The 6th World Water Forum will run from March 12 to 17 in Marseille, France. Its President, Benedito Braga(1), also Vice-President of the World Water Council and Director of the Brazilian National Water Agency, talks about his quest to make the voice of water heard.
Today, do the most impoverished have access to water?
Benedito Braga: There has been some progress in a few countries, but the problem is far from solved, especially in many rural areas. The indigent are always hardest hit, by the lack of sanitation infrastructure, for instance, especially in the slums of large cities. A recent UN report on sub-Saharan Africa indicates that the poorest 20% of the population is six times more likely to use a non-potable water source than the richest 20%. Furthermore, it is estimated that, in 1998, 700 million rural inhabitants in that part of the world did not have access to drinking water, versus 140 million urban inhabitants. So a lot remains to be done for the most disadvantaged. Last but not least, one still sees excessive neglect in certain sectors, such as wastewater systems, which are often in poor condition.
What obstacles get in the way of reaching the Millennium Development Goals for Water set in 2000?
B.B.: The financial means, of course. It must be said that the international community has not yet come up with adequate funding mechanisms. Many governments have also failed to realize that a lack of drinking water has major implications for public health and infant mortality. Motivating public authorities to put more money on the table is a tremendous task. Although the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution in 2010 recognizing that access to clean water and sanitation is a human right - an act of political importance - no positive effects have been forthcoming yet. Some governments refused to recognize this right until recently. We have to proceed step by step and see how to make it into a reality.
What about the impact of demographic growth and urbanization, sanitation being one of your key issues?
B.B.: Inadequate water quality in highly populated urban areas like Manila, Mexico City or São Paulo translates into a problem with the local supply of drinking water, which becomes more expensive and less safe to drink. A tremendous amount of funding is needed to tackle this problem. In Brazil alone, $180 billion will be required in the next ten years to obtain acceptable water quality in cities.
How will climate change affect the water sector?
B.B.: If the forecasts made by the scientific community are right, we will have to make a rapid adjustment to longer periods of drought or flooding.
As a result of climatic variations, we will be obliged to adopt new techniques, build more dams and increase water reserves.
Let me give you just one example to illustrate the need for infrastructure and the fact that the situation can be very different from one country to the next: the water reserves in Australia are estimated to stand at 5,000 cubic meters a year per inhabitant, compared to 30 cubic meters in Ethiopia. This is just one way in which African countries are vulnerable to climate variations, which are likely to become more severe.
What role can water companies and other stakeholders play in the drive to ensure access to water for all?
B.B.: The goal is to improve water access and help the poorest countries. The idea is not to pit the public and private sectors against one another, but to find suitable funding mechanisms. Rich countries should contribute their expertise and technology, perhaps - why not? - via an international aid fund or a financing system such as a tax on cigarettes and firearms. I believe in this kind of solution. The World Water Council works hard to come up with win-win solutions like this.
What do you expect to come out of Rio + 20?
B.B.: The World Water Council is working hand in hand with the United Nations, with Ban Ki-moon in particular, to put water on the table at Rio. The two themes of the conference - "the green economy in the context of sustainable development" and "poverty eradication" - unequivocally place water access and sanitation issues at the heart of the Rio agenda. Indeed, these issues cannot be resolved without making appropriate use of water and providing access to water and sanitation services. We remain in close contact with governments and UN departments in our effort to see that these vital issues are raised in Rio.
(1) Professor Braga conducts research on water resources that involves stakeholders and seeks to resolve conflicts and undertake multi-objective decision-making processes. He has sat on several international committees advocating the concept of integrated water resource management.