Public governance

OECD Global Forum on Environment: Making Water Reform Happen - Opening Remarks


OECD Global Forum on Environment: Making Water Reform Happen

Opening Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General

Paris, 25 October 2011
9:45 AM

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is my great pleasure to welcome you this morning to the OECD Global Forum on Environment on Making Water Reform Happen.

Gathered here today are distinguished speakers and participants from around the world. Though hailing from diverse origins, we have come together to better understand how to advance towards a common goal: ensuring access by all to sufficient and sustainable quantities of good quality water.

Water Reform: A Timely and Urgent Priority

The theme of this Global Forum is both timely and essential. At a time when news headlines continue to be dominated by the urgency of the financial and economic crisis, we must not lose sight of other longstanding challenges.

Water is one of them. One billion people cannot get clean drinking water and 2.5 billion lack access to basic sanitation. We know that polluted water and poor sanitation cause 1.5 million preventable child deaths per year. It is the biggest source of child mortality along with malaria and malnutrition. Investing 1 dollar in water and sanitation saves 4 to 12 dollars in avoided health care costs alone, according to the World Health Organisation.

But crisis is also the mother of bold innovations. It can provide an impetus to push forward difficult and much needed reforms. It opens a window of opportunity to drum up the political will needed to act. If the efficiency and governance of the water sector is improved, it could well attract funds from financial markets. Economically, it makes sense: the water sector provides a steady, stable rate of return that makes it attractive to risk-averse investors. Politically, it is inevitable: water has growing strategic importance especially as water scarcity is expected to get worse in the coming decades.

Ladies and gentlemen, no one needs to be told that water is essential for life – for health – for human dignity – and for well-functioning ecosystems. We all know that – in the most basic and intuitive way. We also know what makes for “good” water policy. We have the technology, the know-how, the resources and the capacity to bring about much better results. So why do such important gaps persist between aspirations to ensure access to enough safe, clean water for all people and the environment and the actual conditions on the ground?


That is the fundamental question at the heart of this Global Forum - “making reform happen”. It is fundamentally about change and how countries, regions, cities manage change. It looks at how decisions are made and in whose interest; how reform is promoted or obstructed and why.

OECD’s contribution to helping countries address key water challenges

A persistent failure to realise the potential for better water management in the face of growing pressures attests to the need for water reform in many parts of the world. Water systems face multiple pressures from population growth, urbanisation, economic development, pollution, mismanagement and floods and droughts. Climate change will exacerbate existing strains on water systems and present novel uncertainties for water managers.

Well-managed water systems are also an important driver of green growth. Better water management can generate huge benefits for health and the economy. On the other hand, a lack of good quality water can significantly hinder growth, as opportunities for further development are lost.

Drawing on a multi-disciplinary team from across the organisation, OECD’s work on water focuses on identifying good practice to help meet the water challenge. This work covers a range of themes – financing, governance, water and agriculture, public private partnerships, policy dialogues and the impacts of climate change.

Later today, it will be my pleasure to launch two OECD water publications: one synthesising years of work on financing water and sanitation and another on multi-level governance for water management in OECD countries.

This work on the approaches and tools for better water policy is an important starting point, but implementation is still a challenge. Water reforms aren’t just about choosing the right “technical fix”. They need a catalyst and clear rationale, political leadership, constructive engagement with stakeholders and the general public, and approaches to adequately deal with distributional dilemmas.

Many countries face broadly similar water reform challenges but widely differing reform contexts. Nevertheless, OECD experience suggests that cross-country comparisons can be fruitful. Looking at the variety of experiences across countries, there are striking regularities in the way reform processes unfold. Pooling these experiences can illuminate wider lessons that can increase the prospects of success for future water reforms. 

In working directly with countries engaged in water reforms – including in the Middle East and North Africa, in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, or Central Asia – OECD has accumulated a wealth of experience in national policy dialogues. These policy dialogues are a structured process for stakeholder engagement, supported by robust analytical work and lessons learned from international experience. Building on this experience, we are currently launching a project with CONAGUA in Mexico to help with the implementation of their 2030 Water Agenda.

Gathering insights from practical reform experiences

This Global Forum is centered on a series of case studies from around the world. In addition to the High Level Panel debate - three main substantive sessions will present a wealth of insights from practical reform experience.

The High Level Panel will launch the discussions by highlighting the numerous political challenges encountered in reform.

The session on water reform at the national level will look at how countries can set out the broad framework conditions and principles necessary for effective water management.

The session on water, agriculture, energy and environment linkages will discuss how to better take into account the inherent trade-offs and potential conflicts between competing uses of water and improve policy coherence across water-related domains.

Finally, the session on meeting the water supply and sanitation challenge looks at approaches for improving the operational efficiency and extending service coverage; the role of effective regulation; and successful private sector engagement.

Framing the reform challenges

The next session this morning will set the scene for the Global Forum’s discussions by framing the main water challenges that would-be reformers face today and in the future. My colleague, Helen Mountford, will present OECD’s work projecting future water trends to 2050. This work provides a glimpse of what the world’s water might look like in 40 years time if water reforms aren’t undertaken successfully.

We are also privileged to have Professor John Briscoe of Harvard University deliver a keynote speech on water reform from the perspective of both a “thinker” and “do-er”. He pushes us all to go beyond our present approaches, to put good advice into action, and make the changes we want to see in the world.

I am certain this will be a stimulating opening to productive and insightful debates that can help us move from discussion to action.

Thank you all very much.


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