At 2:18am negotiations on the Rio+20 outcome document concluded and in the last few hours we’ve received the outcome text. The Brazilian government want to present this text to Heads of State (arriving tomorrow) for their discussion and sign-off. But is it any good?

It happens that today is also UN Water Day at RioCentro. We’ve called for water to be prioritised within the negotations here in Rio. So let’s take stock.

This ‘finalised’ text has both positives and negatives when it comes to water.

First up the positive:

  • The text acknowledges the centrality of water to sustainable development.
  • We welcome too recognition that water is a scarce resource, which needs to be used much more efficiently and with less waste.
  • Significantly, the text goes beyond recognising the need for access to (or the right to) safe, clean drinking water and basic sanitation to ‘stress the need to significantly improve the implementation of integrated water resource management at all levels.’
  • The text recognises the key role that ecosystems play in maintaining water quantity and quality.
  • The link between water resource management and policies on food, agriculture, cities and gender are identified.

Is this enough? Let’s get technical. The proper implementation of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) is fundamentally what we’re calling for. IWRM is a process that promotes participatory approaches to water governance to ensure equitable access and use of water and lower environmental impacts.

Poor and marginalised people are particularly disadvantaged when there is competition over scarce water resources so it’s vital that Rio+20 promotes the participation of all stakeholders in water management if future water use is to be fair, equitable and inclusive of the poorest people.

In our conversations with delegates we’re telling the story of María Yolanda Rojas Ávila, which many Progressio supporters will have heard before. She farms in the watershed of the Lurin river, near Lima, Peru. Like many in her community, and for small-scale farmers around the world, water is essential for lives and livelihoods. Without water, people, animals and crops cannot survive. 

Water scarcity for María Yolanda and other local farmers is exacerbated by poor management, both on the part of the farmers, as well as the state and private sector. As she illustrates, knowledge and participative co-ordination are needed to manage water effectively:

“I’m taking some practical steps to make sure my grandchildren inherit a better world. I participate in activities such as the Concejo de Cuencas [the water users’ organisation at watershed level]. This organisation gives small water users an equal voice in the management of our watershed, because until now it is the big companies and the State who make all the decisions, and we are not even told about what they decide.”

So does the outcome document push for much more of this practice?

Well here come the weaknesses. The outcome document we now have is in many respects a statement of intent. The language is key – it makes ‘acknowledgements’, ‘recognitions’ and ‘reiterations’. It does not elaborate on how states will ensure the implementation of IWRM when this conference is over and we all go home.

It does not go far enough to specifically mention and secure the participation for poor and marginalised people like Maria Yolanda in the management of their own water systems. If it did, this would demand action by government and business to enable participatory approaches to water governance, the empowerment of communities and institutions at the local level, the inclusion of women in decision-making and management of water that is ecosystems-based and appropriate. 

So bottom line, the text lacks commitment on water for livelihoods. Currently the text agrees that we need to think carefully about water. But we all know that this is not enough to force action by governments. 

The ‘Dialogue Day’ on water held yesterday had an impressive turnout. The strength of feeling on the panel of experts received much applause from the hundreds of civil society participants.

Team Progressio also attended an inspiring side event on how the gender gap in water resource management is being bridged by different non-governmental organisations around the world. 

And today, at UN Water Day, a report on progress towards IWRM suggested that 80% of countries surveyed have embarked on reforms to improve the ‘enabling environment’ for water resource management, but far fewer have made it very far. Rio+20 could have provided the kick we needed to make the leap from policy to implementation.

On both occasions Derek Kim (Progressio’s Development Work in Yemen) commented that it was uplifting to see the desire by so many to see water given the urgent and serious attention it requires. And to hear others saying that participation is at the heart of what’s required.

But until governments ensure local participation in decisions around how water is being used, María Yolanda is the exception rather than the norm. 

In conclusion, the text makes positive noises but is not fully waterproofed. For the world’s poorest people, the impact of Rio+20 will not be in the text but in the implementation.