The Young Water Leaders Summit (YWLS) at the Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) has been a great learning experience. There were many opportunities for building friendships and networks, and to learn from each other. The exposure to youths from all over the world who are passionate about the environment and water has been a highlight of the event. I have enjoyed discussing water issues and beyond with international delegates, finding out what interests them about water and getting inspired by the various approaches that people have.
The discussions and lectures that we had have raised many interesting viewpoints, sometimes contradicting opinions. One of the points that came up in a panel discussion that I found interesting is the distinction between availability, accessibility and affordability of water services. While availability of and access to water is a basic human right as water is essential to life, that does not mean that water should be provided for free. I think that it is interesting that while leaders recognize the need to price water correctly to instil the value of water in people, water is still undervalued in many countries. The argument that it is a human right, and hence, should be made affordable for all, while ethically correct, appears to be flawed; it should not mean that water is underpriced. As pointed out in the Water Professionals Panel by PUB Chief Executive, Chew Men Leong, there are two parts to the equation for water and sanitation – rights and responsibilities. This is an issue that is wider than the water industry, especially in countries where the water industry is privatized; social issues such as low income will require action from other parties beyond water companies.
This brings in another discussion point which is the role of governments. In various panels, such as In-Conversation and the Opening Plenary, while different governments have had different approaches to solving the local water issues, there was a consensus that strong leadership from governments is needed to set a clear direction in water policy, to give the assurance that is needed for the long-term investment in water infrastructure. It was also raised that a stable and prosperous government is not a pre-requisite for solving water issues at a government level; rather it is the spirit of human determination to provide sanitation services and drinking water that will solve water issues. This was a point of view that I did not consider prior to this summit; this added a level of complexity to how I will approach governmental regulation and involvement in water management in future.
Another theme that came up time and time again was collaboration, especially between the private and public sectors. The public sector is unable to carry out research and development or finance capital projects on its own. Similarly, the private sector alone cannot deal with water management as the government is still needed to set regulations on standards and tariffs. In the panel In-Conversation, the discussion about private versus public management of water services was interesting. Prior to studying in the United Kingdom, I did not think that it made sense for a public service like water to be privatized. However, these panels, along with case-studies in the United Kingdom have shown me that the private sector does have a role to play due to its ability to respond efficiently; however, this needs to be coupled with clear direction in policies and regulations set by the government.
Overall, the YWLS has been an exciting opportunity to meet like-minded peers and hear the views of industry leaders. It has been very beneficial to hear the concepts I have learnt in a classroom setting being applied practically, with more examples outside of the United Kingdom.
By Pei Li