Colin Herron - Global Water Partnership

  • 11.04.2022
  • bluerloop
  • bluerloop

Colin Herron (Senior Water Resources Management Specialist): [email protected]

Global Water Partnership: gwp.org

Q: Please tell us about your background, where you have worked, and where you have lived and traveled?

I was born in the UK, and studied French and Spanish language and literature at the University of Leeds. Not knowing what I wanted to do with life, I ended up finding myself in Marseilles, France, looking for a job, and just happened to find the World Water Council (WWC), completely by chance, and started working there at the lowest possible level, with a short-term contract, to help out in the office. After a week I got promoted; and again after 6 months. After almost 5 years at the WWC, I had the opportunity to move to Mexico as a liaison between the WWC and the Mexican government, as the two co-organisers of the 4th World Water Forum. While there I met my wife, which changed my plans somewhat. After a couple of years in Mexico, I then did a similar role for a couple of years with Turkey and the WWC for the 5th World Water Forum, based in Istanbul.

By that time, we had a son, and my wife and I decided to settle in Mexico for a bit; coincidentally, I was offered a position back at the National Water Commission of Mexico (CONAGUA), where I advised them on water and climate change processes and special projects for 4 years. With the change of federal government in Mexico, everyone above me in the organisation chart left (as tends to happen), but as one door closes, another one opens, and I was selected to lead The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) water security team in Mexico and Northern Central America, which I did for 6 years, with the design and creation of Water Funds among my main activities. At some point, I decided at some point that I wanted my wife and now two children to experience living elsewhere; that also coincided with me wanting to get back into the global water arena, so I applied for and got a position at the Global Water Partnership, in Stockholm, Sweden, in charge of their SDG 6 programme, where I’ve been since 2019.

That’s an abridged version, believe it or not. There have been lots of other smaller consultancies, jobs and exciting missions around the world over the last 22 years working in water!

Q: Where did your passion for sustainability and water originate?

In my case, it was completely by chance. To be honest, when I first started working in water, it was just a job, supposedly while I was finding my way in life; a job that I could feel good about, but a job nonetheless. I probably only really considered myself a “water expert” after I first moved to Mexico, which was when I realized that this was really what I wanted to do with my life, and that it had become my passion.

I love the fact that in water, we work for such a noble cause, which touches upon every aspect of life, and we work with such great people, who really share that common cause. When first working at the global level, my work felt important but somehow abstract, whereas working with TNC allowed me to have direct interaction with local communities whose livelihoods were benefitted by the projects I was working on. Yet I also realized that projects like this depend on a proper policy framework and enabling conditions, which is often not the case, and that led me to look into GWP’s work, and eventually to get the position which I currently occupy.

Q: What is the mission of the Global Water Partnership?

GWP’s vision is a water secure world, and its mission is to advance governance and management of water resources for sustainable and equitable development. The main strategy that we’ve been using for that since our creation in 1996 is Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), which is “a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximise economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems and the environment”. In short, it’s a way of working collaboratively for water security, which should be a no-brainer, but in practice is really challenging to achieve, since our societies often tend to work in silos.

Q: Tell us about an impactful project you have recently completed.

At the end of 2019, we at GWP had committed to supporting at least 60 countries to monitor, in a multi-stakeholder environment, their current status of IWRM, through SDG indicator 6.5.1. That was to be undertaken in 2020, in agreement with our partners, UNEP and UNEP-DHI Centre, who were co-funding it. That’s normally done through workshops and consultations which bring relevant stakeholders together in-person to agree on how well the country is doing. But of course in 2020 the world was hit by the pandemic, and all of a sudden meeting in-person was no longer possible. When we realised that, we quickly adapted the methodology to allow for virtual, hybrid and limited in-person consultations. We developed and rolled out an online training course in three languages, to share the methodology. The result was that more people than ever before were able to take part in these consultations, which had previously often been limited by space.

Participants were very happy with the results, which were mostly considered as being a truer representation of the status of IWRM. And we managed to not just directly support 61 countries (overachieving on our target), but we indirectly supported many other countries beyond our original target, working with them through a light touch. In that way, we turned the health crisis into an opportunity to re-think how we do business, and supported more countries than ever before.

Q: What are you currently focused on?

On top of my efforts to help countries improve their implementation of IWRM, which takes up most of my days and nights, I’m also leading the new innovation agenda at GWP. The world is not on track to reach the SDGs, we’re struggling with the loss of biodiversity, increasing climate impacts, natural disasters, and so many other challenges, so GWP has been pushing to radically re-think how society interacts with its water and other natural resources. Business-as-usual is clearly not working. So we’ve defined an ambitious new agenda that builds on IWRM, but also aims to contribute significantly to net zero through water, and ramp up efforts to achieve water security. It focuses on fostering and supporting the next generation of water innovators, unlocking potential for increased finance and investment opportunities, and vastly improving water data by bringing together traditional data providers and new technologies. We’re now actively looking for partners that share this vision and want to contribute jointly to increasing their impact!

Q: What is your 2030 vision for the world?

Thinking positively, by 2030 we will have re-thought the way we value and interact with our natural resources. I say value then interact in that order, because we won’t change our environment unless we change our mindsets first. So by 2030, the days of linear use of natural resources, including water, as if they were infinite, will be long gone. By then we should be nature positive, and slowly re-greening our landscapes, reversing the negative trend on biodiversity loss. We’ll be producing a lot more sustainable energy, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. As a result, the climate will start responding favorably, and the extreme droughts and floods we experienced in the 2020s will become less frequent. Our food systems will also have changed dramatically – based on a rationalization of our limited water resources, we’ll have started producing, distributing and disposing of food differently, more sustainably, more locally. And of course all of this will have greatly benefitted our water security; our water will be well managed, with both green and (smaller) grey infrastructure operating in tandem, in a way that fosters the wellbeing of all of society, not just the richest. In fact, it’ll be in many ways a return to our roots for modern societies, with an exodus from cities back to rural areas where our populations are self-reliant on water and energy, and many green jobs that ensure healthy rural communities.

Q: What three important initiatives could be implemented to address the complex topic of water scarcity?

  1. Pricing water in agriculture. Instead of large subsidies which promote inefficient water use (and mostly benefit the richest in society), just give farmers the equivalent amount in cash, but then charge them properly for the water they actually use. That will give them a financial incentive to make water savings, and to grow more with less, and we would see a significant reduction in the water used in agriculture, which is about 70% worldwide on average.
  2. Green cities. Many major cities around the world are on the point of running dry, leaving hundreds of millions exposed to the risk of water scarcity; those cities have tended to expand outwards, building over natural areas that provide important hydrological benefits for the cities. Strengthening financial and governance mechanisms that make use of water tariffs and other (voluntary, then mandatory) private sector compensation mechanisms to invest in restoring and conserving the freshwater ecosystems that cities depend on, avoiding future threats to those landscapes, will have huge multiple benefits in terms of improved water security, reduced flooding, as well as the quality of living of urban and peri-urban populations, improved air quality, and a host of other benefits.
  3. Updating our public policies and institutions. For #1 and #2 to be effective, our fixed water rights allocations systems and land planning systems need to be updated. Nearly all such systems and the institutions that operate them were defined in the 20th (or in some cases the 19th) century, based on the best information available at the time, but they are still operating today with the very different realities we’re facing. More flexible management systems and institutions and the best use of the available science are needed to adapt to the changing climate and hydrological conditions.

Q: When you aren’t working, what keeps you busy?

On top of my day job, which tends to spill over into my evenings, I’m just finishing an online master’s degree from the Mexican Water Technology Institute; I coach my son’s school football (soccer) team; and I organize football matches with the Stockholm water community; so with all of that, it doesn’t give me a lot of spare time! When I do have some downtime, I’m also a huge football fan (Liverpool are my team); I love everything related to Star Wars; and I’m also a music buff, in all its shapes and forms. With my family, I tend to be as high-energy and intense as I am in the work environment, always busy.