John Matthews, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA)
What are your expectations for the Zaragoza Conference for helping in the implementation of the water related SDGs?
My expectations are that I hope to see insights from distinct silos in the water community that are rarely placed in substantive contact with one another. The private sector, people that work at a really strategic level at an operational level meeting with their counterparts in the public sector and in civil society and that we can together share some of the approaches and tools and methodologies and hopefully real insights and perspectives can be shared and developed.
Do you think over the last 10 years there’s been more of a coming together of the various sectors. Is there more cohesion than there used to be?
Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt – just because people are in contact with each other and maybe in increasing contact doesn’t mean that there’s forward movement – I could point to my extended family as an example. What i have seen is that there are individuals throughout the water community that tend to be bridge builders they tend to be curious about what’s happening outside of their own experience, they are i9nterested in expanding the circl3es of knowledge and expertise in which they work. They don’t assume that their larger network contains all of the necessary knowledge. To me that’s a sign of real humility. I think the water community at its best is a humble community that understands that there is little coherence to how we’re organised, that there are lots of people that are water managers that don’t even know that they are water managers and I think that those bridge builders are the ones that are ambassadors and midwives, they pull ideas across disciplines and institutions and sectors and they become ways of articulating, reenvisioning these ideas into new formats and I think that there have been some significant examples of that, there have also been times when worlds have met and worlds have collided, and people have pulled back from each other or differences have hardened. Those bridge builders are not that common but they’re critical and they’re particularly critical in terms of the post 2015 SDGs and even more important what really stands behind the SDGs, and the larger goals that they represent.
What are the main challenges for implementing sustainable water for all?
I’ve felt for a long time that there are two really significant challenges. One is that water is an elemental force, it’s something that is profoundly basic. But water is also a medium, it carries lots of other things. It carries sediment, it even carries ideas and culture. And that means that if you work at economies and ecosystems and governance systems sometimes it’s really hard to see the water but the water is really there. The first challenge is ‘can we see the water?’ and if we can see the water and agree that it’s in these networks relationships and systems then we can do a much better job about coming to some kind of consensus about how to manage that water in sustainable way and the larger goals. I think the second challenge is that there is something very basic in how we organise resource management and maybe our culture more generally in that we tend to like very fixed goals and what we’ve seen over the past 200 years is really significant transformations. What that means for water is that sometimes we have very discontinuous change – abrupt shifts that are difficult to anticipate but not always and in many cases we can at least prepare for them on some level. And those kinds of discontinuous change are really accelerating now. In the 20th century we probably moved from large cities to mega cities, we’re probably moving now from mega cities to ultra cities. We’re seeing climate change making places that have seemed familiar for centuries seem deeply unfamiliar and those kinds of transformation can also be social and economic, are really accelerating at this point.
If i had to pick which one of these is most significant I’d say this one. Because in many parts of the world you see models of development – China and India, Malawi – they’re not following the path that we followed in the west. And they really can’t. They have new kinds of challenges. How do we address sustainability when sustainability is not a fixed target?
What would you like to highlight about what your organisation is doing to achieve the water and sanitation targets?
My organisation is a global network it has about 600 people it’s called Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA), its mostly water professionals that are engaged in the process of trying to incorporate the emerging practice of climate adaptation into their daily work and i think what we try to do is focus on goal, not climate change per se, but how is it that we manage water in a sustainable way in long time scales – not a few years or a few decades but centuries and that’s in fact how we tend to build our infrastructure and networks. I feel like that’s the kind of perspective and insight that we would like to support through the meeting.
Anything to add?
I’m very much looking forward to the meeting. It’s interesting that the setting of the meeting is in Spain. Spain has been water challenged across several civilisations for at least 2.5 millennia, and in its landscape and it’s in legal systems it has a highly evolved approach to thinking about moving and sharing water. Spain is a very fitting place to have a meeting like this. In the world right now, if were were to start with a blank slate we might develop something that is new and fresh but in most cases we have to work with what we have and Spain is fortunate in that it has a rich history and really good examples of ideas that have worked and failed, the kind of communal ownership of water is a very deep Iberian idea that has spanned at least three civilisations in that country and it has proved to be an enduring one. We have to build on the context even as we reinterpret and rearticulate that context. And I think that provides a deep and positive example for the meeting itself.
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