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Bridging science and policy – also a question of integrity?

The XVI World Water Congress took place in Cancun, Mexico, from the 29th of May to the 3rd of July 2017 with “Bridging Science and Policy” as a topic. During the event, more than 1100 participants from 68 countries discussed the crucial role that the water and sanitation sector has in achieving the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.

WIN presented work led in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Latin America, which is aimed at strengthening transparency and trust in stewardship initiatives like Water Funds.

Science is by definition a neutral discipline based on experimental data and independent of political ideologies. But policymakers can be reluctant to accept scientific facts as primary evidence for policymaking, especially if these facts contradict special interests or are poorly understood.

Two factors worsen this situation: the possibility to manipulate and distort data to fit certain interests, and the complexity of science for a non-specialized audience. The combination of these two factors can decrease people’s trust towards science. The intense political debate on climate change sciences is an obvious illustration.

At the time of the Congress, the United States government announced its official withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Although not a surprise, the news struck participants, resonating as a deep failure in the fight for protecting the planet from the negative impacts of climate change.

A key ingredient for bridging policy and science is integrity. More transparency, accountability, and participation can help build trust and reinforce the synergy between science and policy.

It is essential that water sector stakeholders take into account integrity principles and conflicts of interest more seriously, use science as evidence for better policymaking and steer scientific enquiry towards the most pressing social needs.

Clarifying links to integrity risks when we discuss key water sector issues and policy solutions, can be a strategy to innovate and plan new ways of bridging the gap.

In Cancun, this possibility remained implicit for now, but some stepping stones were set. It’s up to us water integrity practitioners to push further and clear away a more inviting path.

Integrity is an implicit, cross-cutting issue in the water sector

Water security was on everyone’s lips at the Congress. We heard it in the context of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), the water-energy-food nexus, and water governance.

In every case, water security conveys a central message: we need to make sure that water is and will be available to sustain livelihoods, human well-being, and healthy ecosystems.

In many sessions, the examples that were presented in relation to water security were about conflicts or success stories of shared water resources around the world. Sharing scarce resources fairly and sustainably is central to the concept of water integrity and as such water security is very closely connected.

Without a direct reference to integrity, participants also expressed their interest in many other integrity-related topics, for example:

  • The lack of data on people not accessing water services, compared to the availability of data on water users.

  • The few incentives to reduce non-revenue water, compared to the relative ease of getting investments for new infrastructure.

  • The way better information does not necessarily imply better decisions because of the complexity of the decision-making process

  • The importance of accountability to increase investors’ trust.

  • The key role of civil society in fighting corruption and the challenging environment for such work.

In relation to the last point, the Cancun Declaration released at the end of the event does urge for collaboration and engagement, in particular with civil society. It’s a small step in terms of recognizing integrity risks explicitly but a step in the right direction nonetheless.

‘They (water specialists) must engage with civil society to assert the role of water in human rights and nature.’

– Cancun Declaration

Paths to introduce integrity into the water discussion

Congress participants intensively discussed the water-related goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The discussion highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and the ‘3 “I”s’: Institutions, Infrastructure and Investments. It is important to note that these 3 elements relate to important integrity risks: misuse of key positions, bribery and collusion in procurement, and lack of transparency in the public budget. Integrity can be a new way to think of issues at hand and jointly develop fair, effective, and sustainable solutions.

Water governance is another important and clear entry point. Good governance and water integrity go hand in hand. The Organizations of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) presented their latest work from implementing their principles on water governance, which emphasise integrity, transparency and trust.

The new phase of the OECD Water Governance Programme includes a platform where water practitioners can share their experiences. The aim is to activate a fruitful dialogue for water governance.

Integrity to support and enable water stewardship: integrity in Water Funds

In Cancun, WIN presented the work it has carried out with TNC and the Water Fund of Medellin, Colombia. Water Funds are water stewardship initiatives in which public and private actors work together to provide water security to metropolitan areas by investing in natural infrastructure.

These initiatives have been very successful and are currently considered a model of good practice. Many sessions during the Congress discussed different aspects of their structure. Water Funds rely on technical and scientific data to design their action plans. But such collaborative basin management also requires mechanisms to ensure open accountability, participation, and clear access to information for all stakeholders involved.

Open collaboration and knowledge sharing among Water Fund stakeholders have been essential to their success. This relies on trust.

WIN’s work on Water Funds (and World Water Congress presentation) focused on:

  • The importance of trust and transparency as essential elements for the success of multi-stakeholder processes;

  • The joint efforts of WIN and TNC to make Water Funds more transparent, secure and participatory;

  • How a better understanding of the success of these initiatives in terms of integrity and effectiveness will be paramount to securing investments and fine-tuning their multi-stakeholder structures.

The presentation led to a lively discussion. Some questioned the importance of participation, particularly that of civil society and of the youth.

In response, we highlighted the big challenges for water governance in places where civic space is constrained and the importance of new technologies towards transparency. We argued that the experience of the Water Funds is a good example of how important it is to understand the positions, needs and interests of all actors.


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