Chasing the Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow
For the past two days, 80 young water leaders from around the world came together to discuss and debate the various water issues challenging the urban environment. Whether we were conversing about water stewardship in the corporate sector or water security for the future, each delegate brought a unique backstory to the conversation. The diversity of views highlighted the varied experiences each delegate had: a personal story of being affected by floods from the Mekong River, a technical interest in the hydrological cycle of water, a legal concern in the policy aspect of water management, just to name a few. This converging of the minds and cross-pollination of ideas brought to the fore general thematic and theoretical solutions for solving the world’s water issues. At this point in the essay, you will probably be questioning the last sentence you just read. For time immemorial there have been water issues that have been plaguing each country yet how can a bunch of youngsters who just met for a little over a couple of days be able to solve such lofty and seemingly unsolvable problems? Yes, I share the same sentiments. It is therefore in this experiential essay that I not only elaborate on these solutions; I will share the most important learning point I gained in the Young Water Leader Summit (YWLS): I, along with all the other young leaders of the water sector must act after all the talk.
After listening to environment and water ministers from over eight countries, CEOs and senior leaders of private corporations, as well as fellow young water leaders with different expertise, it became clear that, on a theoretical level, there are four main ingredients in the recipe to close the water loop and provide this basic human right to all. First, there needs to be a clear goal by senior leadership, be it from the private or governmental sector, for the management of water in the country or corporation. This means senior leaders must put water as a priority, allocate sufficient funds to its sustainable, long term endeavor, and provide the political or corporate will to lead from the front. Second, especially from the Singapore’s water success story, government needs to price water at its true value. Any resource, free or subsidized, has the grave potential to create a perception of an abundant supply, a mindset which often leads to wastage. Third, closing the water loop requires multi-sector cooperation by the people, private companies and public sector (3P). This 3P framework is better able to bring all relevant stakeholders on board the same course, creating trust and transparency between the different levels of society, and providing channels of communication to address differences and co-create shared understandings. Lastly, the investment and application of new technology is required to making processes, such as in the water recycling or water purification steps, more efficient and more cost-effective in the long term. Of course, I may be overlooking important points or over generalizing solutions; however, these steps seem to be the necessary conditions to create a world in which everyone has access to a sufficient and clean supply of water.
I just painted the rainbow. From a distance, these colorful solutions seem majestic and grand, obvious in the horizon and appreciated by all. Yet, this rainbow is elusive. The pot of gold at each end is a mere mirage, often evading the grasp and reach of the beholder. What is there to do? Well, the solutions summarized are the top-down, government and corporate led initiatives to the water problem. Here, in order to close the water solution loop, what YWLS taught me is that there needs to be a back-channel response, a bottom-up pressure by the public on the important decision makers. As such, the public, especially the enthusiastic, energetic, and idealistic youth, must realize that the capacity for change is theirs to take charge of. Whether we draft declarations or propose mandates in conferences like this and send them to our elected officials, or we volunteer our time to collect petitions to close loopholes in current water or environment legislation, we must continue to raise awareness and continue to believe in the cause. For, after all the Facebook friends have been made and pictures posted, we, the youth of the world, the agents of change, must stop saying we’re going to change the world one drop at a time. We must actually do it.
By Yong Kai Saw