How Do We Really Solve the World’s Water Challenge?

Editors Note: This guest post was authored by John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates. John describes a session he chaired at the World Justice Forum IV in July that explored the nexus between water challenges and rule of law — two areas often seen as representing separate development sectors. In the post, he explains how water solutions and rule of law can be mutually reinforcing and cites ongoing projects in which communities and their governments are working together to address challenges in WASH. A version of this post originally appeared here

John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates

I had the honor of chairing a session on Sustainable Water Solutions and the Rule of Law at the World Justice Forum IV in The Hague. During the vigorous two hour dialogue, it became clear that the street between water and rule of law runs both ways: A solid rule of law foundation will likely enhance the sustainability and scalability of water programs by increasing collaboration with and leadership from governments, and effective water programs will fortify rule of law by strengthening the social contract between citizens and their governments.

I spent years implementing democracy and governance programs in Africa on behalf of the U.S. government, and jumped at the opportunity to build this bridge between that world and my current water portfolio — two seemingly distinct development sectors. In framing the panel, I positioned rule of law — broadly defined, as in Wikipedia’s “authority and influence of law in society” — as an enabler, as a catalyst, of sustainable, institutionalized progress toward all global development challenges. On the flipside, I also see more progress on water challenges as one of many ways to strengthen the rule of law. For example, the most interesting question asked during the opening plenary of the World Justice Forum was “Is there a primary school for rule of law, or does one have to wait until graduate school to learn about it?” I assert that there is indeed a primary school for the rule of law: a village water committee anywhere in the world. The first experience many people — especially women — have in the developing world with rule of law and with participatory democracy is via their participation on local committees designed to identify and sustainably address local challenges. Tip O’Neill, a famous American politician, said “All politics is local.” Well, so are development challenges and solutions, especially those related to water. So that village water committee in rural India is a primary school for rule of law. An HIV support group in South Africa is a primary school for rule of law, solving its own community challenges, often alongside its government. A women’s neighborhood group focused on sanitation in Nairobi or Mexico City is a primary school for rule of law, as are local school boards, housing committees, and the like.

Water challenges at local, national, and transboundary levels all offer individuals an opportunity to strengthen the social contract between themselves and their governments. To achieve universal coverage of safe drinking water on the planet, in the compressed timeframe for which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy advocated at the Forum, governments must work hand-in-hand with their constituents.

Here are a handful of rule of law/water solutions underway, and worth tracking and supporting:

  • Community water boards by the thousands are becoming stronger throughout Latin America with the help of la Fundación Avina, making safe water more accessible to millions of Latin Americans, and at the same time creating more open, democratic societies.
  • Rule of law is making water more accessible and safer across the globe: e.g., cities are adding rainwater harvesting to building codes in India, and municipal development plans are incorporating community sanitation facilities in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
  • The Nile Basin Initiative continues to strengthen the capacity of the Nile’s riparian states to stay ahead of the water conflict predicted by many for the region.
  • Water For People’s Everyone Forever effort focuses first and foremost on the interaction between citizens and their governments, with the international community playing a catalytic role; this will eventually obviate the need for any outside assistance.
  • The Sanitation and Water for All Partnership attracts Finance Ministers to its High Level Meeting every two years. Stronger political will makes it possible for those Finance Ministers to do what they already want to do: increase budgets and strengthen policies for water in their countries by making and meeting tangible, time-bound commitments.
  • Civil society organizations across the developing world are now using this toolkit “How to Campaign on Water and Sanitation Issues During an Election” to make sure that elected leaders have committed to tackling water challenges long before their terms in office. This toolkit should be used in every election tracked by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

The water challenges across the globe are grave. But they are solvable, and being solved by communities and governments as I write. My ambition is that rule of law and water communities will find more ways to work together across a number of platforms, and that both communities will emerge stronger from those collaborative efforts.