Day 5: The last two days of a five-day forum drag on and on. Piles of publications remain piles, people start to thin out - though ministerial sessions pick generate some energy (though not much) - and the first signs emerge of exhibitors migrating elsewhere. On Monday the thematic sessions moved on to Food and the Environment (as if this were separate from earlier days on 'water for growth and development', 'implementing IWRM' and 'water supply and sanitation'-illustrating, again, the capacity for vast over-expansion of the event) and on Tuesday the potentially more interesting theme of risk management.
Over the final two days, a key theme in terms of food, environment and risk, seemed to be local knowledge and how this could create better understanding of impact, how to engage locally and how to bring local knowledge into global forums. Unfortunately, many local actions presented at the forum had been anything but local, which rather neutralised the forum's potential use (though there were exceptions, such as in the Multiple Use Services session).
More generally, a sign that greater local Mexican knowledge was entering the forum became the multiplication of sombreros being worn by the camposinos, who in some sessions clearly made their knowledge felt; in one, for instance, forcefully challenging the wisdom of an FAO representative who was extolling the virtues of large-scale irrigation. Their response was that low-cost technology was more sustainable and had greater social and cultural impact in preserving local forms of knowledge.
Elsewhere, they also underlined the critical need to maintain use of local seed varieties, and the significant impact of deforestation on water resource availability and use. The strength of their views and capacity for direct action had been evident on the streets days before.
Echoing this theme, an interesting session on culture and water argued that the resource had complex and deep social and cultural values that were often subject to efforts at state control (Kenya and China were cited). Particular problems arose with respect to pastoralists and nomads in arid environments and government efforts at sedentarisation. In some cases these changes were part of longer-term state-society change, but the emphasis on the importance of respecting cultural as well as economic value was strong. Unfortunately, however, the session was not well-attended.
In sessions on the environment and services, there were challenges to the oft-assumed links between afforestation and river flows (reduced runoff, etc, reducing the potential for flooding). Important other factors in determining river behaviour were also emphasised; and how valuing environmental services required a better balance (or trade-off) in costs and benefits between providers and beneficiaries of environmental services came out strongly.
The local knowledge theme was reprised in a session on research and water management. This was not only in terms of bringing local knowledge into research processes, but ensuring that research 'fruits' could be consumed locally. Some presenters argued that research should simply be valued (and therefore funded?) on the basis of actual empowerment of local communities and improvements in their asset base. Researchers could play a key role in the relationship between local action (the forum's theme) and international policy discourse. A strong call came for CBOs to be involved from the outset in defining the research agenda as well as in determining how results are disseminated. This interesting theme might well make for a good session at the next (and hopefully final!) world water forum which will be held in Istanbul in 2009. There were mixed feelings over this choice, however, given Turkey's occasionally contentious upstream position on the Euphrates. However, it was also noted that the forum could provide Turkey with an opportunity to prove its credentials for good neighbourliness.
Elsewhere over the two days, Alan Nicol attended a coffee morning at the Ambassador's residence with the Environment Minister, Elliot Morely. This was an interesting exercise in spot the diplomatic point, but provided for useful exchanges on Defra's approach (and growing portfolio of overseas work, it seems…). Alan Nicol then attended a session on virtual water where presentations went into the utterly abstract with descriptions of migrating birds and demand for Swiss Chocolates as examples of virtual water trade. However, whilst entertaining, the session was most certainly historic in a small way. Professor Tony Allan - the originator and developer of the virtual water concept - sat alongside the Egyptian Minister of Water and Irrigation, who insisted that the idea had worth and should be explored further. Some years ago the Egyptian Government found virtual water challenging in extremis, not least because it exposed the 'silent solution' to Egypt's water problem in food production, namely that it was in fact importing most of its food staples (and therefore the 'virtual water' required to produce them) whilst at the same time insisting that water for food security remained a concern. For moments like these forums are worthwhile, but they are rare.
By the end of the final day, the boxes were being packed and participants were thinking ahead to pyramids and other amazing archaeological sites. The Sun Pyramid proved quite an interesting meeting point on World Water Day itself.
Overall, the Forum showed the value of participation and networking, continued capacity to exchange vast quantities of PowerPoint data and (thankfully), increasingly, huge volumes of printed materials on CD-Roms. But if asked to respond to the question, so what? The answer would have to be that its net impact is minimal in driving change forwards and improving the achievement of MDGs, etc. A better, and more critical question, is does such a forum actually do more harm than good by reinforcing bad ideas and excluding the good? At the moment the jury's out on that one.
A short report on the Forum will be prepared in the next couple of days, focusing on the actual formal output, the Ministerial (and other) statements.
For more information on WPP visit www.odi.org.uk/wpp