Sustainable development cannot be left to the governments of nation states alone, argued Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Chair of the United Nations Development Group.
She said that the importance of water management and sustainable environmental development to cities could not be underestimated.
Ms Clark was speaking at the dialogue session 'In Conversation: Governance in Sustainable Development', moderated by Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore, at the Singapore International Water Week, World Cities Summit and CleanEnviro Summit Singapore.
Ms Clark reiterated her belief in the importance of managing growth. 'We can't plan for a sound economic and social future unless we take the environment very seriously indeed,' she said.
Fresh from her participation last month at Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Ms Clark acknowledged the difficulty of reaching binding inter-government agreements at international conferences. This was mitigated in her opinion by Rio+20's success in giving a platform to subnational organisations.
'It brought together tens of thousands of people from every level of society and government to talk about the future of our world,' said Ms Clark.
The importance of sustainable development to cities was a recurring theme during the discussion with Prof Koh. For all the advances in green technology, both Ms Clark and Prof Koh agreed that governance is key to long-term sustainability.
In her work on water governance with UNDP, Ms Clark identified building capacity to maintain and sustain infrastructure as the weak link that needs strengthening.
Capacity building in water management requires a 'multistakeholder approach' believes Ms Clark, so that it can be applied to different situations and environments.
Building the necessary institutional architecture is of particular priority to cities. In an increasingly urbanised world, the bulk of the world's next two billion citizens are going to be living in cities. Developing them sustainably is essential: 'We need to get this right,' said Ms Clark. Speaking to CNBC after the debate, Ms Clark identified Singapore's 'strong governance' and the city-state's prioritisations of water management as examples of how properly designed cities can be sustainable.
For Ms Clark, local and national governmental leadership are vital to sustainable development. For example, sustainable technology must be accompanied by political will and an inclusive approach that listens to the needs of the public.
'Equity and sustainability are linked,' said Ms Clark, and economic development cannot be at the expense of human development. Ms Clark referred to Ethiopia and the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, as examples of balancing economic growth with both environmental protection and responding to people's needs and requirements.
Ensuring a sustainable future will require that both people and governments are included in the process. Said Ms Clark: 'We have to go to zero on extreme poverty and hunger to have any hope of building a more just world.'