THE BLOG
09/03/2013 10:09 am ET | Updated Nov 03, 2013

World Water Week: Dispatch From Stockholm

President Obama isn't the only one visiting Stockholm this week; about 2500 delegates from around the world have gathered at the 23rd Annual World Water Week meeting sponsored by the Stockholm International Water Institute. Stockholm has become a global focal point for the discussion of all-things-water. This year's theme is collaboration and partnership. From Stockholm, here's a primer on this year's conference and some of my takeaways as the meeting nears its mid-point.

First, the setting. World Water Week is being held in a conference center about ten minutes south of the city center by commuter train. The conference organizers have done a good job in "walking the talk" when it comes to conference logistics: Registration includes an ID badge that doubles as a public transportation pass; the de rigueur conference bag is made of recycled plastic bottles, and water filling stations have replaced the bottles of water often seen at meetings. Lots of international agencies are in attendance, most with their own kiosks in a massive hall surrounded by meeting rooms. It's a polished undertaking, from the music and dance kick-off to the soothing water sounds piped into the long (really long) halls that attendees traverse between sessions.

There are many topics being discussed this week, but three themes for me have emerged so far.

1. The water world is grappling with its role post-2015, the date set for achievement of the UN's Millennium Development Goals. MDG Goal 7.C called for halving the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, a goal that the UN says has been met. As part of the Rio +20 meeting in 2012, the UN announced a process to build on the MDG's with a new set of Sustainable Development Goals, and consultation has been underway to develop their content. Much of the discussion so far this week has been about how to frame a SDG goal or goals to address key water challenges, including the 2.5 billion people globally that still don't have access to improved sanitation facilities. Supply, climate change, quality, policy innovations like integrated water management, energy. The list of water challenges and opportunities is long. There are a lot of views on what a water-focused SDG should include -- and how to best ensure the UN adopts one.

2. Public-private partnership is another theme so far. Representatives from a range of Fortune 500 companies are walking the halls and discussing their efforts to partner with governments and civil society representatives to address water issues -- often, as they acknowledge, to hedge the increasing water risks that impact supply chains. (I just left a session where a representative from H&M discussed a partnership with WWF). Most of the examples highlighted here are taking place outside the United States. This may be happenstance or reflect different domestic and international dynamics.

3. Green Infrastructure, sometimes more broadly called green design, is getting deserved play here as a way of thinking and of designing holistic solutions to water challenges. Using nature, instead of fighting it, to improve water supply and quality is a hallmark of green infrastructure approaches, which have in common making urban environments function from a water perspective more like the natural environment. From the keynote address by this year's Stockholm Water Prize Laureate, Dr. Peter Morgan, emphasizing looking to nature for solutions to sanitation issues, to many of the sessions, green infrastructure approaches have emerged as a frequently mentioned, core strategic approach.

One final observation for now: Many conferences go light on the substance, with half or three-quarters of each day devoted to meetings and lots of down time. World Water Week is the antidote to that approach. It's possible here to be in session from 9:00 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. straight, every day, thanks to lunch and dinner events bracketing three hour morning and afternoon sessions. At World Water Week, it truly is all water, all the time.