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Water crises 'coming to your backyard'

March 19, 2018

Governments should increase resilience to cope with droughts and flooding due to climate change or else face water crises in the future, says World Water Council's Benedito Braga.

Dry lake in Colombia (photo: Imago/ZUMA Press)
Image: Imago/ZUMA Press

DW: What are the central topics being discussed at this 8th World Water Forum taking place in Brasilia March 18-23?

Benedito Braga: The main theme is "sharing waters" because we have more than 260 river basins that are shared by two or more countries.

But there are also half a dozen other topics that will be discussed, including climate change, the financing of water infrastructure, the issue of urbanization, how the water in the urban environment is managed, the ecosystems, the governance of water, the issue of water supply and sanitation, and the rights for people to have access to clean water and sanitation.

Read more: Cape Town could run out of water by April

How many people around the world are lacking water security?

We have some information that around 1.5 billion people live in river basins that are stressed by insufficient supply. So it's a very, very high number of people that are impacted by water stress these days.

Global water scarcity (DW)

Which regions in the world experience the most water stress?

The traditional regions are in the Middle East where water is naturally scarce and you have a good number of people demanding water in these regions. But lately, we have been seeing in different parts of the world situations of water stress due to variability in the climate.

In Africa, we are we see situations in Kenya, South Africa; in the Americas, in the northeast of Brazil, in California; in Europe, in Portugal — Portugal is going through a very severe drought situation. So there are different parts of the world where this water stress is happening.

Let's stay in Europe for a moment. How does it compare here with other regions in the world?

Normally the more-developed countries have more opportunities, more possibilities than the poorer countries.

The situation is more complex in sub-Saharan Africa than in Europe. In Europe you have higher income, which is always easier to find alternatives, like for example, if necessary, desalination.

For example in Australia, when we went through the millennium drought in the years 2000 to 2010 and had almost 10 years of drought, they implemented some large desalination plants to cope with a very severe situation. In the less-developed countries, when water scarcity happens, the social impact is much bigger.

In 1995, the former World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin famously said that the wars of the next century will be about water. What is your take on this now, in 2018, well into the 21st century?

If there is not good water management, we may see wars related to water. But history shows that there is much more cooperation than conflict regarding water. So I think that if there is good water management and good diplomacy, the chances of war [as] related to water are minimal.

Read more: Water scarcity in Pakistan – A bigger threat than terrorism

Benedito Braga, Präsident World Water Council
Benedito Braga was head of Sao Paulo's water department during the water crisis of 2014-2015Image: World Water Council/Foto: Sigrun Sauerzapfe

Sao Paulo went through a severe water crisis in recent years. Has anything changed as a result? 

The metropolitan region of Sao Paulo went through a very severe drought in the year 2014-2015 — a drought that could not have been foreseen because it was so severe. The government of Sao Paulo started by developing infrastructure that was in the planning for 2020. So the state of Sao Paulo needs to increase its security by increasing the infrastructure.

What needs to happen in order to be able to respond to water crises?

We need to motivate the political class, we need to motivate those that make decisions to give water the importance it needs to have. The only way that we will achieve water security is by motivating those that make decisions – the political class – motivate them to the importance of providing infrastructure to make the populations more resilient to the changes and variability of climate. So water security will be achieved if we are able to motivate the political class to invest in providing more resilient infrastructure to cope with the situations of scarcity of water.

The impact of droughts is likely to increase as a result of climate change. How will those impacts play out and what should governments be doing to handle water crises in light of climate change?

Europe's flooded future

Governments need to increase their capacity to adapt to climate change.

Most of the discussions that have happened in the past in the COPs, these conferences of parties on climate, have been focused on energy, on mitigation, on CO2-reduction. And actually the important problems related to climate change are directly related to adaptation. How do we adapt quickly to the changes in climate?

I think governments should be increasing their resilience by improving their infrastructure to cope with more variability in climate. Because the theory that goes with climate change is that we're going to have longer droughts and more intense floods. And in such a situation, it's necessary to store the water.

When floods come, you store the water. And then when droughts come, you use less water later on. And this is the adaptation that is necessary. We at the council have been proposing during the COPs that they pay more attention to water, and they pay more attention to adaptation to climate change.

We talked about Sao Paolo, the water crisis in 2014-2015, but also other cities like Cape Town in South Africa may run out of water. Will we be seeing more cities face this stark reality more often in the future?

Based on the evidence around climate change, there is the possibility that more cities will be facing these kinds of problems in the future. So we have to be prepared. We have to see these cases that are happening today, and start providing more resilient infrastructure for the future.

This is a message that really we have been passing on via the World Water Council, the World Water Forums: the political class [has] to understand that in the future, the water crisis that was happening in a very distant place may be happening in his own backyard. We need to be more prepared for the future. No doubt about it.

Some scholars and NGOs have criticized the World Water Forum for prioritizing the interests of the private sector, like for companies and industrial suppliers, including promoting privatization of water resources. What's your response to this criticism?

This criticism is not correct because the World Water Forum is open to everybody to bring their own views. There is no preference to private or public. We have never taken any position of saying that the public is better or that the private is better.

Anyone can do a good service, the public or private, as long as the poor, the less fortunate, are served by a good water supply and sanitation company.

A Sudanese woman fills water bottles held by a young boy (photo: Getty Images/AFP/A. Shazly)
Many around the world lack access to clean and safe drinking water Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Shazly

What I understand is the core of that criticism is that water is a basic human need and privatization puts a cost, a monetary value on that need. So I think that the basic problem is the criticism of the privatization of the resources that people depend on to survive. Do you not have a problem with that?

There are not private waters — only Chile, I think, is one of the countries in the world where water is a private good — everywhere in the world, water is a public good. In the constitution of countries, it's very clear that water is a public good. Now, as long as the service that is provided to make water potable and to provide sanitation, these services can be privatized or can be public, not the water.

So it's up to the municipality to choose if they are going to have a public company or a private company to provide the service. And the World Water Forum is not pro-private or pro-public — each one has advantages and disadvantages.

Benedito Braga is the president of the World Water Council and the secretary of state for sanitation and water resources of the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The interview was conducted by Sonya Diehn.

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