Does the water sector send the right message?
A first impression that I share with those who were there is that, especially with the exceptionally nice weather, Budapest was really worth the visit especially with friendly people in the streets who were very kind in helping me out when lost (with my renowned poor sense of orientation in all cities) to even get to the conference venue . The majestic views of the Danube river made up for fatigue after long, and sometimes not so exciting sessions during the conference. But that’s why I was there and I followed the maximum without hopping too much from one session to the other.
Important for the nice people of Budapest: the water company does a good job. Drinking from the tap was no problem. The Budapest Water Company had a nice booth in the exhibition hall featuring excellent brochures and information. They may not have got all the attention they deserved. It would seem that there was some competition from the Hungarian wine sector! Very illustrative of the national awareness of the importance of water, the Postal services even went as far as issuing a special beautiful post stamp on the occasion of the conference. I was the first to buy one of those.
Concerning the conference itself, the repetition of the same basic contents through key note speeches for a public that in majority has heard and read it all, may have helped to feature some Ministers and other big shots in the programme. This less interesting feature was made up for from the technical sessions with more emphasis on solutions to the challenges faced. Over-all, the mix of participants was good with some balance between public, private and civil society stakeholders, politicians, practitioners and scientists.
Interestingly, the programme of plenary sessions was multi-mirrored in the stakeholder fora (Scientific forum, civil society forum, youth forum and business leaders forum). Over-all the ground for the final Budapest Statement was well covered and this laid the basis for a large consensus around the final statement of the conference. This statement was adopted by a consensus of participants in the closing session which was very well attended.
I was very happy to hear Mr. Michel Rentenaar of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs speak in the high level panel in the plenary on good water governance. He encouraged other stakeholder to join the cause of water integrity so as to broaden the base and increase the pace. Not many others, even those basically convinced of the importance of water integrity and transparency issues did the same.
Some other impressions from the forum — The science forum showed that there is a considerable gap between what science provides and what is actually needed. Communication was identified as a key challenge. At the business leaders forum, I got to hear about with very good examples of how private companies help manage and restore water and environmental resources. Sometimes this concerns groups of companies in a sector like cement industry. All private company persons who made a presentation in the session I attended mentioned a change of attitudes and behaviour among staff of these large companies (Looking beyond the fence of the production plant, telling the guys to start working at water basin level, putting water at the core of the business model, working on the basis of the principle of water sharing and protection and apply it, using the huge potential for local solutions by working other stakeholders).
Now, did this conference represent the water sector sufficiently and did it send out the right message? I am not sure. The principle for one single goal and a number of smart target areas might are fine, but it needs to be supported by each governments to make a difference and it is part of a wider discussion among governments.
Across the board it seems that organisations, professionals and politicians are still largely reluctant to talk in public about subjects of water integrity, especially when it includes the anti-corruption perspective. Many bigger brothers (and sisters) are still watching, perhaps? Or is it about the risk of losing funding from donors or the public? So far, being good at integrity is not a competitive edge for most public sector stakeholders and for NGOs. Actually, private corporations might turn out be quicker in seeing this as an opportunity and taking action.
Therefore, in terms of addressing integrity and anti-corruption as part of good water governance, we have a long way to go. That said, the chances to make the point in a variety of countries and stakeholder configurations have never been higher.