2015 World Water Forum: 5 Key Takeaways

By Dawn McGregor 14 May, 2015

See what tops our list in key takeaways from the 2015 World Water Forum. CWR's McGregor expands

Bottled water everywhere shows more action needed, including from industry & business in order to secure water
No simple choices for climate; 'green energy' not actually all that; transboundary water sessions x2 since last forum
China more prominent & making waves; globally still a long way to securing 'water for our future'; 2015 to be a big test

The 7th World Water Forum was held on 12 – 17 April, 2015 in Daegu & Gyeongbuk in South Korea. The World Water Forum (referred to as “the forum”) has been held every three years since 1997 when the World Water Council held the first edition in Marrakesh. The forum brings together government officials, the private sector, industry, IGOs, NGOs and academics in the water sector as well as related sectors such as energy, agriculture etc… This year the forum consisted of four processes: thematic, science & technology, political and regional. On top of this was the citizen’s forum.
During the forum China Water Risk launched our report “Towards A Water & Energy Secure China – Tough choices ahead in adding power with limited water, co-convened a session and sat on a panel:

  • Tackling Asia’s Transboundary Water-Energy-Climate Challenge – What’s law got to do with it?  – We co-convened this session with Xiamen University Law School (China International Water Law). It framed the water-energy-climate nexus on Asia’s key transboundary waters and explored how international law might contribute to the peaceful management of Asia’s shared freshwater resources (see more here).
  • Water Risk of Foreign Investment in China – China Water Risk sat on one of the panels during this session that was convened by WWF China. The panel focused on textiles in China. Other panellists included H&M sustainability manager and the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), and was moderated by China National Textile and Apparel Council Deputy Secretary General.

World Water Forum South Korea 2015
Here are our five key takeaways:

1.  Bottled water everywhere and no one seemed to care

World Water Forum Bottled WaterShortly after entering the World Water Forum exhibition centres we noticed the abundance of fridges filled with free bottled water – which were replenished throughout the forum. We were shocked. Why you may wonder… because bottled water is a resource intensive product and thereby in part exacerbates global water risk and stress. A tad ironic to have at a water forum… Water and energy are required for the extraction of the water, bottling and transportation. Then there is the issue of where the water in the bottle comes from. Some bottlers are sourcing water from water scare regions and/or precious watersheds. Nestlé is currently facing negative publicity due to its bottling and selling of California’s water despite the state just entering its fourth year of record drought. Bottlers are able to do this in part due to lax regulations. This loose regulatory framework also means that for some bottled water there is no guarantee that the quality of the water is actually higher than that from the tap, so what’s the point… why not filter tap water and save all that water and energy?
In contrast, at the World Water Week in Stockholm last year each participant was given a glass water bottle and there were filling stations available at the conference. Does this point to the fact that Asia is thinking less sustainably than Europe? For more on bottled water issues and the situation in China see our article here and look out for our special report on this coming soon.

2.  In climate change we are not really talking about “green” but “greener” power options

Hydropower is poorly understood even in the energy sector and even more so in the water sector” said Richard Taylor, Chief Executive of the International Hydropower Association. This isn’t encouraging to hear, especially if the world is going to develop without adding significant carbon emissions and to reduce the impacts of climate change.

There are no simple choices regarding the climate & what may seem ‘green’ may not actually be just that

Hydropower may seem a ‘green’ & ‘clean’ choice for growing power without adding significant carbon emissions but it is not without it’s own risks. An obvious one is geo-political risk with transboundary waterways raising the possibility of water wars. Another risk, less obvious, is its intermittent nature, which means it requires another energy type for smoothing. The other energy type is usually coal. This latter risk is applicable to other renewable energies like wind and solar. So actually, what we call ‘green energy’ isn’t actually all that ‘green’.
And the risks continue. Rare earths (a crucial component for wind turbine production) bring hidden water risks. Clearly there are trade-offs between energy types and when it comes to the climate, there are no simple choices.  For more on this see our report “Towards a Water & Energy Secure China” here.
There is still much work to be done to develop power with responsible water use and to reduce impacts from climate change. These are everyone’s issues but in Asia, where water and climate issues are vast, we would like to see more action.

3.  China more prominent at forum but need all of Asia given transboundary challenges

China’s presence at the forum was evident by the numerous Chinese participants and presenters as well as its pavilion in the Exhibition centre. There were numerous Ministry of Water Resources members as well members of various Environmental Protection Bureaus in China such as for Taihu Lake, which is a key area for textiles in China. They spoke to various water related issues including pollution, import/export, irrigation, developments & achievements of the textile industry, climate change, water diversion and water rights trading. As for China’s pavilion in the Daegu exhibition centre it was as large as that of the US, European countries (the Netherlands, France, Denmark & Spain) and the United Arab of Emirates. This is in contrast with last year’s World Water Week where China and Asia were under-represented (more on this here).
Clearly, China’s prominence in the global water arena is growing and it’s a good thing given it is central to future regional water security. But to solve one of the region’s most pressing water challenges, transboundary water, we need all of Asia and we need them to come together and act.

Transboundary water gaining more focus with ~2x number of sessions at 2015 forum than previous one

Transboundary water is garnering more attention and focus with almost double the number of transboundary related sessions this year than at the last World Water Forum in 2012 in Marseille, with 16 and 9 sessions respectively. The total number of sessions was actually seven less in South Korea than Marseille, showing this shift towards transboundary waters.

4.  Water: lots of talk but still no big waves & more action needed from business and industry

The forum covered a wide range of water related topics from sanitation to ethics, financing to resilience and wastewater treatment to geopolitical risk, just to list a few. Yet, despite this widespread coverage many of the discussions remained in their silos, which meant there was little new action. Water is a governance issue, check…. water suffers from financing issues (two reports focusing on finance were launched, one by GWP and the other by WWC & OECD), check… water pricing needs more action, check… and the list could go on.  A likely reason for this is as Ahmet Bozer (President of Coca-Cola International in Atlanta) said, “water is the mother of all transversal problems” – meaning water has not only numerous intersects within itself but also with other sectors and aspects of life like energy, health and food.

“water is the mother of all transversal problems”

Ahmet Bozer, President of Coca-Cola International in Atlanta

World Water Forum South Korea 2015 - High Level Panels

Clear consensus that water is the most important resource for all aspects of global development

However, it was encouraging to see the clear consensus that water is “the most important resource” for all aspects of global development in all of the discussions, presentations, press conferences and workshops be they by academics, industry, corporates or governments. Now we just need other sectors and decision makers to realise water’s importance and its vital role in climate change and then act.
The business and industry community, which had a large presence at the forum (numerous high-level panels with CEOs or senior people from leading global MNCs, such as Coca-Cola, Nestle, Veolia, Suez and EDF) could expedite this.
But still only a few businesses are starting to push beyond their ‘fences’ and engaging in broader watershed strategies and collective action (see why collective action makes good business sense from Deloitte’s Will Sarni here). Businesses also need to be more proactive. In Brazil and Peru some mining companies have approached the respective governments to tell them that water prices are not encouraging them to implement good water management – i.e. water is too cheap. It is actions like this that will drive change.

5.  China made waves with its Water Ten (Water Pollution Prevention & Control Action Plan)

On the second last day of the conference (16 April, 2015) China’s State Council released the highly anticipated ‘Water Pollution Prevention & Control Action Plan’ (also known as the “Water Ten Plan”). The document was more comprehensive than expected and is the most extensive water policy in China to date. It kept us busy for most of the day.

China making waves with its newly released Water Ten Plan;
country’s most comprehensive water policy to date

So whilst we (water sector, business & industry, government etc…) were attending talks and workshops at the forum intended to address road blocks to holistic & responsible water management and governance China stopped lamenting and took action. The Water Ten Plan demonstrates political will and actually has targets & actions to move China to a circular economy. This may seem a novel idea but “the West” could definitely take some pages out of the Water Ten Plan.
China’s hasn’t stopped there. Since the release of the Water Ten Plan it has also released action plans for moving China towards a circular economy (see here) and for the clean & efficient of coal (see here).  We are hopeful that these plans are fully implemented and excited to see what China has planned next.

World Water Forum South Korea 2015 - Water For Our Future
The theme of this year’s forum was “Water for our future”. We still have a long way to go to ensuring that but 2015 should be a good indicator of whether we can/will achieve it with many key events including: this forum (7th World Water Forum), launch of the SDGs in September (many hoping for a specific goal on water) and COP 21 in Paris in November & December. It’s a big year so let’s work together to deliver some big achievements and make some waves.

Further Reading

  • Water Ten: Comply Or Else – China’s new Water Ten Plan sets tough action on pollution prevention & control. While this is good for the water sector, less obvious is who or which sectors will be impacted. China Water Risk’s Tan on why China is serious about its fast & furious pollution reforms to propel China to a new norm
  • Groundwater Under Pressure – New official survey says that China’s groundwater quality has yet again deteriorated. Can the ‘Water Ten Plan’ turn this around? Who will be affected? Hear from China Water Risk’s Hu on what’s at stake & why the next 5 years are crucial
  • Can The Water Ten Protect Water Sources? – Some 40% of urban residents drink bottled water. This could change with the Water Ten Plan which aims to eventually deliver safe drinking water from the tap. Are the water source protection targets tough enough or will the bottle water market proliferate? CWR’s Liu & McGregor expand
  • Water Ten To Revamp Chinese Agriculture – Takeaways from Shanghai’s Global Agriculture Sustainability Forum are reviewed in relation to the new Water Ten Plan. Fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation & product tractability markets look set to change. China Water Risk’s Hu on what the new plan means for the future of Chinese agriculture
  • Towards Water & Energy Security – China Water Risk published report titled “Towards A Water & Energy Secure China”. Tough choices lie ahead in power expansion with limited water. Find out what strategies are employed and get a comprehensive overview of water risk exposure across China’s power landscape
  • 2014 World Water Week: Takeaways – Check our key takeaways on ‘Water & Energy’ from World Water Week 2014. What are the challenges ahead for Asia & the rest of the world? Dawn McGregor expands
Dawn McGregor
Author: Dawn McGregor
Dawn leads CWR’s work to help corporates navigate increasingly disruptive & material risks from water & climate threats, as well as transitional risks in the supply chain arising from new regulations in China. Here, Dawn engages extensively with the global fashion industry delivering on-ground workshops in China to keynotes and strategic input at European HQs. She has written at length on the end of dirty and thirsty fast fashion and her report to overcome gaps between brands and manufacturers for a clean and circular future inspired the industry to create a new wastewater tool. Dawn also works closely with the property and tourism sectors where she not only conducts strategic assessments of their exposure but builds collective action toward resilience via closed door working groups and invite-only events. Having helped build CWR, Dawn is a frequent keynote, panellist & moderator at events, including being twice selected as the lead-rapporteur at World Water Week. Her articles are cited in various industry publications including the UN’s ‘World Without Water’. Dawn previously worked in a global investment bank assessing geo-political risk, crisis management and business resiliency. She was born and bred in Hong Kong and has lived in France, England, Singapore and Beijing.
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