; they are busy working doing just that, and they are leading the way.

So, where is the Green Economy?  Look around, you’ll find it popping up through the pavement, all around the world. 

Alan AtKisson is president of the AtKisson Group and co-president of the International Network of Resource Information Centers, aka the "Balaton Group". He has been writing and consulting on sustainable development since 1988. See for more info.

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Alan AtKisson
Alan AtKisson,
AtKisson Group


[News Stream] An Optimist Looks at Rio+20

Skeptical, critical, or despairing observers of the recent Rio+20 mega-sustainability-marathon are overlooking some surprisingly good news. No, Rio did not deliver a fantastic new international agreement to transform global civilization. What it *did* produce was a solid, global-scale reflection of the current state of the global sustainability movement - and the conclusion is, global transformation is already well under way.

This positive interpretation is a far cry from what one hears coming from most activist voices. But I am prepared to defend this claim on the merits of the much-criticized "outcome document" alone, though I also have powerful anecdotal evidence from friends who went to Rio. (I did not; it collided with Swedish midsummer.)

Activist voices were highly critical of Rio+20. Greenpeace leaders spoke of "war," documents were symbolically burned, etc. But as Denmark's charismatic Environment Minister Ida Auken put it recently, "NGOs need to get out of the disappointment business." (She said that during a planned interruption of my recent keynote speech to European policy makers on sustainable development, a group that really needed a lift post-Rio. For more on that speech and conference, see

Let's just look at the Green Economy. Mostly, one hears that the world's nations could not agree on what a Green Economy was -- some want more "Green," some want more "Economy" -- and that they battered their way to a watered-down text about it.

In my view, the text on Green Economy in the Rio+20 outcome text, called "The Future We Want" ("TFWW"), is an example of successful global negotiation. Green Economy retained a prominent role in TFWW. And better yet, it is clearly (though still only partially) defined by the global community for the first time. TFWW includes a statement of fifteen very specific principles intended to guide Green Economy policy making. If you look at previous international documentation around Green Economy -- running to hundreds of pages of contradictions and contestations by dozens of actors -- this specificity in TFWW represents an amazing breakthrough in international diplomacy.

Of course, I personally wish those principles included reference to the biophysical limits of Planet Earth, such as the use of fresh water, addressing climate change, or the preservation of biodiversity. They don't. But they do include (Paragraph 58, principle "o") the idea that Green Economy -- while also meeting legal, social, and poverty-reduction critieria -- should "promote sustainable consumption and production patterns." As long as you actually know that the word "sustainable" must include these things, you'll know what to do to create a real Green Economy.

Other positive elements of Rio+20's TFWW outcome include the first-ever global public endorsement, by the national governments of planet Earth, of concepts like Life-Cycle Assessment, Sustainable Design, corporate social responsibility and sustainability reporting, and the adoption of a new plan for promoting sustainable consumption and production over the next ten years. That's an amazing list ... and it's a partial one.

Just compare that specificity to the abstractions of Rio+0 in 1992, or Jo-berg in 2002, and what you'll see is global recognition that we are in the midst of a global transformation. Sustainable development has finally become the new normal.

(Yes, I know, "water" does not show up until paragraph 109, and soft calls for "significantly improv[ing] the implementation of integrated water resources management" do not excite deep feeling. But water's all over the place in TFWW, both directly, and indirectly:  there can be no Green Economy without sustainable management of water resources, for example.)

So, watchers of Rio, don't despair. I was delighted to see some of my more optimistic NGO, research, business, and consultancy friends -- I am not alone in this -- come back from Rio on a high (certainly compared to my government friends). Sure, the mood near the UN process was sour, they say. But elsewhere, they saw evidence of dynamic engagement, people taking initiative and embracing responsibility, a great outpouring of innovation. "I really feel that a global transformation is under way," said a German friend who heads a major center on these issues.

If I stop listening to the disappointment brokers, and just read the actual Rio+20 text with an historic, 20-year perspective, and think about how far we've come, and listen to the reports from my friends who talked with so many other friends about all the wonderful things that are actually happening in this world ... then I feel it, too.

-- Alan AtKisson is a consultant and writer working in sustainability since 1988. He is CEO of AtKisson Inc., president of the ISIS Academy, and co-president of the Balaton Group. He lives in Stockholm.

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Alan AtKisson

Alan AtKisson,
The AtKisson Group


Water that flows through a river is not wasted - A meeting with Achim Steiner

At a breakfast meeting last Tuesday Mr. Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, shared his thoughts on the role of water in the green economy with the Swedish Water House network.

The concept of "green economy" is not always clear to everyone. Mr. Steiner however urged us not to get stuck on a definition, but underlined that the green economy is more a set of principles for how economies should develop in order to sustain a sustainable development. This can be done through many different avenues, fiscal and policy reform to stimulate renewable energy are just a few, as is payment for ecosystem services. It entails a range of delicate challenges, such as how to achieve a policy change in parliaments, or achieving economic development in countries where people don’t even have basics rights in place. The idea that a country must develop first and only then worry about the environment is a fallacy. Mr. Steiner emphasized the importance of moving beyond the North and South opposition, and bringing the green economy discussion to the core of sustainable development.
Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP. Photo: Ann-Mari Karlsson 
Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP. Photo: Ann-Mari Karlsson

Water has many roles in the economy. The way that natural resources are used always affects people very differently and so equity issues are central to water management. At the Rio+20 conference in June, Mr. Steiner hopes that sectors will stop looking at how to capture and manage "their" particular resource against the interests of others, and instead start linking different users of water and to look at the entire hydrological flow to discuss how these flows should be managed.

Policymakers now need ripe advice on how to move forward with economies in light of the environmental state of the world. Mr. Steiner pointed out that it is difficult for decision makers to navigate in the cacophony of voices on biodiversity issues today. Rio will, among other things, discuss the Millennium Development Goals and whether they should be followed up with a set of Sustainable Development Goals to be reinstated for every country. But how to formulate these goals, should we define each domain according to water, forests, mountains, e.t.c or should we take a systemic approach based on the interconnected nature of these domains? While Mr. Steiner warned against too much fragmentation, parts of the audience pointed out that water as a prerequisite for the functioning of all other domains should have its own role in the sustainability goals.

by Ann-Mari Karlsson, Swedish Water House

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