Stuart Orr - Expert Interview Series

Stuart Orr - Expert Interview Series

Stuart Orr leads the WWF Freshwater Practice – 460 staff in 67 countries – in implementing/advocating/influencing a wide range of work/policies/investments etc, related to rivers, wetlands and freshwater biodiversity.

Orr feels deeply connected to water! “I am passionate of course through my work but am also a fisherman and a citizen – protecting freshwater for the future.”

What is it about the water sector that inspires you?

“Not much to be honest. I find the ‘water sector to be ill-defined, scattered and unclear most of the time on what it is we are trying to achieve. I rail against water professionals who have total lack of knowledge of water systems and hydrology, and in particular water ecosystems (more drip irrigation, more concrete, more wells – enough). I am happily seeing the end of the careers of too many water professionals who spent their careers polluting, damming, diverting and destroying water systems without any understanding of what their actions meant or what they were trying to achieve (other than immediate donor spend/results). I continue to feel our sector needs a compass point of direction, a greater clarity on what is needed and what we are in it for? I – and many people like me – are tired of trading-off water and freshwater biodiversity for more poor development choices. So the water sector needs a kick up the backside.“

What is the value of an event such as the Amsterdam International Water Week for you?

“To air such ideas, to hear different voices, to challenge people’s thinking and to stop doing what we have always been doing. It’s a time for the reset button – and not because of covid, because we are a sector that has done more to destroy our own issue/resource than any other.”

According to you, what should the 2021 theme be? Which theme should not be neglected during the AIWW 2021?

“Where are we heading? What are we trying to achieve? And by this I don’t mean another decade arguing over what ‘water security’ means – but rather a greater recognition that if we are to build resilient economies, and to adapt to climate and other failures (governance etc) – how are we going to be more united in our messaging than we have in the past? Climate change immediately forces us all to look at the systems that water comes from. In many ways that’s a blessing – and breaks the silos – it makes us realise we have whole basins to care about – so it’s time we started to move beyond the IWRM dogma (Integrated Water Resources Management), and start getting sharper on how we become the ones to fix this problem.”

Which impacts do you believe Covid-19 has on the (possible) themes for AIWW 2021?

“Few, I hope. I think the immediate pivot to this subject is inevitable but mislaid. Pandemics are important, but more so than water borne disease and failed delivery on WASH goals? I find it rather hypocritical for us to start getting alarmed and flapping around because of covid when we are failing at the basics already. I would hope you avoid this and stay focused on the challenges we know we face.”

What are the main three challenges that you face in the water sector in regard to climate change and the speeding up of the circular economy?

“For climate – resilience in our institutions and governance first and foremost. Covid has shown that governments that are well run and organised can rise to the challenge (Taiwan, Vietnam etc) – and ones that don’t fail (US). CC is not different – but of course funding and supporting governance is not in vogue and is slow and expensive – so how do we jump start this, bring attention through finance perhaps, new partnerships. CC can be a catalyst or a constraint to an economy – so I would say themes around this – resilience of institutions. Second I would say resilience around ecosystems. Too neglected and forgotten by water professionals – sidelined and the subjects of EIAs (if ever done) and traded off because we can’t internalise its value.

Circular economy? buzz phrase – it’s simple – we need business to stop polluting and wasting water and we need governments to properly regulate and reward/punish those who try – we have the investment to do this, examples to share – we need to stop talking about pilots and start making it advantageous, attractive to invest in (and only buy from) companies that treat water correctly. So what will this take – that should be the focus. Move this away from a tech conversation please.”

What are your aspirations and goals for the upcoming 5 years?

“Save more freshwater biodiversity. Bring Sturgeon (the most threatened animal taxa anywhere in the planet) back from the brink – in Europe! I’m not kidding – it’s a disgrace that an animal that is 200 million years old is going extinct in our lifetimes and in our backyard. Start to see greater inclusion and acceptance of the value of rivers in decision making, and to see a water sector move away from being one of short sighted and siloed interventions in landscapes to more holistic and united on purpose and objectives. WASH and Environmental NGOs working more closely together. More innovative finance – pipelines of projects that can have mutual benefits and give a return on investment.”