Margaret Pageler - Leadership in water and environmental sustainability
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Johannesburg Trip Report

The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg produced a firm multinational commitment to cut by half the number of people with inadequate water supply and sanitation, and to do so by 2015. Clean water, sanitation and hygiene were primary themes of the conference, in contrast to the Rio summit ten years ago which focused on energy and greenhouse gasses.

The Hippo Roller
is an ingenious
water-carrying device

The official delegates to the Summit were national ministers of environment and trade. Much of their negotiation was behind closed doors, but there were a few seats at plenary sessions for observers like me.

I was in Johannesburg to attend one of the many parallel conferences that were being held simultaneously in widely scattered venues. (Imagine a Seattle Summit involving meeting sites located in Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, and the Puyallup fairgrounds.)

Local Government Session
Seattle is a member of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. ICLEI is a worldwide coalition of cities formed at Rio ten years ago to demonstrate that environmental principles can be implemented by local government. ICLEI held a 4-day workshop in Johannesburg to showcase best practices of cities around the globe.

I made a presentation about the City of Seattle/Puget Sound Clean Air Agency program of retrofitting diesel vehicles for ultra low-sulfur fuel (

ICLEI issued a call for action ( to create sustainable cities while protecting the "global common goods" of air, climate, water, soil, biodiversity, health and food. ICLEI's message to the UN and the national leaders demands support for effective local governance and strengthened local capacity to deliver environmental services.

Water Dome

  The conference featured displays of local environmental restoration projects
  The conference featured displays of local environmental restoration projects

I spent several productive days at the Water Dome, a sports arena taken over for two weeks to showcase water and sanitation initiatives. Reducing floods, reversing desertification, protecting and restoring tropical wetlands, harvesting rainwater for small-scale agriculture-scores of good ideas and effective programs were on display in the Water Dome.

The WASH theme (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene) was everywhere. Simple hygiene-washing hands with soap after toileting or diapering-could dramatically reduce Third-World illness and deaths from diarrhea and waterborne disease.

I was greatly encouraged by the creativity of solutions, particularly the indigenous and decentralized solutions that are available.

Most of these don't need to wait for the UN or national government to commit tens of millions of dollars. (For example, see or

Other Highlights and Memories

  • Queuing for security checks, endlessly, at every venue.
  • Attending a plenary session of the Summit. No, I wasn't one of the official delegates fed Lobster! (I did this trip on my MasterCard and frequent flier miles, not at taxpayer expense)
  • Trying to get phone calls through on my mobile with 65,000 other conferees on their cell phones jamming the airwaves.
  • An impromptu lunch with a half-dozen Australian councilmembers who quizzed me about Seattle's strategies for concentrated urban growth, transportation demand management, and recycling.
  • Stark contrasts between the upscale hotels and shopping at the Convention Center and the barren sprawl of Soweto Township.
  • Discussing world water solutions over dinner with the International Water Association leadership team from Japan, UK, America, Australia and South Africa.
  • A World Health Organization conference on health crises in Africa-AIDS, malaria, TB, diarrhea, and respiratory diseases from sooty household cooking fires. Prevention and treatment that is taken for granted in rich countries encounters multiple obstacles in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • A garden tour in the neighborhood where I was staying. In one of the featured gardens, the owner was replacing water-intensive lawns and English flower beds with drought-tolerant indigenous plants. This was my only sightseeing excursion and I loved it!


Margaret meeets with officials of the International Water Association  
Margaret meeets with officials of the International Water Association  

The Summit's failure to adopt clear goals and targets for renewable energy was a major disappointment. But the focus on water, sanitation and hygiene seems likely to produce real improvements in developing countries. And it is clear these services can be delivered in environmentally sustainable ways.

Encouragingly, some 700 businesses and companies attended the Johannesburg talks, many of them pledging to take specific responsibility for environmental improvements, with or without government financing. Together with the host of non-profit groups and environmental activists at the summit, they have built a powerful momentum for change.

And I learned something about the interplay of environmental and fiscal sustainability. A water system or garbage service that doesn't collect enough money for ongoing operation and maintenance is not sustainable. On the other hand, an environmental program that demands too much money, from donors or taxes or ratepayers, is not sustainable either. Local government is often where that crucial balance must be found. It is no small job.

Margaret Pageler.

Margaret Pageler