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Five important things we learnt at World Water Week

Analia Mendez, Unilever’s Global Director, Social Mission Expertise of Home Care, discusses the key learnings we are taking away from this year’s World Water Week in Stockholm.

Keeping our finger on the pulse

Analia Mendez
Analia Mendez

Global Director, Social Mission Expertise of Home Care

One aspect of Analia’s role is to build Unilever’s response to addressing WASH and women's empowerment, including the development of flagship global partnerships, entrepreneurial programmes, sanitation reports and advocacy.

With World Water Week 2016 now over, more than 3,000 representatives of government, academia, civil society and the private sector have dispersed to consider what learnings can influence the work they’re doing to support SDG 6: improving water and sanitation.

The event allows us to keep a finger on the pulse of the water challenges, opportunities, technologies and approaches that will affect our business and, importantly, prepare us for tomorrow. Here are some of the key ideas that stood out for me.

  1. Demand-driven solutions are the new social norms

    This idea certainly isn’t new if you’re in marketing. You cannot force change, and that’s why Unilever developed its model, ‘Five levers for change’. However, we have seen many examples where programmes have been scaled up but then proved not to be sustainable. One reason highlighted repeatedly over the week is that they are not demand-driven solutions.

    At World Water Week, behaviour change was a key focus for us. We used the week as a platform to share our progress on sanitation behaviour change through the launch of a new report, Use a Toilet (PDF | 6MB). We also held a session with the World Bank Group, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and UNICEF to talk about the challenges and opportunities in this area.

    What’s clear is that there is a lot of interest for the private sector to do more to support behaviour change using the five levers, marketing expertise and consumer insight.

  2. Partnerships need to be expertise and resource driven

    The industry needs new kinds of partnerships. As we have known for some time, for the private sector, the important contribution is not money; it’s expertise and resource. And this is more important than ever with the extremely ambitious SDG 6 targets.

    I also expect to see more business-to-business partnerships starting up in the coming years. There is need for more partnerships where private sector companies come together behind a shared ambition and combine their resources in either a bilateral or multilateral arrangement, as we see in the Toilet Board Coalition.

  3. The women and water nexus is growing in importance

    The nexus of women and water is being increasingly recognised where poor water access and management is a barrier to women’s empowerment, and the lack of women’s decision-making power in water solutions is a barrier to achieving water targets.

    This nexus is particularly interesting for us as several of our brands, including Surf and Sunlight, have already developed activities supporting both women and water. Surf, for example, has recently announced a new Unpaid Care Work programme with Oxfam that leverages this nexus, supporting both women and water targets.

    During the week we convened a panel focused on women, water and business, bringing together Coke, GAP Inc. and Oxfam to discuss why this has become an emerging theme for more and more companies and where/how these companies can add greatest value.

  4. We need to be more digital and support young engagement

    It will be the next generation that lives through our successes or failures in achieving water targets. This year, there was increased youth participation and many event recordings were available online for students or young professionals. But it’s not enough. The industry must empower youth and make their voices heard in these important discussions.

  5. Sustainability versus scale
  6. Everybody is keen to see fewer pilots and more programmes, reaching more people at speed. But too often programmes brought to scale simply aren’t sustainable. It was refreshing to hear more honesty about the gaps in achieving sustainability and why some programmes had not succeeded. When gaps are defined, solutions can be developed and new partnerships formed, sharing the right resources, insights and expertise.

Flexibility is important

There is a long road ahead to achieve the SDGs and flexibility will be crucial. We need to continually rethink and adapt our solutions, to keep learning, to respond to new and emerging technologies. The sharing at World Water Week will remain an important part of this journey.

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