Asit Biswas: The water profession needs to change its mindset

ASIA RESOURCES | June 28, 2012

Howard James: Acclaimed as one of very few truly innovative thinkers in the water area, what, in your view, are the real water problems of the world?

Asit Biswas: The world is facing many water-related challenges, but none of these are being discussed seriously in any depth by the water profession or at all the various national and international fora.

The water profession has been saying for at least the last 40 years that business as usual is no longer a solution, but it is behaving as if there is no other solution! To start with, the world is changing very fast and the rate of this change will accelerate even further in the coming decades. Thus, yesterday’s solutions based on day-before-yesterday’s knowledge base cannot even predict tomorrow’s water problems, let alone find their solutions.

Many of our current paradigms, like integrated water resources management, should have been jettisoned years ago. Sadly, these outdated paradigms are being continued to be propaged vigorously by many international organisations and water professionals. The world is now spending hundreds of million dollars in promoting solutions that have not worked in the past, are not working at present and there is no hope that they will work in the future! In a sense, we have become part of the problems rather than the solutions.

The water profession needs to change its mindset urgently. In my view, the most critical problem is how we can put water at the centre of national and political agendas. We in the water profession believe that water is a most important issue of the world.

Unfortunately and not surprisingly, policymakers and the general public do not believe it to be so. For example, during the Earth Summit in Rio, in 1992, not even one of the more than 150 Heads of States that attended this meeting even mentioned the word “water”. Twenty years later, it is a safe bait that not a single Head of State participating in Rio+20 will consider water again to be worth mentioning.

We have to learn that water is a means to an end, but not an end by itself. The ends are better quality of life and poverty alleviation. Unless we can show to the policymakers and public that water can be an engine for economic growth, higher standards of living, and better environmental quality, water will not be in national and international political agendas.

If water is not in the political agenda, as it is at present, we can at best make incremental progress. I do not see any progress in this direction so far. Unless we change our approaches radically, water will never take the centre stage, except during high floods and prolonged severe droughts.

As we continue to be a minor actor in the wings, our progress will continue to be minor. This is the most important challenge the water profession is facing at present. Sadly, we are not even discussing this issue.

Howard James: Do you think we have enough water in the world to meet the needs of nine billion people by 2050, as questioned by the UN?

Asit Biswas: Water scarcity has recently been the ‘flavour of the month’. If one puts the term ‘water crisis’ into Google, it gives 253 million entries! The fact is the world is not running out of water. We have enough water to meet our current and foreseeable needs. However, what we have is mediocre to pathetic water management practices in nearly all countries of the world, as well as managing other sectors like food or energy that needs tremendous amounts of water. For example, in my view many countries that are becoming emerging important economic powers, their water management is similar to the banana republics.

We have had the necessary knowledge, technology and funds to improve water management practices for years, but we have spectacularly failed to do so for three very important reasons. First, the political will, irrespective of occasional rhetoric on water, is missing. As mentioned earlier, during the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, not a single Head of State of some 150 countries that participated, did not mention the word water. During the Rio+20, this apathy and neglect of water was show again. Second, people in most countries have been so used to poor quality water management for such a long time, they do not think better management is possible. Third, the water profession has blithely accepted this poor status quo.

If we can improve our management practices on water and for other sectors that need water, there is no reason why there should not be adequate water to meet all human need by 2050.

Howard James: What is your view on the recent claim by the United Nations that the dinking water targets of the Millennium Development Goals have already been met?

Asit Biswas: Mark Twain once said: “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”. Sadly by fudging definitions and stretching the facts, the UN has declared victory.

When in 1976, I proposed to the Secretary General of the UN Water Conference that we should go for an International Water Supply and Sanitation Decade, our view was that water supply meant that people can drink safely from the source without any adverse health impact. By sanitation, we meant that wastewater be collected from houses, taken to a treatment plant, properly treated and then discharged safely to the environment. What has happened is that these ideas were diluted to a degree that has no meaning.

For example, take all the South Asian countries, whose population is more than 1.65 billion. One will not be able to name even a single town in entire South Asia where people can drink water straight from the source. Globally, one can easily identify over 2 billion people who do not have access to clean and safe water. The UNICEF and WHO estimate claims “only” 783 million people do not have access to “clean” water.

Similarly, sanitation now means that only wastewater is taken out of the house. For example, Delhi discharges its untreated wastewater into the River Yamuna and Mexico City pumps down its untreated wastewater to Mezquital Valley, and both are considered to have proper sanitation.

The Third World centre for Water Management estimates that about 10% of people in Latin America have access to proper wastewater collection, treatment and disposal systems. We suspect developing Asian countries to have similar level as Latin America, with Africa somewhat less. It reminds me of Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland: “When I use a word, it means that I choose it to mean… neither more nor less”.

Sadly, irrespective of the UN claims of victory, we have a very long way to go.

Asit Biswas was speaking with Howard James ahead of the 2012 World Cities Summit, Singapore International Water Week and CleanEnviro Summit Singapore.