Will Collective Inefficiency be over in March 2023?

In March 2023, the United Nations is due to hold a “rare” conference on water. Gérard Payen urges the international community to overcome its inertia and make this summit a historic event, during which important political decisions will be taken and an annual agenda will be set to achieve Goal 6 of the 2030 SDGs.

Water settling ponds and community participation to dig trenches in Béni, DRC ©Solidarités International 2005

Governments discuss freshwater at such a large number of international events that their work is now fragmented, scattered across disparate events, with no guiding principles and very little coordination. This results in confusion for the governments themselves, as well as for most other stakeholders in the international community. UN-Water does its best to ensure technical coordination, but the political coordination of various water-related activities remains to be defined. All these events are nonetheless useful forums for developing knowledge and preparing future decisions. For example, the World Water Forums in Mexico (2006) and Istanbul (2009) paved the way for the human right to safe drinking water to be recognized in 2010, while the Marseille Forum (2012) and the Budapest Summit (2013) led to the adoption of a specific Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on water in 2015.

In March 2023, the United Nations will hold an International Water Conference. It will be jointly presided by Tajikistan and the Netherlands, and will be attended by all governments. This will be a major event since only UN summits can give rise to global political decisions that countries consider binding and that benefit from long-term operational monitoring. The many intergovernmental meetings held in parallel to UN efforts may yield useful conclusions, but in the absence of institutional follow-up mechanisms, these findings generally do not progress very far. Within the United Nations, most of the meetings devoted to water are organized by UN agencies or Secretariats for international treaties that specialize in a particular field, only covering certain water issues. An international conference on all freshwater issues (all types of water as well as sanitation) is therefore a very rare event at the UN. Water issues are multiplying and becoming increasingly interrelated with every passing year. They underpin the vast majority of SDGs, making the 2023 conference a very rare opportunity to take useful collective decisions to improve the global organization on water issues.

United Nations general assembly, September 2020

The SDGs: A Coherent Vision

In 2015, a revolution took place. The adoption of the SDGs was the first time that governments had taken all the major water issues into consideration within a global program. Prior to that, collective goals only existed for drinking water and access to toilets. In 2015, this very patchy perspective was filled out with supplementary targets for water resources management, pollution and wastewater management, water ecosystems, flooding, public participation, water in schools, adaptation to climate change, urban planning, etc. In short, a complete vision on water issues was born. Twenty SDG targets are directly related to water. That’s great news! But unfortunately, nothing much has changed since 2015 in intergovernmental circles. It is as if the silos of the past have taken over again. In 2018, at the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), governments discussed water for three hours but took no new decisions. Worse still, during their first SDG Summit in October 2019, they boasted about their progress on access to safe drinking water, in stark contrast with global statistics predicting that the 2030 target for universal access to drinking water will not be reached until the 23rd century at the pace of progress resulting from current policies. Since 2015, no intergovernmental work has been done to acknowledge and rectify the insufficient progress towards water-related SDG targets. This lack of activity on all water issues stems directly from the fact that there is no specific UN political forum for water. Unlike the majority of SDG key topics, which each have their own intergovernmental platform with regular political meetings, water is not so fortunate and, politically speaking, has been left behind. There is a dire need for collective coherence and efficiency, but this is very seldom discussed since many institutional stakeholders, countries and UN agencies see more interest in maintaining the status quo.

Water tower in Koniba, Mali ©Solidarites International 2019

A UN Political Summit on Water is Much Too Rare an Event

Some say that the 2023 UN Water Conference will be the first since the Mar-del-Plata conference in 1977. This shows very little regard for the UN Sustainable Development Commission meeting in 2005, which brought together all the world’s governments for two weeks and resulted in a nine-page UN resolution on integrated water resources management, ecosystem preservation, drinking water and sanitation, including the treatment and reuse of wastewater. However, since 2005, the only significant UN resolutions on water have been the inception of the International Year of Sanitation (2008), the recognition of the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation (2010) and the adoption of the SDGs (2015).

The 2023 UN Conference will therefore be one of the very rare events where decisions can be taken on all water issues. This will be an opportunity to make intergovernmental work on water more effective. It will be an opportunity to streamline intergovernmental work, if participants decide to organize an annual UN intergovernmental meeting on all water-related SDG targets, as is the case for the other SDG key topics. This would ensure political coherence between the many disparate existing efforts and enable the organization of efforts to achieve SDG 6 and all the global water-related goals. A decision of this kind cannot be taken in 2023 without active preparation and sufficient anticipation. This will be one of the main issues at stake during the 9th World Water Forum that will take place in Dakar in 2022.

Kick-off meeting in preparation for the 9th World Water Forum, spring 2019 ©WorldWaterForum

Will the 2023 Conference take the decision to institute regular UN political meetings on all water-related SDG targets? If so, the conference will be quite historic. But if we miss this opportunity, the international water community will only have itself to blame for remaining collectively inefficient, for the lack of political attention paid to water and for the slow progress towards water-related SDG targets.

By Gérard Payen, former Water Advisor to the United Nations Secretary General and Vice President of the French Water Partnership and Astee


Who is Gérard Payen ?

Gérard Payen has been working for more than 35 years to solve water-related problems in all countries. As Water Adviser to the Secretary General of the United Nations (member of UNSGAB) from 2004 to 2015, he contributed to the recognition of the Human Rights to drinking water and sanitation as well as to the adoption of numerous water-related global sustainable development objectives. Today, he is a director of 3 major French associations dedicated to water and continues to work to mobilise the international community for a better management of water-related problems, which requires more ambitious public policies. At the same time, since 2009, he has been advising the United Nations agencies that produce the world’s water statistics. Impressed by the number of misconceptions about the nature of water problems that hinder public authorities in their decision-making, he published a book in 2013 to dismantle these misconceptions.

An example of the networking between humanitarian aid and development in Mali

Jean-Bernard Veron, the author of this text, is a long-time development specialist within FAD and now in several NGOs. He has played an important role in bringing humanitarian and development closer together to better meet the needs of populations in crisis zones that he also knows as a man in the field. The case study presented here, which dates back a few years, is a good example of the diversity of possible modes of intervention and their complementarity. 

                                                           

This networking, in a crisis context, between humanitarian aid for displaced populations and host communities and the revival of economic activities, took place in Mali in the Mopti region, more precisely in Konna and Barygodonga, as well as in Gao and Timbuktu.

Funded by the Foundation of France, these projects were implemented on the ground by the APFO [1]

Animals around the troughs of a water tower in rural Mali ©Solidarites International 2019

1. Purpose and objectives

The selection of projects was based on a twofold observation.

On the one hand, the security crisis has jeopardized the coverage of the needs of IDPs and has led to an overload in host communities, particularly in the area of food.

On the other hand, IDPs have had to interrupt the activities that enabled them to be economically self-sufficient. Moreover, their return, once security was restored, would be hampered by the deterioration of their means of production: looted seed stocks, bunds on irrigated perimeters and degraded contour lines due to lack of maintenance, slaughtered or stolen livestock.

These projects therefore aim to help populations affected by the crisis by targeting rural activities, agriculture and livestock breeding, and by combining humanitarian aid and the revival of the beneficiaries’ economic activities.

They are therefore multi-objective projects, in line with this dual purpose.

The first of these objectives is to cover the basic needs of IDPs. To this end, food supplies, impregnated mosquito nets against malaria and, where necessary, the care of malnourished children have been financed.

The second is to relaunch activities that will enable beneficiaries to do without humanitarian aid and regain their autonomy when the security of their region of origin allows them to return.

To this end, the projects have financed :

  • for agricultural activities: seeds and inputs, shovels and wheelbarrows to rehabilitate the dikes of irrigation perimeters, donkeys and carts to transport crops and manure;
  • for livestock: sheep and ewes for the benefit of the women who were engaged in this activity, in addition to market gardening, as well as cotton cake for animal feed.

The third objective, and this is one of the specific features of these projects, is to strengthen the resilience of the beneficiaries in the face of risks, particularly climatic risks. Thus :

  • the seeds provided are selected seeds, particularly wasa rice, combining good yields, adaptation to sometimes erratic rainfall, favouring short-cycle varieties that are resistant to parasitic weeds such as striga ;
  • the women who are to take care of the animals receive training in fattening and care.

The fourth objective, and this is another specificity, is appropriation, according to a bottom-up approach that favours the use of local structures. This is how projects are proposed and implemented by FOs (grassroots farmers’ organisations) without recourse to foreign actors, such as humanitarian or development NGOs. The content of the projects and the choice of beneficiaries is made through discussions between the members of each of the FOs concerned.

As regards the relationship between the beneficiaries of irrigated rice projects and their FOs, the latter provide seeds, inputs and diesel for irrigation pumps and collect a fee at harvest time to cover these costs. FOs can also buy the crops from farmers and sell them on wholesale markets.

Regional APFOs provide technical support [2] and make available to FOs the financing delegated to them by the national APFO [3]. As for the latter, it centralises the requests coming from the grassroots, which it compares with the available resources. It is also responsible for the capitalisation and dissemination functions among member organisations, in particular by resorting to exchange visits between FOs.

Farm in Mali, ©MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko

2. The projects and their results

A point to be underlined is that these projects, with few exceptions, include components implemented by men, in this case rice growing, and others devolved to women in the form of market gardening and/or livestock farming.

As a result, they are in line with a principle of diversification of activities that enables families to better cope with possible hazards, particularly climatic ones.

It should also be noted that in this respect they are based on precautionary practices that predate the current political and security crisis.

There are two projects in the Mopti region.

The Konna FO project targets rice cultivation. It is an irrigated perimeter comprising 300 plots of land of between a quarter and a hectare each. The first harvest shows quite respectable yields, varying between 40 and 50 quintals of paddy per hectare.

The Barygondonga FO combines a market gardening component, carried by the women of this village and focused on the production of onions and potatoes, and a fish farming component implemented by young men (production of fry and a grow-out basin). It should be noted that the women of the FO borrowed from a microfinance institution to build two storage sheds and they repaid this loan without difficulty.

There are also two projects in the north of the country.

The one in Gao has an agricultural component, centred on rice cultivation with the provision of seeds and inputs, as well as wheelbarrows and shovels to repair the dikes, and a livestock component with the provision of two sheep/sheep per woman, cotton cake as animal feed and basic training in veterinary care and fattening.

The rice farmers benefiting from this project have recorded a satisfactory harvest, while farmers in the surrounding area, who grow rainfed or bank crops, have suffered from the lack of rainfall during the last winter.

The project in Timbuktu has the same irrigated rice and livestock components, to which is added a market gardening component for women.

The results obtained by these projects are interesting :

  • yield of 50 to 60 quintals of paddy per hectare;
  • increase from 2 to 8 beds for each of the women beneficiaries of the market gardening component;
  • earlier calving of the ewes;
  • revival of the seed dynamic [4], it being specified that the seeds used are of good quality, adapted to the climatic context and supplied by specialised FOs supported by a project financed by IFAD;
  • securing part of the income from the sale of market garden produce, by selling on credit to civil servants who are more reliable consumers because they receive a salary to guarantee payment of their purchases.

As for the choice of beneficiaries by the FOs concerned, it targeted either the most vulnerable, especially widows, or some particularly efficient actors, in order to serve as examples for the other members of the FO.

3. Conclusion

Each of these projects can be considered technically successful in view of the yields obtained or the fact that the ewes have already had a first calving. They are also in line with the target number of families affected.

Moreover, where there have been cost overruns as mentioned in the call for projects, these overruns have been borne by the PDOPA without reducing either the volume of supplies or the number of beneficiaries.

Market gardening project in the Mopti region of Mali ©AFD

However, this does not mean that they do not face various difficulties. These are of two kinds.

Difficulties due to the vagaries of the weather and, more specifically, the mediocrity of the last wintering, resulting in reduced water availability and the impossibility of linking two crop cycles together. Irrigation pumps have been able to partially overcome these problems, but at the limit of their capacity. And some of them look dangerously old.

More worrying is the question of crop marketing. Indeed, their marketing may have locally and temporarily unbalanced the supply-demand ratio and thus had a depressing impact on sales prices.

To cope with this, storage and conservation capacities for perishable foodstuffs, such as onions or milk, need to be set up. These will make it possible to spread out the flow of products over time. In order to meet this challenge, contacts have been established with a system of collective granaries financed by Swiss Cooperation under the Pana Go project.

Jean-Bernard Véron


Who is Jean-Bernard Véron?

Jean-Bernard Véron - BabelioJean-Bernard Véron is currently a member of the editorial team of the magazine Afrique Contemporaine, after having been its editor-in-chief for 12 years. He is also a member of the Nepal and Emergency/Post-Emergency Committees of the Fondation de France, after having been the director of the International Solidarity Committee. Finally, he is a member of the bureau and the board of directors of the Franco-Laotian NGO CCL (Committee for Cooperation with Laos) and a member of the board of directors of the Franco-Afghan NGO AFRANE.

He has spent most of his professional career at the French Development Agency, where he held the positions of :

  • project manager at the Brazzaville agency
  • project Manager in the Economic Studies Division
  • geographical desk officer Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea
  • geographical desk officer Madagascar, Somalia, Djibouti
  • project manager in the Macroeconomic Studies Division
  • head of the Macroeconomic Studies Division
  • head of the Agricultural and Rural Development Division for Central, Eastern and Southern Africa
  • director of the Asia, Caribbean, Pacific Department
  • adviser to the Director of Strategy
  • head of the Crisis Prevention and Post-Conflict Unit

Jean-Bernard Véron is a graduate of the Institut of Political Science of Paris (International Relations section), holds a DEA in Economics and a DEA in Political Science and B.A. degrees in History, Geography, Anthropology and American Literature.


[1] The APFO (Association of Professional Farmers’ Organisations) brings together some 200 organisations, which may take the form of associations, cooperatives or farmers’ unions.

[2] With the exception of projects implemented in Gao and Timbuktu, where, given the insufficient capacities of the two regional AOPPs. Support was indeed provided by the National AOPP.

[3] The National AOPP also carries out advocacy work vis-à-vis the public authorities, in particular to operationalise the agricultural orientation law passed by parliament or to denounce land expropriations. In addition, it has set itself the complementary objective of strengthening grassroots organisations and empowering them financially.

[4] Several POs have therefore embarked on the production of improved seeds, adapted to the different ecosystems of Mali and duly certified.