This planet can support nine billion people: An interview with Asit Biswas

THE EUROPEAN | January 7, 2013

The European: You have quoted Shakespeare to describe current resource scarcities: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”

Biswas: Yes, it is one of my favorite quotes from Shakespeare. All over the world people are saying, “We have not got enough water and thus we have a water crisis.” However, the main problem is not physical scarcity of water, but its continued mismanagement! Unless water management can be improved significantly, the world’s water problem cannot be solved. I was in Dubai a few weeks ago and I was told that, “We have a big water problem here.” And I said, “of course you do! But you have more than enough water if you manage it rationally.” If we look at the per capita water consumption in Dubai, it is nearly two to three times higher compared to that of Hamburg, which is not exactly a city facing water scarcity! We humans have created all sorts of water problems through mismanagement and we are unwilling to take the hard decisions necessary to solve them. So, we blame it on someone else!

The European: Amartya Sen published his book “Poverty and Famine” a few years ago in which he argued that famines don’t arise from a lack of food, but from the inability of people to buy sufficient food. There seems to be a growing consensus that talk about natural limits is often obscuring very real political and economic limits.

Biswas: I fully agree. We can solve the world’s present and foreseeable water problems with current technology and available investment funds. China plans to reduce its agricultural water consumption by some forty percent over the next two decades, without sacrificing total production. This is good, but it also shows how inefficient today’s water management  practices are. The same story holds true for food or energy. The fundamental question today is how do we manage these resources more efficiently? This October, the Supreme Court of India asked the central government and four state governments why the Yamuna River is still so dirty after ten years of spending hundreds of million dollars in improving water quality. Some 500 million dollars were spent to clean up the Ganges in the 1980s and 1990s, and it is now even more polluted than ever! India is now spending 1.6 billion dollars to clean it up again. There is no doubt that all this money will be spent, but the Ganges will be more polluted in 2025 than it is now. All these are excellent examples of bad planning and management. Sadly, we do not seem to learn from such terrible examples.

The European: How many people are currently without access to clean, affordable, and accessible water?

Biswas: You asked a very important question which very few people are asking. The UN claims that “only” 780 million people do not have access to clean water. This is a bunch of baloney! I do not know how they reached that number, but it reminds me of Mark Twain’s statement that there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Look at South Asia alone. Some 1.7 billion people live in this region. I challenge anyone to show me a single city or village where people have access to clean water. The UN now proclaims that we have achieved the Millennium Development Goal for clean water supply three years before the deadline of 2015. This is simply misusing statistics and redefining what constitutes clean water. My guess is that some 2.3 billion people are now without access to clean water. By fudging definitions of clean water, the UN claims that this number is only one-third of the real situation. It is truly sad.

The European: Why would the UN cook its stats?

Biswas: I was one of the three people who proposed that the UN should have a clear target for access to clean water, in 1976, during the preparatory process for the UN Water Conference which was held in Mar del Plata in 1977. Our thinking was very simple: “Access to water” meant having access to water that one could drink without worrying about health. We also defined “sanitation” as taking wastewater from houses and then treating it properly so that it could be released into the environment without causing damage. Subsequently, the UN General Assembly unanimously approved the 1980s to be the International Water Supply and Sanitation Decade. Sadly, the definitions of clean water and sanitation were changed. Consequently, much of the relevance of this Resolution disappeared. Ban-Ki Moon said earlier this year that 780 million people do not have access to clean water. If this is true, he must be living in a different planet! By fudging the definition of “clean” water, the UN is providing the world a totally erroneous but an optimistic picture.

The European: And once the UN says it, the number sticks.

Biswas: Whenever I talk to the world leaders now, they say: “only 780 million people do not have access to clean water: aren’t we doing great?” And I say: one can cook the books and one can change the definitions, but reality does not change. Over two billion people do not have access to clean water. Over three million people do not have access to wastewater disposal and treatment. Cities like Mexico City or Delhi now claim that they have good sanitation. Sadly, Delhi discharges all its untreated wastewater into the river Yamuna and Mexico City pumps it down to Mezquital Valley. Yet both claim that they have good sanitation!

The European: Let’s assume we don’t spend more money, we don’t drill more wells, but we manage water and wastewater better – how much could those numbers drop?

Biswas: The numbers could drop very significantly. Take the case of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. In 1993, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) was broke and 73 percent of water was lost from the system. They brought in an outside manager who did not know much about water but was intelligent, committed, and wanted to solve the problem. Water is not rocket science. By 2000, the organization was making a profit and delivering clean water to each household. By 2005, the performance indicators of PPWSA were better than those of Thames Water of England! Prices are affordable. The rich and the poor pay for the water they consume. When PPWSA became Cambodia’s first publicly traded company this year, its stock rose 49 percent on the first day of trading.

PPWSA is a very well-run autonomous public sector organization. Its profits have increased each year. PPWSA has managed to provide clean water to all the inhabitants of Phnom Penh for 24 hours each day in spite of its limited technological and management expertise, high levels of corruption that exist in Cambodia, which they have eliminated in the organization. There is absolutely no reason why cities like Cairo, Delhi, or Lagos cannot do this as well.

The European: Some people have argued for making the right to water a clearly defined human right. Would that make a difference?

Biswas: It really would not make any difference, unless water management is significantly improved. With rights come responsibilities and accountability. Just proclaiming water is a human right will not mean that every one will miraculously receive clean water. If human rights to water mean that water should be free, we will not see universal access to clean water for the next hundred years! Human right or not, water has to be priced if everyone has to have access to clean water and wastewater treatment. Take the case of Singapore. Water supply and wastewater treatment now cost less than 0.5 percent of the income of an average Singaporean household. Ask people around the world how much they are paying for electricity, and all of them will tell you and then will complain that they pay too much. Ask about their water bill, and they have no idea! Americans routinely underestimate the amount of water they use because the price they pay is too low.

The European: Speaking of pricing – do market-based approaches work for basic necessities like water

Biswas: The debate on the public sector and the private sector is becoming very dogmatic throughout the world. Deng Xioping once told me that it does not matter whether a cat is white or black, the only thing that matters is whether it can catch mice. My view is similar. It really does not matter whether water is provided by the public or the private sector as long as it is provided efficiently and at affordable prices. Two of the world’s most efficient water supply companies are in the public sector: Singapore and Tokyo. Equally, some of the world’s most inefficient companies are also in the public sector. Many public water suppliers in India lose nearly fifty percent of their water. They have an unworkable business model, including heavy subsidies, poor management, and continuous political interference. Public sector is not inherently bad, or the private sector is not always efficient. We have many examples of dismal performance of the private sector. Instead of arguing whether public or private sector should supply water, we should consider only their performance.

The European: I want to talk more about managing change, and I want to go back to your examples of Phnom Penh and Delhi. It almost seems that change is easiest in places which lack long administrative histories and entrenched hierarchies. The solutions are there, the money is not an issue, but there’s a tremendous amount of institutional inertia.

Biswas: You are absolutely correct. Politicians in India think that if they promise free water, they will get more votes and thus get elected! The Indian public has received poor water services for generations and thus they do not know that there are good and affordable solutions. Sure, we can provide free water, but it will not be potable water or the services will be good. Currently households in Delhi or Kolkata are functioning as mini-utilities. They receive water for two to three hours each day. Each household has an underground and an overhead tank. When the water comes, the underground tank is filled up. Water is pumped to the roof. Then the water comes down to the households to provide a 24-hour supply. People now have long-term contracts with private companies to treat the water so that it can be drunk safely. They also have to clean the tanks every two or three months. Otherwise, the pollution levels will be high. If we add up the price of building the tanks, costs of pump and its installation, electricity costs for pumping the water, hiring companies to clean the tanks and provide home water treatment, one can easily show that households could save 30 to 35 percent of the coping costs if clean water was provided centrally and around the clock. I do not think anyone would object to paying significantly less for a much higher quality of water service.

The European: But that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of mismanagement. Your example of Phnom Penh sounds like a case study of overcoming managerial incompetence.

Biswas: We should recognize that there are many aspects of management that have nothing to do with water per se but with overall governance. For example, the average stay of a head of a water utility in Mexico is only 18 months. In India, it is between 30 and 36 months. People with no knowledge of water, and often with only limited management expertise, now run their public utilities. They know that their stay will be very short. Thus, they rarely formulate good plans since they would be long gone by the time the plan is formulated and implemented. In addition, there are powerful vested interests that benefit from the status quo. It does not make sense for these short-stay utility managers to tackle complex tasks. We have to change the system. We need to hire professional managers who would be responsible and accountable for good water supply and wastewater treatment. This will be a big challenge.

The European: With other resources, there’s an additional moral dimension because of scarcity: The more we consume in the West, the more it disadvantages developing countries elsewhere. Is there a similar issue of distributive justice in the case of water?

Biswas: Water is a very local issue. As a general rule, it is difficult to transfer bulk water from one country to another. The water price is so low that inter-country water transfer does not make sense. Politically it also becomes a difficult process.

The European: Is there a problem with using the limited amount of clean water for the feeding of livestock, or for the production of exportable clothes, or for the making of Coca Cola instead of using it to provide access to a greater number of people?

Biswas: Let us consider one fundamental fact which most people do not fully appreciate. Resources like oil and coal once used can never be reused. In contrast, water can be used, treated, reused and recycled many times if we have good water management practices. It is estimated that each drop of the Colorado River water is used seven times, and that number could go up to 15 or 20 times with better management. Water is becoming scarce only because of poor management nearly all over the world.

The European: Still – it seems to me that using the limited amount of water that is available at a given time for the making of soft drinks or for bottled water isn’t exactly a wise management practice if other people lack access.

Biswas: The amount of water bottled worldwide is not very much: less than 0.005 percent. In the developing world, bottled water is often indispensable because it is the only source of clean water, especially when one is away from home. In the developed world, anyone who buys bottled water should have his head examined! Why? Because in all European countries, tap water has more controls and better monitoring than bottled water. You pay one pound or Euro for a bottle of water when you could get a thousand times as much water of assured quality from your faucet.

The European: It tastes better?

Biswas: That could be true. Let me suggest a very simple solution. Take a bottle and fill it with tap water. Put it into the fridge and leave it there overnight. Open the cap. Residual chlorine that is in treated water will disappear. Next morning, blind-test that water and see whether you can tell the difference between bottled water and tap water. The vast majority of people will not be able to tell the difference! They will also save lot of money and the hassle of carrying heavy water bottles home.

The European: You once said, “the questions always stay the same but the answers change.” How are local and global changes affecting the answers that we ought to give to water and resource scarcities over the coming decades?

Biswas: We have to convince ourselves that we are not facing a water crisis. Even when nine billion people live on this planet by 2050, water scarcity will not be an issue if we can improve its management significantly. We shall have a crisis if water management continues at its present poor levels. We should also recognize that water problems are interrelated with food and energy problems. In France or the US, thermal energy production is the largest user of water. Water for energy production is exploding. Globally, the biggest user of
water today is agriculture: about 70 percent. Nearly 40 percent of food that is produced never reaches the consumer. In the US and in Europe, most of the losses occur in supermarkets or downstream because of an overabundance and its cheapness. In the developing world, most losses occur upstream before food reaches the market because of inadequate supply chains and storage facilities. If we could decrease food wastage from forty percent to ten percent, we could reduce water and energy consumption pretty drastically.

The European: Public discourse often functions very differently: individual issues bubble up to the surface, but it’s very difficult to popularize systemic arguments.

Biswas: Many problems we face today have become increasingly complex over the last hundred years. Our response has often been to make them sectoral and break them down into smaller parts so that we can manage them easily. This reductionism does not work well anymore. There is not a single country in the world whose water policy explicitly considers agricultural or energy policies and vice versa, even though all the three are closely interrelated. The water ministry draws up their plans, and the agriculture ministry draws up different plans, and neither of them consult with the energy ministry! Each affects the others, and, in turn, is affected by the others. We have now reached a situation where everything is becoming increasingly more and more complex. If we do not talk about the interlinkages, we shall be in deep trouble. We need a holistic approach to management of these resources.

The European: Are you a pessimist?

Biswas: I believe that our planet can support nine billion people with a better quality of life and with much better access to food, water, and energy than is available at present. But we have to do things differently than in the past. Instead of writing scientific papers that only six other experts read, academics must speak to a popular audience. We must sensitize the people and also the politicians. We have the technology. We have the money. We have the resources. We can solve the problems, but we have to get the message across that the problems are solvable. We cannot continue like we are doing at present.

The European: So you are an optimist?

Biswas: Yes, but a cautious optimist. I see crisis as an opportunity. We probably need a water crisis to force the politicians to take some hard decisions. Hopefully things will change before too much damage has been done.

The European: If it all comes down to management problems, why has the Malthusian story about water and resource crisis have so much traction?

Biswas: Sadly, crises have strong media appeal. If we search for “water crisis” on Google, there are over 195 million results. If I go to a newspaper tomorrow and say “there is a water crisis,” they want to know more. Crisis sells papers. If I go to the newspaper and say, “our problems are solvable,” they are not interested. When a colleague of mine said that there will be wars between countries over water, the global media loved it! When I said that it is a bunch of baloney, they did not even bother to report it. The media has a preoccupation with all types of crisis. Thus, not surprisingly, Malthusian stories have not only traction but significant staying power even when they are wrong, dead wrong!

Asit Biswas is a former member of the World Commission on Water, a founder of the World Water Council, of the Third World Centre for Water Management and of the Club of Tokyo. He has received numerous prizes for his work, including the Spanish Aragon Environment Prize, the Stockholm Water Prize and the highest awards of the International Water Resources Association. Biswas teaches in Singapore and India.


Interview in German language