Third World Centre for Water Management

Communications

Tackling challenges in the water sector

Interview to Prof. Asit Biswas by The Water Network


Q1. What were ​your motivations ​and the reasons ​for the ​development of ​the Third World ​Centre for ​Water ​Management in ​Mexico?

Answer: After ​spending 18 ​years in Oxford,​ I wanted to ​see whether ​many things ​that are taught ​in universities ​are actually ​implementable ​in the real ​world, ​especially in ​developing ​countries. My ​wife is a ​Mexican. We ​thus decided to ​set up a think ​tank in Mexico, ​the Third World ​Centre for ​Water ​Management. ​Sadly, we found ​many of the ​paradigms ​universities ​are teaching ​and the donors ​are pushing, ​like Integrated ​Water Resources ​Management (​IWRM) and ​Integrated ​River Basin ​Management (​IRBM), will ​never work in a ​country like ​India in ​thousand years. ​Thus, our ​Centre has been ​arguing ​strongly on ​what works, ​where, how, ​under what ​enabling ​conditions, and ​also what does ​not work and ​why, like IWRM ​or IRBM based ​on analyses of ​available data ​and facts. For ​example, in ​India, with ​extensive inter-​basin transfers ​over decades, ​the definition ​of a hydrological ​basin has ​undergone ​remarkable ​transformation ​because basins ​are getting ​increasingly ​interconnected. ​Yet, we are ​still parroting ​the use of IWRM ​and IRBM ​because they ​have been and ​are still ​fashionable, ​though ​increasingly ​getting less so.​ This has to ​change. ​

Q2. From your ​diverse ​experience in ​the Water ​sector; what ​are the major ​challenges that ​public sector ​in different ​countries face ​to achieve ​efficient water ​management? ​

Answer: Let us take ​the example of ​India, contrary ​to popular ​belief; in a ​country like ​India, the main ​problem with ​water ​management is ​not lack of ​money, ​availability of ​technology or ​capacity. India ​has all these ​to have one of ​the best urban ​water ​management in ​the world. ​There is NOT a ​single ​conceivable ​reason as to ​why any Indian ​town or city of ​more than 200,​000 population ​cannot have a ​reliable and ​financially ​viable supply ​system that can ​provide 24-​hours water ​that can be ​safely drunk ​from the tap. ​Longer tenure ​and selection ​of officers ​with know-how ​of the water ​sector is ​necessary to ​help the ​officers ​accomplish ​their ​designated ​tasks. ​

Q3. How best ​can public ​sector ​collaborate ​with private ​sector and NGOs ​to overcome ​these ​challenges?

Answer: The ​discussions on ​whether public ​or private ​sector is the ​best, or if ​public-private ​partnership (​PPP) is most ​appropriate, is ​simply a red ​herring. The ​legendary ​Chinese leader, ​Deng Xioping, ​once told me: ​“Prof. ​Biswas, I ​don’t ​care if a cat ​is white, black ​or grey; what I ​want to know is ​if it can catch ​mice.” ​Extending his ​argument, and ​from my ​perspective, I ​do not care who ​or how the ​water services ​are provided by ​public or ​private sectors ​or through PPP, ​as long as they ​are efficient, ​equitable and ​reliable. ​Contrary to ​popular belief, ​the world’​s most ​efficient water ​utilities are ​in the public ​sector, like in ​Singapore, ​Tokyo or Phnom ​Penh. Equally, ​some of the ​world’s ​worst ​performing ​utilities, like ​vast majority ​of the Indian ​utilities, ​belong to the ​public sector. ​It is all about ​management. ​

Q4. With your ​extensive ​experience in ​Singapore, ​could you tell ​us the major ​lessons ​Singapore has ​learned and put ​into practice ​efficiently in ​urban water ​management that ​is transferable ​to other cities/​countries ​around the ​world? ​

Answer: The major ​difference ​between ​Singapore and ​India is that ​from 1965, ​Singapore had a ​Prime Minister, ​Lee Kuan Yew, ​who realized ​that water is a ​strategic and ​existential ​issue. He told ​me that he had ​three people in ​his office ​during his ​entire 25-year ​in power who ​reviewed and ​assessed all ​development ​policies and ​projects ​through the ​lens of water. ​He wanted ​monthly reports ​over 10 years ​on the clean-up ​of the ​Singapore River.​ If the plan ​falls behind ​for even one ​month, the ​civil servants ​responsible had ​to explain to ​him the reasons ​why it had ​happened and ​what was being ​done to make-up ​the shortfall. ​With this type ​of high-level ​sustained ​political ​interest, not ​surprisingly, ​the Singapore ​River was ​cleaned-up ​within the ​planned 10 ​years! ​

In addition, ​the Water ​Ministers, in ​fact all ​Ministers in ​Singapore, are ​some of the ​best and the ​brightest in ​the world. To ​give one simple ​example, if I ​send an e-mail ​to the Minister ​of Environment ​and Water by 7.​00 am any day, ​the chances are ​90% that I ​shall get a ​personal ​response by 09.​00 am the same ​day. In ​contrast, the ​last letter I ​had arranged to ​be hand ​delivered to ​the current ​Indian Water ​Minister over a ​year ago, I am ​still waiting ​to receive an ​acknowledgement,​ let alone a ​response! ​

Not only ​Singapore has ​superbly ​efficient and ​intelligent ​ministers but ​also it ​consistently ​appoints ​similarly ​superb heads of ​Public ​Utilities Board ​(PUB), which is ​similar to the ​Delhi Jal Board ​(DJB). The last ​three Chief ​Executives of ​PUB who I have ​dealt with are ​simply miles ​and miles above ​the competence ​and dedication ​of the DJB ​chiefs. There ​is simply no ​comparison of ​people at the ​top echelons of ​the two ​countries. The ​results in the ​two countries ​speak for ​themselves. ​

Q5. As an ​academician in ​which ​disciplines ​would you like ​to see more ​research happen ​to get better ​ideas from ​research to ​practice? ​

Answer: The main ​problem with ​most academics ​is that they ​live in ivory ​towers and have ​very limited ​understanding ​of what works ​or does not ​work in the ​real world. I ​have no problem ​with academics ​living in ivory ​towers as long ​as it is not ​their only ​place of ​residence. ​Sadly, much of ​the water-​related ​research I am ​seeing coming ​out of the ​academia are in ​the real world. ​Not surprisingly,​ there is a ​significant ​disconnect at ​present between ​academic and ​implementable ​solutions. ​Policymakers ​all over the ​world now ​accept academic ​advice in ​limited cases. ​

Q6. How can ​the link ​between ​academics and ​policy making ​be strengthened ​further? ​

Answer: Over the ​recent decades, ​policy-makers ​are looking for ​academics that ​belong to their ​own parties and ​are not looking ​for the most ​competent ​persons who can ​give them the ​best policy ​advice. ​Politicians are ​not even ​considering ​apolitical ​academics. ​Sadly, they ​subscribe to ​John Foster ​Dulles’ ​view: “if ​you are not ​with us, then ​you are against ​us.” Thus,​ many second-​grade academics ​have joined, or ​actively ​supporting, ​specific ​parties and ​enjoying the ​benefits of ​this affiliation ​when their ​party is in ​power. ​

Q7. How can ​developing ​countries face ​the challenge ​of expanding ​industrialization​ ​while ​simultaneously ​prioritizing ​water quality ​management? ​

Answer: Very simple. ​The politicians ​and bureaucrats ​have to ​understand that ​with increasing ​population, ​urbanization ​and industrialization​,​ periodic ​rhetoric of ​water pollution ​control will ​not solve the ​problem. Sadly, ​I do not see ​much option but ​a very serious ​water pollution ​crisis ​happening in ​India in the ​foreseeable ​future which ​will affect ​thousands and ​thousands of ​people. The ​people will ​then take the ​politicians and ​bureaucrats to ​task and the ​media will hold ​their feet to ​fire. Such a ​crisis, with ​increasing ​water pollution,​ is not a ​question of if, ​but rather when.​ Sadly, only ​after a very ​serious crisis, ​India is likely ​to awaken from ​its long ​lethargic water ​quality slumber.​

Source: http://bit.ly/1grbARD

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