Water as Leverage for Sustainable Actions by and for All


  • We are globally depleting our natural water supplies at a ruinous rate. Water is linked to the economy, geo-politics, the environment, climate change and more.
  • Local action, local capacity and local needs must be leveraged with global commitments, with indigenous knowledge and cultural capacity contributing to reducing social vulnerability
  • If we continue replicating the past without addressing systemic barriers, we will end up with a more vulnerable, less equitable and more fragile world than ever before

Water and climate change are directly linked. We know this by default and from disasters. The climate crisis is a water crisis. Nine out of 10 natural disasters are water related (UNISDR). Between 2001 and 2018, droughts, floods, landslides and storms caused over US$1.700 billion in damage worldwide, according to the UN, impacting over 3.4 billion people, the majority in Asia (UN World Water Development Report 2020: Water and climate change). Without water, there is no energy and no food. But too much water and ever-increasing ‘extremes’ also go hand in hand with far too little water – periods of drought align with the flow of refugees and increased conflicts (eg Ref 1, 2). We are globally depleting our natural water supplies at a ruinous rate, and sea level rise is jeopardizing our coastal cities and deltas. Water is linked to the economy, geo-politics, the environment, climate change and more.

No matter where in the world, in Afghanistan, China, Vietnam or Bangladesh; in South Africa, Mozambique, Egypt or the Middle East; in Europe or in the Americas. Water is life – it helps build a better future and inform sustainable actions, and it helps bring us together. Water empowers people and institutions; it helps to better capacitate us for the many and ever increasing and challenging tasks. Water inspires collaborative approaches to spur novel ideas, to identify opportunities and projects to work on. With water, we work collectively from the ground up to invest together in a better, more sustainable, more resilient and more inclusive future.

Local action, local capacity and local needs must be leveraged with global commitments, with indigenous knowledge and cultural capacity contributing to reducing social vulnerability. The understanding, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings inform decision-making about fundamental aspects of life, from day-to-day activities to longer-term actions. This knowledge is integral to cultural complexes, which also encompass language, classification systems, resource use practices, social interactions, values, rituals and spirituality. ‘These unique ways of knowing are important facets of the world’s cultural diversity and provide a foundation for locally-appropriate sustainable development’ (UNESCO, Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems).

In 2015, we as a world agreed collectively on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Not to cherry-pick from but as a holistic, comprehensive agenda for sustainable development. Social, economic, cultural and environmental challenges and opportunities are all interlinked. These interdependencies determine the way we live and thrive, and the way we must invest. Investing in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is the first line of defense and the first step towards a sustainable recovery. Never has the sixth SDG, ‘Ensure access to water and sanitation for all’, been more vital for saving and protecting lives as in this COVID-19 pandemic.

Water cuts across all Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), beyond SDG6: investing in water has a trickle-down effect across all SDGs.

To deliver on our promise of meeting the SDGs, we need collective commitment, program continuity and consistency of ambition. Together, we must leapfrog ahead and invest more and better in water capacity, land management and infrastructure – blue, green and grey. It is time to scale up our investments in integrated, inclusive and sustainable water programs and projects. Doing so pays off, according to the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations: Every US$1 invested in safe drinking water in urban areas yields more than US$3 in saved medical costs and added productivity. For every US$1 invested in basic sanitation, society earns back US$2.50. In rural areas, US$7 is gained or saved for every US$1 invested in clean drinking water. So far, we have largely failed to seize this opportunity. We continue to invest in infrastructure projects from the past, taken off the shelves, to fill economic stimulus packages. Focused on jobs alone for fast economic recovery, these projects offer no added value for integration, inclusion or sustainability. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 SDGs should lead the way for recovery, really preparing us for the challenging future ahead. Investing in water across the 2030 agenda is the added-value enabler we so urgently need.

We have to come up with new solutions to tackle our future challenges, since the solutions of the past will make the world a worse place tomorrow. By being proactive, we can understand our future and build resiliently. Our policies are based on our understanding of yesterday and not on our understanding of tomorrow. Innovation also involves the task of helping us change our policies and practices. For that to succeed we need a new approach, one that is rigorously inclusive, innovative and comprehensive, with everything and everyone working together from beginning to end. A mechanism through which future understanding becomes an inspiration and drives innovation forward, and which includes everyone in the process – bankers and investors are as much a part of this as policymakers and politicians, community leaders, NGOs, academics and the businesses that develop these solutions. Because with a better collective understanding of the future, we can gain a better idea of how to fund innovations arising from that understanding. These are the millions we need to invest to secure the billions for the projects that will really make a difference and prepare our society and planet for our challenging future.

Water as Leverage for Resilient Cities Asia is the program I initiated to spur this collaborative action, to make it concrete, to identify needs and opportunities while building partnerships across all layers of society, across all institutions—local, national and international—and their silos, across everything and everyone. Water as Leverage is the living proof of both the need for action and the opportunities we can implement, if only we drive our actions inclusively, holistically and sustainably.

While we have great and inspiring examples, we lack a steady flow of sustainable investments. Our promises compete with outdated infrastructure investments. If we continue replicating the past without addressing systemic barriers, we will end up with a more vulnerable, less equitable and more fragile world than ever before. Our commitment is challenged by vested interests in past mechanisms. We need to overcome these vested interests that are grounded in the past, single focused and aimed for despair and a disastrous future. We need to accelerate and expand our promises and our commitments, by science and through solidarity. Investing in a pipeline of blue and green opportunities across the 2030 Agenda, means investing in people across the world. We must practice what we preach.

(text is in part extracted from the foreword I wrote for Kadir van Lohuizen’s new book “After Us the Deluge” to be published in January 2021)

Henk was appointed in 2015 by the Dutch Cabinet as the first Special Envoy for International Water Affairs. As the Ambassador for Water, he is responsible for advocating water awareness around the world, building institutional capacity and coalitions amongst governments, multilateral organizations, private sector and NGO’s, and initiating innovate approaches to address the world's stressing needs on water. He is also Sherpa to the UN / World Bank High Level Panel on Water and teaches at Harvard GSD, the London School of Economics and the University of Groningen.

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