My Two Euros: The Sixth World Water Forum Needs Outcomes Assessments

March 22, 2012 | Posted by Michael "Aquadoc" Campana
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A fitting post for World Water Day!

As promised, here is my typical stream-of-consciousness take on the recent 6WWF and the World Water Fora in general.

Here is a link to the World Water Forum (general concept); the page contains links to the previous fora.

What’s the main take-away? Outcomes assessments! Scroll down to the bottom heading, The Big Kahuna!

Disclosure and CYA Notice
I was involved in the 6WWF (as a session coordinator) as was my organization (AWRA), which sits on the board of the WWC, which organizes the WWF and is not affiliated with the United Nations. My AWRA colleagues Gerry Galloway, Jerry Sehlke, Ken Reid (AWRA Executive VP), Dick Engberg (AWRA Technical Director), Carol Collier (President Elect), and Ari Michelsen were also involved. Reid occupies AWRA’s seat on the WWC board and Michelsen was Coordinator of the IWRM suite of sessions. Ari’s job could truly be described as herding cats – cats who spoke different languages, came from all over the world, and had different perspectives on IWRM.

Thanks to all those who put so much time into this meeting. Let me single out just a few. Dr. Benedito ‘Ben’ Braga,Ben_BragaPresident of the International Forum Committee, deserves a lot of credit. Braga, one of the smartest WaterWonks around, is a professor at the University of Sao Paulo and former head ofANA, the Brazilian national water agency. He can get things done. Another unsung person is Danielle (‘Dani’) Gaillard-Picher, the WWC’s troubleshooter, who kept things running smoothly. And I would be derelict if I did not thank Ken Reid and Ari Michelsen, my friends and colleagues.

I can’t imagine trying to organize and run a meeting as large and diverse as the WWF. It is easy to criticize; large, ambitious events usually are.

I enjoyed the 6WWF. I always meet new folks, some of whom are not ‘water professionals’ – all the better. I learn new things. I also see old friends whom I don’t see that often – usually at this triennial event. What I didn’t like about 6WWF was not the fault of the organizers. I just had too much I had to do and could not go to a number of sessions: ones on WaSH, Religion and Water, indigenous groups, etc. There is almost too much going on.

The pavilions/exhibits were quite impressive. I did not see strong evidence of a corporate presence, but then again, that would not get me too worked up. By far the most impressive of the pavilions were those of the countries (France, Mexico, Russia, China, Korea, Germany, Netherlands, USA, et al.) and some of the individual government agencies and NGOs. A number of the pavilions had dialogues and roundtable discussions; one-way conversations did not seem to be the order of the day, and that’s good.

The venue was not conducive to serendipitous encounters. The Forum was spread out among a number of large buildings so there was less chance that you would run into someone you knew or wanted to see. That was not the case in in Istanbul in 2009.

Groundwater was more prominent than in previous WWF but it still is not being integrated as much as it should be. It’s funny, dams seem to be on the table once again (WTF?) but I heard nary a word about aquifer storage recovery/artificial recharge. It is true that dams are multipurpose facilities (and more lucrative and impressive to build) but to me, this points up the neglect of groundwater and lack of concern over environmental and social issues.  I’m biased, I know. I wonder if the Koreans will let me host a session ‘Groundwater: The Rodney Dangerfield of the Hydrologic Cycle’ in 2015. NOT!

Release of the final program just 17 days before the opening was very poor planning and inconsiderate of the attendees. Some people did not know when their sessions were until just a few weeks before the opening, so they either decided to stay for the entire six days or risk being unable to get one of the (expensive!) hotel rooms if they waited until the last minute. And God help you if you had to get a visa or airline reservation on short notice. And of course, the early-bird regisration rate expired on 31 December 2011! There is no excuse for such dismal planning.

Up until the very end, the session coordinators and session chairs were getting emails from the organizers: do this, do that, submit this by such-and-such date, blah, blah, blah. I found it onerous, as did my colleague Ari Michelsen, whose task was made more difficult with all these last-minute missives. At least paper copies were not required, but I wondered who was really going to read all this stuff. As one wag commented, “They must not realize that we are volunteers.” Amen! I think the organizers’ credo was, “If a lot is good, more is best.” Skip the ‘better’. If the organizers are planning to measure outcomes on the basis of written material required, then they will conclude that they succeeded.

The Big Kahuna
So let me go right to the biggest complaint I have: outcomes assessments. The WWC does not make much of an attempt to engage in a retrospective examination of previous fora to determine whether the items discussed, the commitments made, the solutions proposed, etc. have had any effect. So as far as I can determine no one really knows whether the previous fora have done any good – other than providing a huge networking/showcasing opportunity. That’s not good.

The odd thing is that the WWC wants commitments from a variety of 6WWF players. But the WWC itself demands no such commitment from itself. It’s time to do so.

Outcomes assessments would be enhanced by having a more streamlined and consistent template of topics from forum to forum (here is the process, which seems to be the paramount concern). I get the impression the wheel is reinvented every three years because the new convenors want to put their imprimatur on their forum. That is one of the dilemmas with the fora: since a new group organizes it every three years there is a different perspective, which is very good. But that different vantage point can often diminish the achievements or effects of previous fora.

In any case, the WWC could do the water community a real service – something that no other meeting is doing on a global scale – by helping us answer the question: Is what we do working?

One of the complaints I have heard about the WWF from well-respected WaterWonks is that it is pretty much a dog-and-pony show with little discussion of substantive issues. So what large international water meeting is not a dog-and-pony show? As for little discussion of substantive issues – that is probably more of a valid criticism. I did hear some controversial things being debated, but the debates may not have been occurring in the formal sessions.

I think the WWF has a place in the pantheon of water meetings. It is good that it’s done triennially. I would like the WWC to engage in serious OA and use the results to guide future fora. I would also like to see the meeting become a bit ‘edgier’.

My two cents.

By the way, here is the Ministerial Declaration. Beats me if it actually supports human rights to water and sanitation (which it should). Sure is verbose, but that is to be expected. How about a one-pager, guys?

Download Ministerial_Declaration_Final_EN-1

Will I attend the 7WWF? Give me two years to think about it. I’m tired now.

“You’re never too old to learn something stupid.” – Unknown


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