“Water is the blue thread” – interview with Maggie White, SIWI

Maggie White, is Senior Manager of International Policy at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), and Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA) co-chair.

In Maggie White’s role leading international policy at SIWI, everything she does has water at the core. SIWI’s policy work reinforces the importance of water for the 2030 agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the wider response to the Paris Climate Agreement. However, she is clear that water offers wider solutions for adaptation and mitigation and requires a societal not a sector-led approach.

This harks back to her early work in West Africa, delivering local development solutions for an international NGO. As an anthropologist and sociologist by training, and spending most of her early life in Senegal where she was born, Maggie was attracted by development work with local communities.

She said, “My first job was working for an NGO that had developed an interesting methodology of how to respond to local needs using a community-based approach. It was a moment where the World Bank was just starting to reflect on such approaches and open up to more grass roots and bottom up initiatives. We were thinking about how to make projects sustainable and locally owned”.

She found that many of the priority needs of the local community were linked to water in some way. “When we asked people living in rural areas in Africa what their priority needs were, fifty per cent of the projects would be water-related”.

“The community would ask for a health centre because people were sick but then we realised that the majority of sicknesses were water-borne. Or they would ask for a school to improve access to education but we would realise that the majority of children would not be able to go to school because they were responsible for fetching water for the family.”

“It was really an interesting way to start addressing water issues, not from a WASH perspective or resource management perspective but from a local development and human settlement perspective.”

Maggie said that she realised from the beginning that water was essential for social, environmental, and economic needs. That awareness has made her appreciate even more the work that SIWI does and how influencing policy is so important.

“If you’re not able to influence and showcase to funding organisations why we need to have an integrated approach to development, then it’s not going to be sustainable in the long run”, she said.

She is clear that we can’t address issues with one solution or one sector and that we need to use an integrated approach. “Water is a necessity for everything, as one of the key pillars. That’s why I got really excited when I started working more on the resilience paradigm because it connected so well with what water can offer as an holistic solution.”

For this reason, in SIWI’s work towards the SDGs, they are focusing not just on SDG6 which is dedicated to water, but rather on all the other SDGs that include water-related targets. They aim to constantly highlight that the whole 2030 agenda is very water dependent and needs to have a resilience and integrated approach. Similarly, although the Paris Climate Agreement doesn’t mention water, it is a high priority in the adaptation chapters of the nationally determined contributions that countries have identified.

Maggie points out, “What’s interesting with water is that if you don’t enter it from a sector-led point of view and you look at it from an adaptation and mitigation point of view, water offers solutions for both those areas. For example, if we look at landscape management and urban planning from a water perspective, you can not only adapt to climate change but also mitigate CO2 emissions. Similarly, when we are looking at how to manage waste water, if we have a source-to-sea approach, and we recognise that our land-based activities have a high impact on the quality of our oceans, then again, we can adapt to and mitigate climate change”.

“Conversely, if we’re not careful enough about the kind of water resources that are being put back into nature and into the oceans then we’ll get unbalancing of the capacity of the planet and of our natural resources to be resilient to climate change.”

Maggie is clear that the societal not sector-led point of view is critical. When, three to four years ago, she first started working on the resilience paradigm, with Dr Fred Boltz, then at the Rockefeller Foundation, there was resistance from the water sector. It was suggested that it already existed under the integrated water resource management approach, or as part of sustainable development. At the same time the climate community was using a more societal point of view and exploring how to build resilience and make decisions in the uncertain context of climate change. Maggie notes that the resilience approach takes into consideration all the needs of water users but not just from a water resource perspective, so viewing through a resilience lens addresses issues in a much more holistic way, more relevant for our changing context.

“It all comes down to governance”, Maggie said. “We need to change the way we manage our natural resources and the way our institutions are set up. Whether at government or city level, we need integrated discussions with the different sectors on how we can work better together and plan better together. That will be the only sustainable solution moving forward.”

“We urgently have to stop destroying our natural resources and that is something that can be done very quickly if we put the will behind it. There are technical solutions and there is money. If we stop destroying our forests, if we stop polluting our waters, if we protect our oceans better, then nature has an amazing capacity of regeneration and is very resilient, but we’re putting too much pressure on it.”

“We are talking more and more about nature-based solutions and how nature is able to rejuvenate itself but we’ve got to stop polluting and operating in a ‘business as usual’ way, to make changes happen quickly enough.”

“We want decision-makers to see how water is the ‘blue thread’ to implementing these global agendas at the national level and that, through water, they can be much more efficient and effective at implementing change.”

 

With thanks to Maggie White. SIWI

 

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