KNOWledge/ World Water Day


Manila, 22 March 2018 — Too many people, cities, and economies are facing low water security. Business leaders need to help. It matters that they are on board for change. 

In my long years of project experience in increasing water security, I discovered that the problem of water management lies more in people than in water. What we need is more leaders, and not just among the water experts.

Water Security is truly everyone's business, from local communities to the highest levels in business, government, and international cooperation. The problem we continue to face is that most of the good work is done in silos. Around the world, there are bright spots of positive change, yet nowhere near the scale and speed that we would like to see.

Recent studies in Asia—compiled by the regional UN office UNESCAP in Bangkok—show that four out of five water utilities are still not bankable for investors and that most of the wastewater still flows into rivers and seas untreated.

How to make more positive change happen?

Leadership is Influence

Leadership nowadays is defined as a process of influence. Across society, lots of partners need to work at influencing change to make Water Security become more than a pipe dream.

To get better at influencing, three things matter: Direction, Alignment, and Commitment. Let's take a look where we are on those.


Around the world, there is much more clarity now about where we need and want to go: Water Security. We now have tons of knowledge. We are learning how to measure water security. And water management is recognized as an integral part of the Sustainable Development Goals and the processes for monitoring their achievement.

We should shift our priorities to implementation.


Here is where we are not doing well enough. All parties in water management have lots of 'reasons' why problems persist and are increasingly articulate about expressing them. We know where we want to go, but how do we get there? 

And most importantly—and here lies the biggest challenge—how do we work together to make positive change happen, on a small scale and also at a much larger scale. 

In my earlier work at the Asian Development Bank, we discovered that there are many reasons why projects can fail or underdeliver. Yet—from an analysis of water projects—it seemed that there was only one factor that all successful projects had in common: they had leaders who were able to make positive change happen.

The good news is that leaders nowadays are not only found among executives in positions of authority. We can find (and nurture) them at all levels and ages.

What leaders do is bring teams and stakeholders together for results. They can lead across boundaries, and they use their influencing skills develop to align human and financial resources for collaboration and momentum.

To increase water security, we need to lead across many boundaries: public, private, organizations, disciplines, age, gender, and of course of geographical locations within the river basins and cities where water needs to be managed more sustainably.

Where can we find more leaders who can do that?


We have plenty of paper commitments. No one disagrees that water is life and that water security is important. What we need more of is the commitment from people who do the work. Another word for that is engagement. Water security is an enormous challenge, and working to achieve it is not easy. Sometimes the doors you want to open are still locked from the other side.

Whether people across all sectors are enthusiastic enough to bring out their best and choose to prioritize work for water security depends on many things, including their motivation, values, skills, and how inspired they are and by what or who.

Research seems to show that levels of staff engagement in businesses and organizations are typically low—some saying they are below 20%—and indicate much room for improvement. 

To be more successful in influencing positive change for water security, we need to look more closely at how to bring out the best in people, in businesses, in government, in civil society, and also in the media.

Where can we find engaged leaders who will keep unlocking doors for partners to find each other?

Emerging Leaders

Over the past years, I have seen many indications that involving more emerging leaders will help. Many millennials are already buying into the sustainability mindset and have less resistance to working together and leading across boundaries. And they are full of new ideas.

Recently, I met with executives of a water business in Asia that introduced a new practice that they called reverse mentoring, whereby the executives (of the boomer generation) are being mentored by millennials (of generation Y).

Initiatives like these will make a difference because they empower unlearning, collaboration, and new learning from working together. That is important because, in most cases, yesterday's solutions are not going to deliver the kind of changes we want to see happening now.

Fortunately, we have more opportunities to invest in growing leaders than ever before in history. The question is how we will use these opportunities.

In my personal story, this is what has led me to shift my priority from being a water specialist to working as a leadership trainer and coach. I am thrilled by the potential I see to grow more leaders who can influence positive change in society, including for Water Security.

Did you see the cover photo? It matters that business communities are getting on board for Water Security, including the companies of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (ECCP) where I led a training session yesterday.