Putting Central Asia on the World Water Week map – an interview with SIWI’s Dr Sjömander Magnusson

Putting Central Asia on the World Water Week's map – an interview with SIWI’s Dr Sjömander Magnusson

In the end of August, the representatives of Central Asian countries and Afghanistan participated in World Water Week. This massive event is organized annually by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), acting as a platform for coordination and discussion of the most pressing global water issues. During the Week, experts, practitioners, decision-makers, business innovators and young professionals from a range of sectors and countries exchange ideas, foster new thinking and develop solutions.

More details about this – in a dialogue with Dr. Therese Sjömander Magnusson, Director of Transboundary Water Management for SIWI.

Dear Therese, we will start from the very broad question, probably, but there is a need to hear exactly your view as an organizing party. What is the story behind this, that you and I are sitting in this room during the one of the significant world water events? How did it change through years?

It all started 26 years ago with some researchers, such as Professor Malin Falkenmark, who is still a senior advisor at SIWI. She and a couple of key, leading and global researchers said: “Let’s organize a seminar on water issues in Stockholm.” This didn’t really have to do with a conference at all. It was a public, tourist thing. But then a small conference was so successful that they decided to do it next year, and the conference just grew.  SIWI as an organization was established, approximately by then.  

So, the conference became an institutional part of SIWI from the beginning but it grew exponentially. And now we’ve been around 2-3 thousand participants for the last 10 years I would say. Now, there are more conferences on water, but this is the largest annual one and we don’t want to grow much more. We don’t want to lose the connectivity and at least you can have a fairly good overview of what is happening.

Then if I ask you to name three main differences upon previous years – it can be anything: themes, topics, speakers, participants, countries even that covered this event, what would you name?

Of course, the themes are different every year. I think what we have done now is to develop the World Water Week into becoming a platform where so many different actors meet. From the beginning, it was only researchers and then it was more of a civil society and now we have governments – the range of actors have increased.

Then we have worked a lot with different ways of communication, like the SIWI Sofa. So, the meeting points and communication, the way we communicate messages and give the opportunity to organizations to frame that are different from previous, these have all developed over recent years.

As an expert, tell me please, which topics are raised year by year and which one is completely new for like two last years? Are there any really new which are not probably covered in Central Asia, but covered here?

You mean the themes of each conference?

No, not really. Problems, questions which raised suddenly. For example, as a region, we have the Central Asian Environmental Forum. When we firstly conducted it, we talked a lot on water issues and climate issues, and we will continue to do this. However, there are other topics raised to be discussed in Central Asia, and this is for the first time probably. Are there any such topics during the World Water Week?

I would say, what we have seen the last maybe 3 to 4 years is that these are the issues on investments.  Infrastructure investments, investments in water storage, water probation, etc. And then another topic, not this year, particularly, but few years: anticorruption or what we call – water integrity to minimize the effects of corruption and to actually get rid of corruption in the water sector. Also, peace and security. Those three topics have been highlighted more strongly.

Can you please, give me more details on investments?

There is a huge lack of funding, the needs to invest in water-related infrastructure: pipes, dams, storage etc. I think they calculated it to 3 billion dollars per year is needed. There are funds available, private capital, investment banks, but there is still a gap. There is a need, there is money, but why are so few investments done? So, what we have done at SIWI is to work a lot with bridging – to help translate the needs of the investors because they think completely differently than governments do.

And then water integrity has been one of the key topics for SIWI, you said.

We are one of the few global institutions worked to minimize corruption. I don’t know the exact numbers, but its millions of dollars, which is lost every year in the water sector due to corruption, where decisions weren’t taken and there is lack of transparency, decisions impact negatively on people. We have the water governance department, they work very closely in the Middle East, Africa.

Talking about the regions, considering previous years Central Asia was also presented at the World Water Week. However, there were mostly implementations from different countries and this participation was fragmented.  But it changed. What do you think, is it good for us to be presented here as a region?

I’m talking from my experience is that I think it’s important to gather a group of people that has the same context, geographical context. Even though there might be different experts or representing the government or NGOs. It is important to have people with regional knowledge. Different regional knowledge at the same place at the same time. It has a great value of gathering people with more or less the same political context and environmental and hydrological context.

As I know you have a Water Diplomacy Seminar during the CALP last year, probably you met with some of the representatives before or after. And also, we have another seminar during this week with representatives of Central Asia. In this contest, how can you characterize the whole situation about understanding on water issues in the region from the state bodies?

There were plenty of questions and the most important thing was that the countries’ voice, the need for cooperation towards the end - I think this really shows that the mindset is different, that they are also able to voice that we need collaboration. That is the first step. It can be a small step, it can be a huge step, but at least this is the starting point, where everyone, all the representatives say “let’s come together and find solutions”. And sometimes you have to be very realistic and pragmatic. My experience is that it’s better to take step by step in a slower pace and create a trust and a platform for dialogue.

If we talk about the light about at the global arena, Central Asia, from my perspective it’s not really highlighted. And at the same time this region is also really geopolitically important.

I completely agree. I think you have to look historically. I think the mindset of many people who are not from Central Asia is the Aral Sea. That is what we have heard. And then, that region was unfairly closed politically for a long time. And a very few participants from Central Asia applied to come to World Water Week, at the same time Africa has been very involved in World Water Week. We are open for all countries and all regions. Of course, it’s a global conference. And Africa has been very eager to participate. So, has Latin America, Asia to some extent, but I think what we are seeing now, is a growing interest from Central Asia, and from other development partners that could interact, so I just welcome more focus in the Central Asia in the future. I think it’s a key region and I know that there are interested actors that would be really looking forward to that. But it need to be driven by the region.

Can we name an input from Central Asia region to the work of this Week? That there is not only participation.

I would definitely say that what we discussed earlier, putting Central Asia on the World Water Week map. This is the first step. The second thing is that we have few delegations with parliamentarians. We have delegations with ministers and their immediate closest staff. I think there are a number of donors, interested to see what the opportunities are for now. I think next year we can be even better in highlighting. But you need to think through why do we need Central Asia to be on the map. For a globally transparent discussion or is it an investment? Advising? Why do you want to be highlighted more?

So, the ways will be different in this case, or not?

No, there can be different tracks. I would say parallel tracks. But to be very smart in thinking. Because you don’t get many opportunities. It’s quite expensive to have many sessions and to bring people here. What do you want them to achieve? This year it was capacity-building and networking within the group and to invite certain external actors, but next year, what would you like to achieve? Show the solutions and advancing collaboration and highlighting something else? So, being smart in what you want to communicate rather that saying “come and listen to us”, because there are so many conferences and so many topics, so many regions so be smart in how you frame that, I will advise. This is something that I hope we can do together of course.

You tell that we can do it together, you mean SIWI and CAREC?


Then what are the ways of possible cooperation’s expansion between SIWI and CAREC?

I really value our collaboration, so we have discussed scientific and academic collaboration. We have also discussed maybe a regional conference on water diplomacy. We did one in November in Stockholm and thought that concept would be very relevant at a regional conference. We would be more than happy to contribute more to capacity strengthening, but targeted, tailored capacity building.

Let’s conclude our conversation with some week results. What do you see as a significant outcome of the WWW this year?

We have again showed how many key global decision makers choose World Water Week. So many global processes gather here. Because the world is discussing climate and funding, and the SDGs, water is becoming more and more on everyone’s agenda and I was moderating the seminar on Peace and Water and it is very clear that stability and climate change is governed by water.

There is an understanding that we need to build the capacity of all decision makers on this.  

Photo: SIWI

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