A conversation with Prof. Swatuk about water, governance, and the SDGs at UWaterloo

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A conversation with Prof. Swatuk about water, governance, and the SDGs at UWaterloo

February 13, 2019

Interview conducted by co-President of SAID, Zack Ahmed Attended and transcribed by Marketing & Communications Director of SAID, Carissa Muller

SAID: What are the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) and how did they come to be?

LS: The SDGs were actually part of a follow-up on the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals). As the MDGs were at the halfway mark, the UN system decided that they had to have some kind of follow-up that had to be more people-centric and less Global South-specific. A lot of people believe that the SDGs were a popular response to the MDGs and that the MDGs did not reflect the true nature of the kinds of issues and problems existing in the world and that the sustainable development goals had to address that, so, such things as the connectivity between North and South. Out of the different UN Sustainable Development Conferences at Rio, Johannesburg and so on, a group of people led by Jeffrey Sachs, drove this process through a global network of discussions. At the end of the day it was an elite-driven decision on the exact number and description of the 17 different goals. Nevertheless, there’s a more popular and inclusive element in the SDGs than there was in the MDGs.

SAID: Considering that the MDGs were 8 goals set for 2000-2015, and SDGs are 17 goals set for 2015-2030, both set of goals have 15 years’ timespan, so how achievable are the SDGs?

Let’s focus less on final outcomes and more on processes and better practices.

LS: Are the goals achievable? I don’t know if the goals are achievable, but many things within the goals are achievable. The goals are goals -- they give us something to aim for. However, it’s not only about getting to the end point. It is also about process, doing the right thing, moving toward things like renewable energy, cleaner forms of production, less solid waste. We’re not going to displace carbon by 2030, but it doesn’t mean we can’t aim for the goals and reach many of the targets.

If you look at the SDGs relative to the MDGs, you’ll see that the first 5 SDGs as well as SDG 17 are the same as the MDGs. So, there’s great similarities. The big change of course is the bringing in Goals 6 through 16. Goal 16 focuses on governance, but Goals 6 through 15 are overwhelmingly focused on the problems not only of under consumption and underdevelopment but also of overconsumption and overdevelopment and the inter-relationship between these different processes and conditions. That, I think, is an achievement in itself: to get the world to focus and acknowledge that much of what has historically passed for ‘development’ is actually problematic and requires a new way of thinking about it. So, let’s focus less on final outcomes and more on processes and better practices.

SAID: Bringing back the SDGs closer to home, what role is the University of Waterloo and its Faculty Environment playing in achieving these goals?

We claim to be in support of Agenda 2030, so let’s see how we put this into practice.

LS: That’s a good question. It is interesting to note that the Faculty, not just SEED or the International Development programs (the undergrad and the MDP), is not re-aligning itself to the SDGs, largely because we were already on the right track. Within SEED, if you look at how we built the INDEV and MDP programs in complement to Environment and Business and the Local Economic Development programs, and so on, what you will see is that we were already thinking sustainably across cases, countries, places, and that presented the perfect opportunity for us, when the SDGs were propagated, to fully embrace the SDGs and Agenda 2030, and adopt it as our organizing framework within the School and also of course within the Faculty.

To this end, during one of the Master of Development Practice summit meetings, we approached Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, who is our MDP partner in Columbia University, with the idea of making the University of Waterloo the Canada hub for the SDSN. Prof. Sachs is the architect behind the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). The SDSN is a global network that disseminates knowledge and gathers information related to the SDGs. Different countries are partners within the SDSN network. With the approval of the SDSN, Prof. Bruce Frayne, the SEED Director, went on sort of a cross country tour canvassing different schools and programs about partnering with us in the SDSN. There was great support for that and so we, the University technically, but really it was us inside of SEED with great support from Dean Jean Andrey in the Faculty of Environment, that made it possible for the University of Waterloo to be the Canadian hub of the SDSN. Now we have to put our money where our mouth is. We claim to be in support of Agenda 2030, so let’s see how we put this into practice.

SAID: Now, you’re primarily an INDEV professor… how is the International Development program aligned to any of the SDGs? Indev students are generally passionate about bringing positive changes to the world, what are the job opportunities for them as far SDGs are concerned?

LS: Obviously, as you know, the SDGs include everything. So obviously, if we train you in something, you will be ready for anything! If you think about the way we originally organized the undergrad and grad programs, we were interested in schooling students in the ability to think critically and understand the world around us in a nuanced way. All international development programs across Canada do that. Unlike these other programs, however, we built in some practical skills, such as accounting, environmental management, social entrepreneurship and included the 8-month field placement. We also encourage our students to follow their passion, and to complement their INDEV degree program with a relevant minor, say in gender studies or another language. In this way, the student can combine critical thinking with the practical side of development with a deepened skill set in your own choice.

It’s partly up to us to sensitize students to the ways that you might try to align yourself and your interests with the global goals so that you can perhaps be strategic by seeing how your core courses contribute but also by picking your electives to try to make sure that if you want to work on health or gender or sustainable consumption and production that we can help you do what you want to do in the future.

SAID: So finally, we understand that you have written and co-edited several books on Water and that these projects were partly funded by the University of Waterloo’s Water Institute. Is SDG 6 – sustainable water and sanitation – a goal that you’re specifically working on?

I think you can see the world through water.

LS: You know what’s interesting is that it’s a timely question because every year in the MDP, I teach a course on water and security – INDEV 608. I created this course because one of my major interests is in fresh water governance and management, particularly but not only in the Global South. In this course we write for publication. What happens is, as part of your professional training you learn how to write in different ways and forms. Short, so policy briefs, but also more in depth and research focused. If we are to change the world, we must be able to engage with it, to be public intellectuals who join the global conversation around particular issues of importance. In INDEV 608 we write as public intellectuals who have something to say about the state of our world’s water resources.

In 2018, we published a book with Routledge called “Water, Climate Change, and the Boomerang effect” and the core of those papers began life as student papers in INDEV 608. Also, last year, although the work timelines were different, we published a book with Palgrave: Macmillan called “Water, Energy, Food and People Across the Global South: ‘The Nexus’ in an Era of Climate Change”. And again, the lion’s share of chapters in there began life as student papers that were written in INDEV 608. In terms of process, I decide on the general topic and shepherd the students through the writing process. The first iteration is for the course. These are then revised and presented at the annual International Conference on Sustainable Development (ICSD) in New York during Sustainable Development Week. Some of them just end there while others go on to further revision and ultimately publication.

This year the students are focusing specifically on SDG 6. In particular, they are writing six papers, each of which speaks directly to two of the targets. There are eight targets, including, for example, Target 6.1 aims to achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all. One of the student groups is assessing this goal in relation to First Nations communities in Canada. Target 6.6 aims to protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes. One of the student groups is assessing this target in relation to the Grand River Watershed. So, as you can see from these examples, the students are focusing on these targets in order to look deeply into the research case studies to see where we have moved forward, or not, in relation to achieving SDG 6.

While I am happy that water (and sanitation) has its own SDG, it is important to note that water is in everything. It is a cross-cutting issue. It’s in all forms of production. It’s in all forms of consumption. It’s the basis for health, it’s the basis for food security, it’s the basis for everything. If you’re poorly hydrated, you won’t learn, so it’s the basis for education. Despite water’s centrality to life on Earth, in my own opinion, the most important SDG is SDG 12 which is sustainable production and consumption. SDG 12 is at the heart of all issues, whether it’s in the Global North with our overconsumption and our related issues such as plastic oceans, or in the Global South with sweatshop production and the exploitation of female labour. In SEED, we talk about cradle-to-cradle production, greening business and moving toward green economies. Indeed, this is the focus of the 9th annual INDEV student conference. In the Global South, however, SDG 12 plays out differently: it’s about underconsumption locally, but perhaps, more importantly, it is about the consequences of structures of production for the global market: for example, poor solid waste management, unfair and unsafe working conditions and air, soil and water pollution. These Global South issues are a direct result of overconsumption in the Global North. The United States is always blaming China for all kinds of issues but if Donald Trump would just look at the labels on his shirt, he would know that he is China! I mean his shoes are probably made in China, his pants are made in China, his statuary in Mar-a-Lago is made in China. And he is not alone: we are China!

So I think production and consumption is the most important SDG, but of course, water is at the heart of production and consumption. 70% of all of the water that we withdraw around the planet goes into irrigated agriculture which is either food production or textiles. That’s a major employer, resource user, energy user, all of that sort of thing. I’m a bit biased that I think you can see the world through water, but I’m sure if you talked to Bruce Frayne or Jennifer Clapp, they would say you could see the world through food, so I don’t disagree with them either. But for me, I think if we pay attention to how we manage our water resources, we would go a long way to solving problems of social inequity, environment unsustainability, poor forms of production, and so on and so forth.

SAID: We understand that there’s a difference between physical scarcity and economic scarcity of water especially for global south nations which is opposite for example in the Canadian context. What is the role of government in achieving goal 6?

LS: That’s an interesting question. That’s an interesting observation, first of all. We often define security, not just water security, as the perception of being safe from harm. So, water security is the perception of having enough water of a particular kind when and where we need it -- it’s perception. And in Canada we have this perception that we have more than enough. But what we forget is that the Great Lakes themselves were laid down after the last ice age retreated. This is glacial water -- 80% of the Great Lakes is glacial water from the last Ice Age! If we are not careful, we can overdraw this resource. The Aral Sea in Central Asia offers a cautionary tale in this regard. So, it’s a bit of a myth that we are water secure. And you don’t have to go far from here, you just go down to the bottom of the Grand River watershed to Six Nations Reserve to see that there are seriously troubling water issues in First Nations communities. This is the Global South in the Global North, and we would do well to recognize that we in Canada have plenty of issues.

These issues are not about physical scarcity of the resource. There’s more than enough water everywhere for us to satisfy our basic needs, our household needs. Many of the places of the world that are commonly regarded as water scarce are actually seasonally dry and seasonally very wet. If you go to Kenya in the dry season it’s dry, if you go to Kenya in the wet season, it’s wet. Proper management can ensure that there is enough water for all year round. Yet, you can go to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and, in the rainy season, the streets are flooded and people are up to their waist in water, but they don’t have any clean water to drink! That’s not scarcity, that’s bad government. That is poor management of resources related to when the water falls and where it flows.

To answer the question from you about what is the role of government in helping to achieve SDG 6: government has to be a better leader. What I mean by that is not necessarily delivering. One of the dangers of government is that it’s a referee but it’s often also a player. This can lead to biased and inequitable decisions regarding who gets what kind of water, when and for how much. Government is a player in water resource management in many ways. Monopoly providers in cities, bulk water providers to industry and agriculture and things like that. While government has a role, it doesn’t have to be government making the rules and also doing the delivery, maintaining the system and so on. Governance may be regarded as the difference between steering and rowing. So, good governance is steering -- making sure that the boat goes toward its chosen destination. But who rows doesn’t always matter, it could be civil society groups, or the private sector, or the community itself. It could be collaborative enterprises of some kind, such as public-private partnerships. Thus, the most important role for government is that it has to be a strong regulator: this is steering, not rowing. So, if you’re going to involve the private sector in water delivery for example, or if you’re going to let NGOs sink bore holes all over the country, the government has to make sure that they adhere to certain regulations. Of course, the biggest challenge in many parts of the world is that governments and people are completely apart -- there’s no trust. Would the people trust the government to regulate in water? I think often times the people would rather be left alone. But if you’re looking for an answer about the role of government, I think the role of government is to set the bar high and where capable, to ensure that we adhere to the goals and targets that we set for ourselves in SDG 6.

The role of government is to set the bar high and where capable, to ensure that we adhere to the goals and targets that we set for ourselves in SDG 6.

SAID would like to thank Professor Swatuk for participating in this interview and helping us all better understand Water and its place in the SDGs.

Larry Swatuk is a Water Institute member and professor at the University of Waterloo in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development. Currently, his research interests focus on the unintended negative consequences of climate change adaption and mitigation interventions, a concept he labels “the boomerang effect”. He is the author of “Water in Southern Africa” (source). Follow Larry Swatuk

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