The involvement of businesses and NGOs in tackling our dwindling resources is essential, says Stuart Orr, but there’s trust to be built first.
Billions still lack access to safe drinking water, sanitation and energy, but we need businesses and NGOs to be part of the solution. Photograph: Lm Otero/AP
This month started with the news that the world’s population had hit 7 billion. We are divided by nationality, religion and language, but united by something far more powerful – our shared basic needs, among them, water, food and energy.
This week, governments, businesses and NGOs are meeting in Bonn, Germany, to discuss the latest addition to the already expansive lexicon of development/conservation jargon: the nexus. Not the stuff of sci-fi thrillers, the nexus is simply the connection between water, food and energy.
Simple concept, but complicated questions. For the sake of baby 7 billion – who I’ll call the nexus baby – we had better get down to business in Bonn, because we’ve been failing to manage these three essential resources for far too long.
Let’s think about the world the nexus baby is getting to know. Today, just under a billion people lack access to safe drinking water, 2.6 billion people have no sanitation services and 1.4 billion people have no reliable source of energy. Freshwater species, even those we have until now thought of as common are, in fact, declining at a faster rate than terrestrial or marine species. To meet future demand for food, we’re going to need to double the water used for irrigation. There’s the nexus, and it’s not a pretty picture.
There are any number of excuses for these dismal statistics. But the question of why we have thus far failed to achieve water, food and energy equity is secondary to the question of what we are going to do about it now.
One thing is clear: The “we” that must take action includes more than the usual suspects. Decisions that have dwelled and festered in the policy domain are now being influenced and driven by NGOs and the private sector. This could be alarming to some, but I think it’s essential if we hope to leave the nexus baby a functioning economy and a healthy planet.
Let’s be clear – the public sector has been dealing with these nexus challenges for a long time. But in most parts of the world, getting the information to make smart decisions or rallying the political will to make hard decisions is just lacking. (Though through a great new site called Knoema.com, the lack of information should no longer be an excuse).
Too often, we hear a water minister state that no more water can come out of a river, only to have the agriculture minister from the same government announce plans to expand irrigation. It is this type of siloed management that often halts progress. When the people in charge of managing water, food and energy fail to co-ordinate and manage them well, they transfer the risk on to ecosystems, communities and business.
One of the key messages we will hear in Bonn from NGOs and business is simply: enough is enough– we shouldn’t sit around for the next 10 or 15 years waiting for governments to sort out the system; we want to be part of this conversation.
Of course, part of this isn’t fair to governments. They have a huge task on their hands and now businesses that have been fighting regulation for 100 years are saying they want to play nice? I can see that this won’t always be easy, and the Bonn conference is an important forum to build trust.
In my experience, businesses aren’t coming to the table to talk about resource management as a means to make a quick buck. They are becoming aware of the risks posed by poor resource management, and they want to be part of the solution. Bonn is a chance to see if their self-interest is truly enlightened, because if companies are perceived as carving up resources for their own benefit, they will ultimately lose.
We won’t leave Bonn with a consolidated argument on the nexus, but hopefully we’ll have a better understanding of it, and how our decisions must account for the effects on all three resources.
Stuart Orr is freshwater manager at WWF International
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