Does the World Water Forum Need More Conflict?

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The Sixth World Water Forum has largely been an exercise in polite agreement. As a fly on the wall of any auditorium on the grounds of Parc Chanot, you would see a new combination of grey-faced experts shuffle in every two hours to expound upon the virtues of “good governance” or the importance of a stable regulatory environment to encourage financing. Bespectacled grey faces would nod in agreement.

Serge Lepeltier favors coordination (credit: http://www.pdu-agglobourges.fr/)

With the departure of most firebrand activists to the Alternative Water Forum across town — set up to protest the supposed corporatization of water on display at WWF6 — avoidance of conflict has been the unwritten rule of engagement here. This hyper-aversion to conflict is confusing and dampening the effectiveness of the dialogue.

Senior Water Economist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and WWF6 panelist, David Zetland has diagnosed the conference with “multiple priority disorder.” Dr. Zetland suggests that a passive, non-confrontational deadlock is created by organizers’ and participants’ aversion to conflict and their subsequent declaration of “co-equal goals”.

“…And that’s just as retarded as having co-equal winners in the Super Bowl.  Here they have a dozen goals, so they have way more than just two winners.” Prioritization of goals is necessary, however, given limited resources and time. Dr. Zetland thinks the concept of co-equal goals, while it seems agreeable, actually masks a dead-lock between the stakeholders here at the Forum. “Everybody thinks that their priority is the priority and nobody is willing to compromise,” he says.

“Look, you go into a restaurant,” says Zetland, “and twelve items on the menu look good.  You only can eat one meal.  If you eat all twelve meals you’re gonna throw up…You have to learn how to prioritize the uses of water.”

To hear the interview with David Zetland, click play.

Non-controversial ideas such as “increased resiliency” and “capacity building” are tossed around so lightly, that one imagines the panelists pitching and fielding conceptual water balloons, which might burst if handled too bluntly.  It’s a far cry from the image of World Water Council head Loic Fauchon slamming a leak-proof baggy of water down on the press table to demonstrate the toughness of this disaster-relief invention.

Where fundamental disagreements do exist, statements of opposition are wrapped up in easy-to-swallow gel caps of wonky and platitudinous imprecision.  Fundamentally oppositional statements continue to pass as complimentary.  This forced agreement confuses the issues and forestalls the delineation of real solutions.

This strange interplay between conflict and aversion to conflict, extends to the governance side as well. Over the course of several panel discussions early in the week, OECD Secretary General, Angel Gurria lamented what he called “fragmentation of governance” in the water sector. Water is dealt with through fragmented government and non-governmental organizations, leading to redundancy and inefficiencies. This devolved and dispersed power structure, he claimed, makes coordinated governance and financing more difficult.  Gurria stressed the need for integration, which in his mind, obviously entails a degree of centralization.  Centralization would necessitate prioritization and coordination of resources.

At a Thursday press conference heralding the likely expansion of formalized recognition for the power of local authorities to manage water, Serge Lepeltier, Mayor of Bourges, France and Muchayedi Masunda, Mayor of Harare, Zimbabwe, also stressed the need for greater integration of the water management process. For these two mayors, integration means empowering local leaders and communities.  In many cases, this simply entails the official recognition of local authorities presently responsible for the management of water in their area.  With formal recognition, communities can more easily connect to central institutions.

Here two different sides proclaim the need for greater “integrated management,” but their understandings of what “integrated” means and how to do it are fundamentally different.  Gurria favors a stream-lined, top-down approach, while the mayors of small and mid-sized cities advocate for the empowerment of peripheral authorities within the larger system.

Such disagreement is a good and natural outcome of a Forum aimed at defining solutions.  A problem arises, however, when the two different approaches are not recognized as distinctly different. It is a similar situation to the idea of the co-goals: goals must be prioritized.  The stark divide between two strategic methods of “integration” was illustrated in Lepeltier’s comments. “Countries where water is managed best are countries where water is managed locally,” he explained.  To him, this point was self-apparent. “Water must be managed at several levels and coordination between these levels is important.”

Indeed, it would be hard to argue against the need for coordination between various levels of governance, but governance implies an apportionment of power.  It is doubtful that the ideal distribution of power in Mr. Guerria’s system would match that of Mr. Lepeltier’s.

Of course, agreement is not a bad thing: Consensus building is an important exercise, especially at this stage.  Agreement garners buy-in, a necessary perquisite to action. Moving from identifying problems to deciding what must be done is scary.  Everyone can see that the river is rising; the real question is whether to continue throwing sandbags in the face of the impending flood or to flee to higher ground.  People must decide on the best course of action, which requires prioritization and decision-making. However, the solutions mapping process is where differing values manifest in the form of different priorities and precipitate conflict.  Most participants and organizers at WWF6 seem eager to avoid this conflict.

Conflict for the sake of conflict is not productive.  But avoiding conflict at the cost of a constructive conversation that would enable the prioritization of goals and outcomes obviates the goal of the Forum itself: to find workable solutions.

Let’s agree to disagree and start defining a plan of action.

6 thoughts on “Does the World Water Forum Need More Conflict?

  1. I am disturbed by the post even though the writing is outstanding. I understand your point and relate to your implied frustrations. I still do think that it is best for countries to express their disagreements behind closed doors. To expose the public to “conflict” only exacerbates tension in sensitive situations thereby fueling mistrust. In resorting to “polite agreement”, diplomats try their best to highlight the positive relations between countries while discussing their disagreements privately. It is better that nations build networks and connections, tangle themselves in trade and in other cooperative ways to lower the risk of a real conflict.

    Countries gathered at the World Water Forum to propose and discuss solutions. A “polite agreement” approach makes those accustomed to a system in which world politics is dominated by perpetual conflict uncomfortable and averse to the polite agreement approach. The old-school attitude and mentality must change. Impatience only leads to a quick and easy solution – conflict. But change requires patience and one should not compromise when nations politely agree in good faith to maintain peaceful relations.

    Also, since when did society develop problems with civil behavior?

    • Provocative title aside, what is being advocated here is substantive conversation. Perhaps the title should have been, “Does the World Water Forum Need More Frank Talk?”

      “Conflict” implies, first, a difference of opinion that is, second, accompanied by strong emotion. Differences of opinion need to be delineated in an intellectually honest manner without charged emotions getting in the way. Frank talk runs the risk of stirring emotions, but what is the purpose of agreement for agreement’s sake only?

      Like it or not, transparency is the watchword of sustainability studies and of the future. Let’s bring disagreements out from “behind closed doors” and discuss them in a civil manner. Just as you and I are doing here.

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