For Professor Asit K. Biswas, talks on global water crisis or “war over water” are just rhetoric. He believes that the water problems can be solved
Rehau | April 1, 2013
The United Nations declared 2013 as the international Year of Water Cooperation. What do you think will be achieved this year?
Being realistic, I am not expecting any concrete outcome, say, in terms of more people receiving access to clean water. Neither do I expect this declaration to contribute to any new insight that can help us to plan, manage or operate water management systems better. The UN had already declared the years 2005 to 2015 as the “International Decade for action: Water for Life”. To this end, a new authority in Saragossa, Spain, was set up. Sadly, it served to create jobs for unwanted UN bureaucrats! Its new director has made some commendable attempts to do something meaningful. However, there have been many shortcomings for this decade. Its mandate was not clear, goals and objectives were not defined, and no reasonable financing was available to establish programs. The quality and expertise of the staff have left much to be desired. All that has come out of this eff ort are eminently forgettable meetings and documents!
Are you expecting a “war over water” due to shortages or decreasing water quality? is not there already a secret war for water? like in Palestine?
In entire human history no two countries have ever fought a war that was because of water alone! The world is changing very fast and it is difficult to predict the future. however, I can say with 99.9 percent certainty that during the next 3 to 4 decades there will be no war for which water will be the main reason. The problem between Israel and Palestine, for example, is not water. The main issue is there is no trust between the two countries. Water is only one component of this sustained mutual distrust.
You tend to see water more as an instrument of cooperation between countries rather than a catalyst for conflict. Is this not naive?
Not at all! Water will always be an instrument for peaceful cooperation and countries that choose to cooperate will benefit greatly. There is no question about that. Those countries that prefer conflict will be the big losers. Countries are slowly realizing that cooperation provides better dividends than conflicts.
I hear the message; it is the faith I lack.
Let me give you an example. In South Asia, some 30 years ago, Bhutan had the region’s lowest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita by far and also the lowest energy consumption per capita. Then, Bhutan and India entered into collaboration. India planned, designed and funded hydropower developments in Bhutan. These currently supply all of Bhutan’s electricity needs and the excess is sold to India at an agreed price. As a result, electricity has become Bhutan’s largest export item. The country now has the highest GDP and the highest electricity consumption per capita in South Asia. India, thirsting for power, has a reliable electricity supply at a predetermined price. Bhutan has developed successfully its agro-industry because of energy availability. Sale of hydropower to India has significantly accelerated its socio-economic development. This has been a win-win situation for both the countries. In contrast, Nepal’s hydroelectric potential is comparable to that of the United States, but it has only developed about five percent of this potential. If India and Nepal had better relations, Nepal could have been a much richer country simply through the sale of electricity to India. The Nepalese standard of living could have increased significantly and the terrorist threats would have been much less because of poverty reduction. India could have had an assured power supply. Thus, both the countries would have been winners.
You said that the world is not facing a crisis because of physical shortage of water, but because of poor water management. Can you please elaborate?
Undoubtedly, if countries continue to mismanage water at the current level, the world will face a water crisis that no earlier generation had faced. Every country or city has enough water, if it is well-managed. Unlike oil or coal, water is a renewable resource that can be treated and then reused. This process can be repeated many times. It is now estimated that every drop of the Colorado River is used seven times. With better management, this rate could easily be increased.
Can this be achieved just through better water management?
Let us look at the facts. In Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, a desert region, the current water consumption per capita is nearly three times higher than in Hamburg, which does not face any scarcity. In addition, almost half of the water in Riyadh does not reach its consumers due to leaks and poor management. If Riyadh were to improve its water management, and introduce proper pricing, it could easily provide water for all its residents, both now and for decades to come. Water management isn’t rocket science! We know the solutions. We have the money and the technology. Unfortunately, we do not apply them. Instead, people complain that the world is running out of water!
In nearly all developing countries, people cannot drink directly from the tap because of poor water quality. What is the solution?
Some cities in developing countries have made remarkable progress in the past decade. Take for example Phnom Penh in Cambodia. 15 years ago, Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority was bankrupt. The city lost 73 percent of its water and corruption was extensive. Water supplied was undrinkable without additional treatment. Through good management, Phnom Penh now provides all its residents with clean water 24 hours a day, and this water can be drunk straight from the tap. Both the rich and the poor pay for the water they consume. The Authority is now an autonomous public company and it generates a steady and increasing profit each year. Many of the city’s performance indicators are better than those of London, Paris or Los Angeles! This shows that given good management, water problems are solvable.
Is Phnom Penh a good example for other cities?
There is absolutely no reason as to why cities like Delhi, Jakarta, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Cairo or Lagos cannot follow the example of Phnom Penh. Compared to Phnom Penh, they all have better management and technical capacities, access to more sophisticated technology and robust finances. A bad water supply is bad primarily because of absence of good governance. Of course, the politicians try to justify it with other reasons, such as the lack of water, expertise or funds. Sadly, these are only excuses and not the real reasons.
The Third World Center for Water Management, of which you are the founder, is a think tank. Have you been successful in implementing your ideas?
There is no question that we have had a significant influence in the water sector in terms of solutions as well as in generation, synthesis, dissemination and application of knowledge. For example, we currently advise 19 countries, both industrialized and developing, on how to solve their water problems. We disseminate information throughout the world, explaining what works, what does not and why. Indicators of our success are that our work has now been translated into 34 languages and we can now only accept 25 percent of the requests we receive for help.
There seem to be a lot of experts in water management who only see a doomsday scenario.
This is absolutely correct. If one puts “water crisis” in Google, over 100 million items are displayed! I have no doubt that the current consensus on water scarcity and water wars is absolutely wrong! Based on current and emerging trends, I am cautiously optimistic on the world’s water future.