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'Water fund a win-win'

Nathan Witkop
March 12, 2012

Nearly two billion people around the world have no access to clean drinking water and sanitation systems. DW spoke with Benedito Braga, vice-president of the World Water Council, about solutions to the problem.

An Indian schoolgirl drinks water from new handpump
Many see access to water as a basic human rightImage: CC/waterdotorg

The sixth United Nations World Water Forum is taking place in Marseille from March 12 to March 17. Delegations from 180 countries are participating in the world's largest event focusing on water - which is organized by the World Water Council and has been taking place every three years since 1997. The Council is comprised of scientists, organizations and international water companies. DW spoke with Brazilian Benedito Braga, vice-president of the World Water Council and president of the International Committee of the Sixth World Water Forum, about a global fund for water supply.

DW: What is the World Water Forum's main focus this time around?

Benedito Braga: This year's Forum will focus on finding solutions to water problems. The slogan "Time for Solutions" reflects that. Based on priority, there are twelve topics - with particular emphasis on access to clean drinking water and sanitation systems as a basic human right. We also look at catastrophes involving water, or lack thereof, such as flooding and droughts. Any potential climate change could cause more frequent and more severe floods and longer drought periods. And I'd also like to highlight here the subject of water security - especially when it comes to rivers that are shared by two or more countries. The discussion about financing methods for achieving these goals will also be very important.

Benedito Braga
Benedito BragaImage: World Water Forum

How has access to water become more difficult in recent years?

Generally speaking, there has been progress in water access in the past decade. But in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America, access is still quite limited. In terms of sanitation systems, we are still a long way away from the Millennium Goals that were set by the United Nations in 2000, which include reducing the number of people without access to water and sanitation systems by half by the year 2015. Right now, nearly two billion people have no access to sanitation systems, and between 800 million  and 900 million people have no access to clean drinking water.

The basic requirement for improving access to sanitation systems is providing access to clean drinking water. Public authorities always prioritize providing drinking water over expanding sanitation systems; that's logical. In addition, there's the issue of money. Sanitation systems are expensive and in countries with economic difficulties, the government has to make decisions.

Person holding hands under water coming out of faucet
Clean drinking water and sanitation systems go hand in handImage: picture-alliance/ZB

One of themes of this year's Forum is stressing the advantages of investing in sanitation systems because the investments create jobs and reduce poverty. The sanitation sector is one that in less developed countries offers the greatest number of jobs for minimally skilled workers. They're also advantageous for public health. Illnesses transmitted by water cause the greatest number of deaths among children. Child mortality drops dramatically when cities have sewage systems. Cleaning up urban rivers would also be advantageous.

Does the Forum intend to demand that governments take more responsibility in these areas?

The Forum brings together politicians, technicians, scientists and other professionals. It's a place were decision-makers can review options and find solutions for various problems or challenges. It's not the aim of the Forum to point fingers. People are well aware of where the shoe pinches, so to speak.

It's often the case that politicians want to do something, but do not know how to tackle the challenges. Sometimes the direction or solution is clear but is complicated by environmental protection or societal reasons. We're able to get a broad selection of experts together who address these topics and have innovative ideas.

An Indonesian boy swims at a polluted beach in Jakarta
Boy resorts to swimming in polluted water in JakartaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But politicians are also able to point to their successes. Government representatives, local players, mayors and governors will attend the Forum. There will also be a conference for parliamentarians because without laws and regulations, we would not be able to shape public policy.

How alarming is the current process of urbanization around the world?

One of our most important topics is the change of urban landscapes. We are extremely worried about the swift growth of cities around the globe. Eighty-five percent of the population of Latin America lives in urban areas. Asia's development is similar. In 2050, half of the population will be living in cities; right now, it's just 30 percent in Asia.

This development will trigger further problems. Many floods nowadays have to do with the fact that residential areas are built in susceptible areas. One example is the urban center of Sao Paulo. There is absolutely no space left along the banks of the Tiete, Pinheiros and Aricanduva rivers there. It's a similar situation in Bangladesh, Mumbai, and all of the major cities in less developed countries and the emerging markets, like India and Brazil.

There are massive favelas along Sao Paulo's riverbanks. The city is working on trying to move the people, but it's not easy. It's a very complicated social issue. Urbanization is a problem that will get more complicated in the future due to floods caused by potential climate change.

Is there a lack of investment in infrastructure in these cases?

The idea has been floated that wealthy nations can establish a fund for water and health. Companies in the wealthier countries could use this fund to build the necessary infrastructure in the poorer countries. A win-win situation would result. Industry from the donor nations would profit because they would have the funds at their disposal. The poor countries would benefit because they would receive the infrastructure they need, as well as develop the expertise required to maintain that infrastructure in the long run.

That would help improve the situation of the richer nations that are currently having financial difficulties, and it would improve the quality of life for people in poorer countries. Right now development aid is a one-way street: donor nations provide funds but have no control over how they are applied in countries receiving the aid. That's why this process has gone down the wrong path. 

Europe's wealthier nations, the US and Japan are facing huge financial problems and are increasingly questioning this type of one-sided development aid. Spain, for instance, has decided to cut its development budget by billions of euros. A fund, on the other hand, could perhaps be one way of spurring industry in the rich nations while also helping poor countries, without just cutting international aid altogether. Discussion about establishing such a fund will occur for the first time here at the Forum.

Interview: Mariana Santos / als
Editor: Holly Fox

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