What are the conversations about water we need to be having right now?

At the recent Partners Workshop in Adelaide, we asked this question to a room of about 100 AWP partners – government representatives, water professionals, academics and members of the international development community. Using an approach known as Open Space Technology, we asked AWP Partners to put forward ideas and to host long-form conversations about the big issues in sustainable and climate resilient water management.

The timing of the conversations was important, as it was the week before 8000 people gathered in New York for the 2023 UN Water Conference.  We felt the international water community had a lot of energy and desire to capitalise on water’s moment in the UN spotlight, but also a feeling that progress towards SDG6 has not been fast enough, and that the escalating effects of climate change threaten even these gains. We were curious to know what AWP Partners thought – with their unique perspectives working at the frontlines of climate resilient water management in Australia and our region.  It was also an opportunity for Partners to set the agenda of these conversations and bring forward what they thought was most urgent to discuss and share. AWP partners’ insights are highly relevant to how Australia engages in the critical next decade for water and climate.

Setting the stage

In Open Space, the first step is for the participants to create the agenda for the meeting.  A trickle, then a surge of AWP partners came forward with ideas they wanted to explore.  As we ended up with more ideas than tables, the facilitation team helped to suggest ways to group the ideas.

After some negotiation, the group ended up with some starting points:

  • Balancing climate policy with water needs
  • Investing in the face of uncertainty (not risk!)
  • Water security in the Pacific
  • How do we bring innovation and science into our future work?
  • Examining what we mean by long-term outcomes and how we deliver them.
  • How do we learn better from failure – in the context of Australia sharing lessons honestly from our own experience?
  • Nature-based solutions and informal settlements
  • What’s beyond the SDGs?
  • AWP’s role in water diplomacy

Following Open Space conventions, partners were encouraged to move around the room and contribute to more than one table, if that’s where their interest and energy took them. Some people were ‘bumblebees’ flying from group to group cross-pollinating discussions, while others were ‘butterflies’ staying in one location. Once the initial tables formed, we gave partners 2 ½ hours to discuss and develop ideas.  Volunteers on most tables recorded the discussions on flipcharts – which we have used as prompts for this blog – and we ended the session with some reflections from the Chair of the eWater Group Board, Greg Claydon.

Greg noted that Partners engaged in a journey of joint discovery through this process. There are diverse values, cultures and languages, meaning we have different approaches and understandings of issues and their solutions. A key observation was that it is the experiences and insights of those at the table that we are hearing to inform how water is managed, which raises the question of who should be in the room. This was also a reflection at the UN Water Conference where underrepresented groups such as Indigenous Peoples had to strongly advocate for space to participate and be heard.

Diving into the big questions

The process allowed time and space to go deeper into discussions and get an understanding of the depth and breadth of work AWP Partners are carrying out in the development context.

Acknowledging that it is not possible to do justice to the deep and detailed discussions in a summary, we have picked out some patterns and themes.  Looking across the flipcharts, the concluding remarks, and comments from participants, some of the key ideas are:

  • Australia (and the world) is wrestling with multiple agendas – but water is cross-cutting and can be an entry point to conversations around food and energy for example.
  • Truth-telling and humility about the Australian (and global) experience of water management, and the ability to engage with the region from this place.
  • Building the case for adaptive and cross-disciplinary approaches which embrace different approaches including incorporating nature-based solutions into water management.
  • Doing better to support the SDGs and beyond needs bottom-up collective action along with political will. A way forward is through advocating for inclusive leadership and strengthening of capacity across levels (institution, operational and personal).
  • The importance of quality engagement – what’s the culture of partnership that we wish to have? AWP can provide the platform and the connective tissue to bring diverse views and values together. Learning from activities can inform how we design, implement and monitor, and who is involve especially at the local level.
  • Achieving long term outcomes around water and climate in development requires investment in “discovery”. This includes taking time to understand the problem, collaborative research and robust monitoring and evaluation.
  • Co-design of projects with communities, and using local knowledge is essential for addressing water and climate issues. This can be through developing nature-based solutions for water and wastewater treatment to using local species for river health monitoring.
  • When dealing with uncertainty and risk, communication and learning with policymakers, community and stakeholders is essential to decision making on how to address the risk.
  • The barriers to innovation and building capacity in science and technology can be overcome when there is pooling of resources combined with partnering for longer term solutions.
  • Water projects require a human-centred approach which respects diverse understanding of water management including traditional and local knowledge.

Following the in-depth discussions, we asked participants to reflect on what they learnt during the discussions. One area that came up many times was the convergence of views but often using different language. This recognised the value of speaking with others and to understand that people communicate in different ways but can sometimes be referring to the same or related concepts.

There was also reflection on the importance of taking time to have conversations while also listening with respect; this is a building block for creating lasting relationships for collaboration in an environment of trust and honesty. The discussions also included acknowledgement of learning from the past including failures around projects to inform future decision making.

This conversation concludes, but what’s next?

The UN Water Conference elevated the importance of water on the international agenda, brought together more than 700 commitments in the form of financial pledges, collaborative projects, and actions, and set the stage for the appointment of a Special Envoy. But we are not yet seeing effective action to solve the global water crisis.

AWP can play a role in helping to progress some of these conversations – through involvement in international events including supporting diverse and inclusive representation at these events, sharing our knowledge work, and supporting countries across the Indo-Pacific in water and climate action.  But specific ideas from our partners help us to make conversations impactful.

Our provides a framework to take these conversations forward supporting partners across the Indo-Pacific in climate resilient water management. AWP is planning for a new phase (DFAT funding permitting) where we anticipate opportunities to translate conversations to action, harnessing the expertise and experience of Australian partners to address water and climate challenges, but at the same time working with local partners and using local knowledge to ensure longer term sustainability and impact.

Featured image: Participants at the AWP Partners Workshop, March 2023 (Photo: SA Dept of Environment & Water)
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