Shaping our water future

As one of the Young Water Professional (YWP) rapporteurs at the 2018 IWA World Water Congress in Tokyo, Japan, I am happy to report that “co-creation” has officially reached buzzword status in the global water conversation.

The Tokyo IWA Congress—which carried the agenda “Shaping our water future”—brought together not just the greatest number of attendees in IWA history, it also invited a highly diverse group of stakeholders. I gained profound appreciation of this diversity as I reported on the Healthy Liveable Cities subtheme.

Throughout the Congress I heard how city planners, academia, and industry professionals got better at listening to people and involving customers in decision-making and implementation. By working closely with “non-water” people—like city planners as well as city dwellers—the water sector can deepen its contribution to society.

Moreover, the water sector continues to integrate traditionally extraneous disciplines into core practice. One of my conference highlights is a side chat with Dhesigen Naidoo, CEO of the Water Research Commission in South Africa. He describes that the game-changing breakthroughs in the history of water were actually “brought in” by “non-water” professionals. From Archimedes’ screw to dam construction, to this new era of circular economy thinking, the water sector always benefits from joining hands (and heads!) with other sectors in order to solve complex technological and social problems.

Dhesigen Naidoo, CEO of the Water Research Commission in South Africa, at the IWA World Water Congress & Exhibition. ©Nuno Augusto/IWA

IWA CEO Kala Vairavamoorthy echoed this insight at the plenary of the 2018 Asia Water Forum which followed shortly after Tokyo. He described water as a “system within systems” that is inextricably linked with other sectors: energy, agriculture, transport, public health, and the economy, among others. Shaping our water future today means actively making intersections with these other systems. After all, what is the water-food-energy nexus but the linking of traditionally siloed, compartmentalized interests?

The Tokyo Congress concluded that beyond collaboration, what we need is co-creation. How do we make sure the water sector does more of it? I have written before that the first Principle of Progressive Partnerships is to recognize previously invisible stakeholders. We can cultivate co-creation by engaging stakeholders whom we typically consider to be outside the periphery of—and therefore inessential to—our work.

No less than the 2018 IWA Global Water Award laureate, Prof. Tony Wong, demonstrated the power of co-creation by recognizing previously invisible stakeholders. Using a community-centric approach, he led the Revitalising Informal Settlements and their Environments (RISE) project that redefined “urban WASH” as an entirely different practice from conventional rural WASH. Rather than ignoring the nuances, RISE sensitized researchers to the unique needs of each community.

Co-creation should not just be a “feel good” accessory to our work. Co-creation should drive our water practice because it ensures sustained impact. This year’s IWA Congress host country, Japan, understands this very well. The country’s incredible resilience is due not only on the strength of its advanced infrastructure and technology, but also on the collective resilience of the Japanese people. After a calamity, the community writes and collects essays to accumulate local knowledge that are then taught in schools. This inter-generational responsibility to raise highly aware and prepared children is integral to Japan’s “resilience in the round.”

I left Tokyo with this main takeaway: in order to shape our water future, we must co-create it. The water sector doesn’t have all the answers, and pretending that we do is not only callous but also potentially disastrous. We need to trust others to take responsibility as we invite them in our journey—whether it be towards Water-Wise Cities, Water-Sensitive Cities, or Healthy Livable Cities. I just call it our shared future.


Yang G. Villa

Head of the Philippines for the Isle Utilities - Career-building role at IWA YWP Steering Committee
Yang has been working in the water sector for 13 years as a business developer. He is the co-founder of the IWA YWP chapter in the Philippines and was the Conference President for the 10th IWA Specialist Conference on Efficient Urban Water Management... Read full biography