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Rio +20 and the Need for “Wealth Allievation” in South Africa

South Africa’s Water Sector Leadership Group, comprised of the most senior members of the country’s water sector, hosted a side event at the annual Water Institute of South Africa in Cape Town today. The aims were to raise awareness of Rio+20 and engage with its significance for the water sector.

In terms of process, there were a few issues that arose:

– Such multi stakeholder events, with a relatively high level of engagement amongst stakeholders in South Africa, have become a post transition norm in South Africa.

– The active participation of civil society in the conference as a whole was blocked by the expensive trade show registration fees, but we negotiated for them to be waived for seven people to participate in this event.

– The focus of the conference was almost entirely technical, with this session standing out as one of the few engaging with broader strategic issues.

– The water sector is not really in the position to engage with Rio issues actively since the release of the National Water Resources Strategy has been delayed and a number of pieces of enabling legislation are under revision.

– There is a large gap between international negotiations and what stakeholders are implementing nationally and locally. How do the two relate?

– Communication amongst government departments and their respective stakeholders is poor. A representative of the Department of Environmental Affairs presented South Africa’s Rio strategy, but it was all new to the water sector stakeholders– even though the DEA had held numerous multi-stakeholder consultations.

Constrained by the need to present a face of a department or corporation, solid but formal presentations by government and the private sector meant that you had to listen closely to get the sense of an issue. In contrast, presentations from civil society and academia isolated and highlighted critical issues analytically.

What were these issues?

The green economy (conveniently) remains undefined. One participant asked “Do we have a green economy?” and “If so, where is it?”. He suggested that, if each sector defines and sets objectives for its own green economy, we would be in a stronger position to map out change.

The presenter from civil society discussed the need to see the world holistically, instead of breaking it up into “bits” that can be commodified. Her example was that it would be the same to remove her heart and give it to a cow, since the cow would produce less carbon. Certainly we can not measure “bits” in this manner.

Surprisingly there was wide recognition of the contradictions of the need for economic growth and the environmental damage done by the same growth. In a country with the greatest inequality in the world, it was suggested that South Africa needs “wealth alleviation”!