by Stuart Orr, WWF International Freshwater Manager
Amid the dire assessments of policy negotiations and disappointment of environmental and social groups, you might get the impression that the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, is already dead in the water. There’s legitimate reason for concern. But it shouldn’t overshadow some positive stories and progressive ideas emerging from the periphery. So called ‘side events’ are actually a major part of most such global conferences, and they are often where the real action happens.
If you look beyond the media hype, one issue being taken seriously here is water.
A growing number of countries and businesses across the world are taking bold steps to tackle the issues around water scarcity, and some of them have come to Rio to showcase how progressive water management policies are being used to address the threats.
Here’s just one example: At a side event organised by WWF, the Bhutanese government expressed its deep concern over the management of their water resources under climate change – and offered innovative approaches to this challenge, designed to meet the needs of both people and nature. Ministers of the governments of Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Bhutan signed a ‘Framework of Cooperation’ on food, water and energy security in the face of climate change at a summit of the four countries in November 2011. They jointly committed to secure the integrity of forests and freshwater ecosystems to ensure freshwater flows.
A representative from the Mexican government showed how they have precisely mapped the country’s water reserves – places where water resources must be carefully managed to sustain communities, economies and, crucially, the environment. This will ensure the resources necessary to maintain adequate ecosystem functions, and implement Mexico’s recently launched water policy: the Water Agenda 2030.
A Chinese minister presented new guidelines for strategic water resources developed jointly by WWF and the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources, which cover basin planning, allocation and flood risk management. This work will influence the revision of master river basin plans for China’s seven major river basins, the first revision of plans in nearly 30 years.
The message was clear and consistent: these governments understand the importance of nature and freshwater systems to their economies, and they are investing to protect these resources.
Even from poor countries – Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam – where the temptation to put economic growth ahead of environmental protection is understandably strong, we heard the Mekong River Commission acknowledge that the region’s future is directly linked to the health of its mighty, iconic river. The speakers were open about the incredible challenges they face with regard to dam construction, food security and managing a river with four other countries. Nonetheless, they showed how cooperation across Southeast Asia is fostering greater trust; how they are turning shared risk into shared opportunity.
All of these initiatives demonstrate how innovative partnerships and strong collaboration around shared issues are moving ahead – despite the political inertia on strong global commitments seen elsewhere at Rio+20.
There was a lot of finger-pointing happening in Rio; perhaps we like having villains to blame for the world’s problems. But the story that’s missing is one of collaboration, innovation and a real sense that our futures depend on how we manage our natural capital. If we’re smart, we will stop complaining about who is letting us down, and start acknowledging and supporting those who are creating solutions.