Interview with Anders Berntell, Executive Director of SIWI
Anders Berntell is the Executive Director of the Stockholm International Water Institute, a Stockholm based policy institute best known for its work as the organizer of the annual World Water Week in Stockholm. Following the 20th anniversary of the World Water Week in Stockholm this past September, we asked Anders to share his vision for the future of the Week in the years to come.
The World Water Week in Stockholm convened for the 20th time this past September, how has the event changed over the years?
It has been a special experience for all of us at SIWI to take part in the development of World Water Week over the past two decades.
We started as a rather small gathering of water scientists who focused largely on very technical content and have grown into a true meeting place for the whole community working within the broad spectrum of water related issues. What we have really tried to do is to provide an interesting platform to create an open dialogue between policy makers, international and UN organizations, academia, the business community, water professionals and practitioners, NGOs and representatives from the civil society.
After 20 years, the World Water Week in Stockholm has become well-known as an important meeting for the international water community. How did you mark the occasion?
This past year was a special one for us: We invited all of the former Stockholm Water Prize laureates to participate in many of the Week’s sessions, including a special seminar that analyzed the emerging water challenges for the next 20 years. We also produced a report that investigated the key issues that have been raised at the different World Water Weeks over the years and analyzed how the outcomes of the World Water Week has increased international awareness on those issues, and ultimately, led to the implementation of new policies in countries around the world.
What do you see as the role that the World Water Week in Stockholm plays within the water community?
While there are numerous water conferences that take place throughout the year, most of them bring together a more specialized audience: Water professionals congregate for one meeting, scientists meet at another and the business community in a third. The role of the World Water Week is to provide a forum where people from all of those backgrounds can meet each year. I think one reason that it has been able to grow over the years is that we have adapted the event to respond to a need: the international water and development communities needs a venue where a wide-array of actors can get together for a week to share experiences, assess progress, and calibrate their collective thinking on complex problems in a systematic way.
In order to do this, it is crucial to us that the participants share ownership of the Week. We do this by inviting numerous institutions to convene or co-convene sessions at the Week. This provides over 200 collaborating organizations with a platform that they cannot create themselves, which is something we realize is highly valued by our partners. This is a role we expect to keep playing in the future.
What is your vision for the future of the World Water Week?
First, we do not have an ambition to grow into another mega-conference. We will maintain the format and size of the Week because we want to preserve an environment where people can interact and engage with each other. We do not want the event to grow into a place where a huge amount of people are simply staying under the same roof: we want the World Water Week individuals can interact and minds can meet in a genuine way. This part of our vision for the Week, which has built over the past decade, will not change.
But there are many other elements that can be further developed. We want to strengthen the dialogue between groups that still do not completely connect. In particular, we need to build a better platform to enable a more effective dialogue between the scientific community and policy-makers. It is, of course, not just the World Water Week in Stockholm faces this challenge, but we believe this to be an area where we can continue to do better. It is also our priority to involve even more representatives from outside the water community. It is well known that the root of many of the water challenges we face come from activities that take place in other sectors of society. Yet, water specialists still tend to speak most often to other water specialists about what needs to be done. We will strive to create a more productive dialogue between those working with water directly and those whom impact its use.
Looking ahead to the Rio+20 meeting that will take place in 2012, do you see this as a chance to build the dialogue between the water community and other sectors?
The outcome of the Rio+20 and the preparations leading up to the meeting are very important for the water community. Though some of our colleagues working with water may be upset that water has not been specifically highlighted as one of themes at the Rio +20, I believe that the focus on building green economies offers an opportunity to demonstrate the importance that water issues have in any economy, regardless of whether it is green or not. Water runs through the economic activities of all societies, from food and energy production to transport, industry, and urban development. At the Rio +20 in 2012, we in the water community must take advantage of the chance to connect with those who operate “outside the water box” and ensure a productive outcome from Summit.
How will the World Water Week connect with the preparations for the Rio+20?
At the 2011 World Water Week, we will host a dialogue with representatives from governments, UN bodies and international organizations to discuss what we would like to see as an output from the Rio+20 process. This discussion may also focus on water’s role within different sectors, such as agriculture and energy. We also believe that we can build upon this in other meetings that will follow throughout the next year, where we can build consensus and political momentum leading up to the Summit in Rio.
Do you see any emerging opportunities for UN-Water members to be more involved in the planning of the World Water Week?
The active participation of both individual UN agencies and UN-Water as a collective group is invaluable to the success of the World Water Week. We are very happy with the strong involvement of many UN agencies both during and in the preparation for the event. Beyond taking part during the Week itself, many UN-Water members also serve in various committees that are responsible for the planning of the Week. We look forward to continue to work closely with UN-Water members in the planning of each of the World Water Weeks to come, and in particular, those agencies and organizations who are working within the area of the theme selected each year. Next year, for example, we look forward to UN-Habitat and many others to be actively engaged as we convene under the theme "Responding to Global Changes - Acting on the Urban Challenge". In 2012, we will certainly work closely with FAO and others working on food security challenges. We wish to continue to work with the UN agencies in many aspects of the Week.