Tharman appointed co-chair of global project to transform water governance

Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said the climate crisis and the water crisis are about the global commons. PHOTO: WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM

SINGAPORE - Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam was on Wednesday (May 25) announced as one of four co-chairs of a major global initiative to spur changes in how the world values, manages and governs water for the common good.

The independent Global Commission on the Economics of Water - launched at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland - will present evidence and pathways for global changes in policy, business approaches and collaboration to support climate and water justice, sustainability, and food-energy-water security.

Mr Tharman's co-chairs are Professor Mariana Mazzucato, the founding director of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London; World Trade Organisation director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; and Professor Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

"What is needed are purpose-driven private-public partnerships on a scale that has never been attempted before, to mobilise finance, invest in innovations and deliver access everywhere to affordable, safe water," said Mr Tharman in a statement.

The Commission comprises 17 experts, community leaders and practitioners from different backgrounds and across the globe; and is convened by the Dutch government and facilitated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Conceived as a two-year project, the Commission will publish its first report to coincide with the United Nations (UN) 2023 Water Conference to be held in New York in March and co-hosted by Tajikistan and the Netherlands.

Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Tharman also spoke at a panel at Davos, describing water scarcity and vulnerability as a global crisis of lives and livelihoods - and an issue that must be addressed by countries coming together to devise practical, concrete solutions.

"We are all affected by what happens in every part of the world. The climate crisis and the water crisis are about the global commons," he said. "What each of us do contributes to the problem somewhere else in the world, and also has to be part of the solution."

He added that it was remarkable how most people were so used to getting water when needed, that they were unaware of a large part of humanity still lacking access to safe drinking water.

Noting that the water crisis was intertwined with the climate crisis, Mr Tharman said: "Climate, water, food and energy are becoming more and more insecure at the same time. And they're feeding into each other. If we keep over-extracting water, if we keep polluting water; it affects the wetlands, affects natural carbon sinks. It makes it even more difficult to address the climate crisis. So we're in a vicious cycle now."

Being selfless and being self-interested is the same thing when it comes to the global commons, Mr Tharman noted, remarking that "what goes around, comes around".

He said the key was to locate the intersection of solutions to address both the climate and water crises.

"A large part of the water consumed in North America... goes towards producing grain for cattle, for livestock," he said. "So the same questions we ask ourselves on climate - how much beef should we be consuming - are the same questions that we have to ask for water... We've got to think of them together and find solutions that basically solve both of them together."

The session was moderated by Ms Karen Harris, managing director of consulting firm Bain's macro trends group, and included climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti, founder of the Green Generation Initiative, who echoed Mr Tharman on the global reach of the water crisis.

"Just because these impacts are not happening where you are, it doesn't mean that they are not happening at all," said Ms Wathuti. A prolonged, ongoing drought is devastating countries across the Horn of Africa and fueling extreme hunger for almost 3 million people in her country Kenya and over 20 million in neighbouring countries.

She also spoke about the importance of delivery and accountability, with pledges by business and governments to offset the loss of freshwater ecosystems often "made but not met".

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte agreed, saying it was integral that next year's UN Water Conference be "action-oriented", not just about "posturing and nice talks".

"We need the involvement of big business," he said. "Collectively these companies have so much knowledge but also the logistical power to get this done together with NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and governments."

Coca-Cola chief executive James Quincey spoke abut the need for market-based solutions to complement government frameworks.

"If water doesn't have a price, it will never be valued," he said. "If we could value water in the same way we could value carbon, then the market will be the mechanism to drive the result."

Mr Poul Due Jensen, chief executive officer of Denmark-based global pump manufacturer Grundfos, said any pricing or tax models for water would have to be added or scaled depending on the situation in each country.

Mr Tharman said valuing water was not just a market or commercial concept but a public good concept. "We can invest in an equitable fashion to scale up solutions that exist around the world - with the right governance," he said.

Asked by Ms Harris how she would push world leaders to act more directly, Ms Wathuti said: "It's not that we lack the technology that we need. It's not that we lack innovations... It's a human problem.

"And for us to solve this human problem, we're going to need human solutions. It's all about how we really take this issue into our hearts, and into our minds."

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