From May 18th-25th, I had the opportunity to join the Global Water Alliance (GWA) at the 10th World Water Forum in Bali, Indonesia. This week-long conference brought together tens of thousands of experts in the water sector and government officials from around the world, from members of parliaments, heads of state, academics, nonprofit organizations, entrepreneurs, and more, to provide a platform to exchange views, information and knowledge on current issues and information related to global water, sanitation, and hygiene issues. GWA was able to engage with a class of 12 Masters of Environmental Studies students from the University of Pennsylvania to the conference, allowing the students, the co-instructors, myself and other GWA members and Board Members, to speak as panelists, learn even more about global water issues and solutions as well as network with others who are passionate about clean water and sanitation for all.

Indonesia was a great location for the conference, as the country as a whole is facing increased sea level rise and Bali is experiencing many issues around water access, especially in northern areas of the island and for the Indigenous Balinese people. Interestingly enough, I thought the strategy of managed retreat would be one of the main topics of focus given that Indonesia is moving its capital from Jakarta to Borneo due to sea level rise, but there were no sessions on managed retreat. After asking around and speaking with Indonesians about the lack of discussions around managed retreat, I found out that it is a touchy topic, even among environmentalists because of real fears of the deforestation of Borneo. This showed me the importance of listening to local voices and avoiding a Western framing of global issues.

Most of my time at the conference was spent attending sessions on Nature-based Solutions, disaster risk reduction, and Indigenous water issues, but there was an array of other topics such as the water-energy-food nexus, financing, water quality monitoring, and more. I also had the opportunity to present my Masters capstone project, Household Water Literacy at the Senegal Pavilion, which was an amazing experience. While I learned so much from these sessions, an equally valuable experience came from speaking to people from all over the world. There was rarely a moment of downtime in which I was not able to turn to my left or right and find a kind person to talk to, which doesn’t always happen at events such as these. I was able to speak to people from Iraq, Nepal, Senegal, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, and Uganda, just to name a few. I was even able to ask the Iraq Minister of Water Resources, Aoun Diab, about the importance of wetlands protection (see this article from the latest volume of our The International Journal for Water Equity and Justice to learn more about ecocide and Saddam Hussein’s destruction of the Iraqi marshlands) I also got to take a picture with the Indonesian Minister of Public Works and Housing, Basuki Hadimuljono (who was on the drums with the band almost all night at the Forum’s Cultural Night, I’m not kidding)!

 

As a young professional who had graduated with my Masters of Environmental Studies degree mere days before the Forum, I expected to feel more reserved at a global conference featuring experts in my field who have done what I can only dream to accomplish. Instead, I did not feel looked down upon at all – people who had been in the water sector for years seemed genuinely interested in hearing about my passions and discussing their work with me. This was a trend throughout the Forum, as a large part of the event revolved around The World Youth Parliament for Water and empowering youth as the next generation of water leaders. The Youth Parliament was composed of 70 people in the water sector from over 50 countries, all under the age of 30, and while myself and the other Penn students were not official members, we were able to meet many of these leaders and learn from each other.

I of course cannot write an honest blog about my time at the World Water Forum without my few critiques. While there were many sessions that focused on the disproportionate impact water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) issues have on marginalized groups such as those in the developing world, women, the disabled, and Indigenous people, the conference itself lacked many of those voices. These groups do not often have a voice at the table despite being most impacted by water issues. Many civil society and local community organizations were not able to attend the conference, as they were not informed about the event or attendees faced barriers to funding. This issue was brought up many times by attendees and some panelists and speakers, and if the Forum truly wants to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, Clean Water and Sanitation, local community groups need to be deeply involved and have agency rather than be passive beneficiaries or included via tokenism.

The irony is also not lost that one of the largest sponsors of the event was Danone, the largest plastic producer in Bali (Amazon and Coca-Cola were also sponsors working to offset their water usage), and that tourism is one of the largest contributors to Bali’s water crisis. More than 65% of Bali’s freshwater is channeled to tourism and tourists in Bali consume about 150–200 liters of water per person per day (for drinking, use of Western-style toilets, machine laundry, and more), while local residents only require about 30–50 liters. Tourism has also increased pollution of rivers and waters as well as plastic pollution. While it is critical to gather world experts in WaSH on a global stage to work to solve the issues we as a collective world are facing, we face the contradiction of holding summits on water policies that discuss justice while also having an impact on these places due to the amount of people attending the gathering. This conundrum is one that not just the World Water Forum faces, but most environmental symposiums that are held in areas disproportionately impacted by climate change and water issues while facing increased tourism and urbanization. I won’t pretend I have an answer to this problem, as only holding summits and conferences in developed countries would only further remove marginalized groups from the table, but I would be remiss to not mention the unintended consequences of increased tourism as a result of global conferences. This being said, these problems provide an opportunity for conference organizers to transparently work on these issues and set a precedent for other global environmental symposiums to further address equity when considering how and where they gather.

Overall, I am more than grateful to the Global Water Alliance for this amazing experience and for all that I learned during my time in Bali. The World Water Forum allowed me to meet amazing people, get to know those I already knew better, and renewed my passion for addressing global water issues. The people of Bali and Indonesia were some of the kindest people I have ever met. Speaking to them firsthand about the water issues they are facing and learning about the cultural and religious importance of water to the Balinese people (see the picture on the left of offerings from a Balinese Water Purification Ceremony) was something I will never forget and will take with me as I take my next step into the water industry as part of the next generation of water leaders. I know myself and other GWA members look forward to taking what we learned at this conference into our 17th Annual Conference, Nature-based Solutions for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene; Resilience for Humans and Nature on October 16th at Temple University in Philadelphia.

As they say in Bali, terima kasih (thank you),
Ivy Steinberg-McElroy