In March 2018 the UN HLPW published Every Drop Counts: An Agenda for Water Action. It makes a number of clear recommendations about the future of the water sector internationally. My question is, does the sector as a whole have the requisite mindset and capabilities to put those recommendations into practice.

In particular, does the sector have what it takes to successfully integrate planning across water systems?

Here’s why this question is on my mind: The report notes that water needs to be managed as a system – usually as a basin, sub-basin or aquifer – and that water system boundaries tend not to correlate with political or administrative boundaries. In this context it makes the recommendation that the industry “implement integrated approaches to water management at local, national and transboundary levels…”

Having spent much of the past several years supporting water planners to do just that I’m concerned that the drive to do more integrated water management is outpacing the capacity of organisations to build the appropriate skills in their workforce.

Water professionals are highly capable with enormous expertise. Yet this deep well of capability tends to be about the technical challenges of water management, such as the impact of nitrogen on water quality. This expertise is less helpful when tackling transboundary integrated water governance.

To meet the challenge posed by Making Every Drop Count, planners will face more complex questions such as:

  • How to build trust across different groups
  • How to shift from a solution to a problem orientation
  • How to make progress in the face of great uncertainty
  • How to learn with your stakeholders, rather than provide answers to them

These are tough things for experts to do, and not things they’ve learned at school.

In my experience, successful integration of water planning across boundaries requires individuals, teams and organisations to grapple with different questions, such as:

  • How do we deal with complex situations like this?
  • What gets in the way of working with ‘others’?
  • What is involved in thinking and acting differently, more collaboratively?
  • How do we need to think and act in order to ensure others really own the plan?
  • How can I lead when I don’t have the answers?

These questions, and others like them, look straightforward on the page, but having worked closely with water planners to support them to build their capability in these areas, I have learned not to underestimate the struggle involved. Business as usual emits a powerful force that continues to suck people back into old habits and existing comfort zones.

So, the need to integrate water planning at multiple levels is critical. Most water planners know this. It is now time for their organisations to recognise that success requires an additional suite of skills and a real investment in their people.

Only that way can we make every drop count.

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