» Interview with Olcay Ünver: "We need to get out of the water box."
11.03.2009 -

Interview with Olcay Ünver: "We need to get out of the water box."

Olcay Ünver, coordinator of the World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP), presents the Third United Nations World Water Development Report, "Water in a Changing World", which offers a comprehensive assessment of the planet’s freshwater resources. The report will be launched at the Fifth World Water Forum, to be held in Istanbul (Turkey) from 16 to 22 March 2009.

Interview by Cathy Nolan (UNESCO)

What’s new since the last report? Is it possible to outline the latest developments?

What has happened over the last 3 years in terms of the more major problems is that we have recorded considerable progress in some areas and met frustration in others. Safe drinking water, for instance - as a result of the ambitious campaign championed by the UN and agreed to by the international community, the Millennium Development Goals target seems likely to be met. Unfortunately Sub-Saharan Africa is a huge regional exception, which will need specific attention. Some Arab countries are also having difficulty.

Sanitation goals on the other hand are not very likely to be met if current trends continue. We are obviously urging the international community to provide more resources for sanitation.

Given the complexity of the situation, especially in the last few years, there is a vacuum of information in certain areas The report points out these areas and we are asking member states to also collect and monitor certain data and share them.

Climate change is a major issue. It directly impacts water resources and also impacts the other processes, the other drivers that impact water. An example – a big factor that is changing in an accelerated manner is population demographics. Population growth and mobility – migrations – have the biggest effect on the availability of water resources. The analogy is, your cake is fixed in size but the number of slices to be taken from it is increasing. This is on a global scale. On regional scale, this becomes more substantial in areas where population growth is higher and where there is substantial migration. Some cities are being affected by mass migrations and having big difficulties providing water.

Another driver is economic growth. When economies develop and buying power increases, people tend to consume more water. The report gives examples to show that actually it is not the water we drink, it’s the water we eat. The concept is called virtual water or water footprints – the amount of water embedded in food or other commodities needed in production. This becomes important vis a vis economic growth when in emerging economies people start eating more meat rather than, say, grains or rice, or start eating three instead of two meals; it means a lot more water to produce the food. Also to manufacture the cars they want to drive and other consumer products demanded. On top of this you have to add the pollution that comes from a lot of these activities. That is another driver. It influences water resources.

Climate change influences water resources because suddenly you have more floods or more droughts but in the meantime the amount of water more reliably available is less. And the report establishes the interactions between these. I started using the climate change example – climate change has direct impact on water resources but also on migration. It impacts water resources directly and indirectly.

If you are looking for solutions to the problems created by climate change, you have to incorporate water in the broader picture in terms of adaptation. This is important because in our opinion there is greater emphasis given to mitigation of the effects of climate change, whereas we know that even if it were possible to stop the greenhouse gas emissions today totally, this would not reverse or decrease climate change for many years to come. For this period you have to be able to adapt.

Another message of the report is that water problems are created and potentially solved by decision makers that are not the actual water managers. When I talk about leaders, I am talking in a broader sense, not leaders in the water sector. The past two reports and the processes have provided a good consensus among water resources professionals and leadership in the water community. But now we need to get out of the water box and get the broader framework involved in the identification and solution of water problems and preventing further water crisis.

The report encourages more investment in water?

The report has a complete section on the investment aspect. Obviously the current crisis will have impact of water. What we are saying is that water infrastructure is not to be neglected and that investment in water infrastructure is to be accelerated with parallel investment in implementation capability. Investing in sheer infrastructure is not sufficient; you have to provide the software in order to operate this infrastructure properly.
We are saying that in order to deal with the current crisis – including the food crisis, the increased need for energy, the need to deal with natural disasters – water infrastructure and governance are more important than ever. Investing in water provides benefits not only to the society but to the economy.

Does the report make recommendations for averting a water crisis?

This is not a prescriptive report. There are water crises around the world, but hydrology is local, meteorology is global. From this perspective, whatever happens globally, water problems emerge as local issues. If not resolved, they can expand and become regional issues or national conflicts and could turn into a global crisis. We have now water crises around the world but we are not talking about a global water crisis. We are warning against one if the existing crises are not addressed properly and if water is not made an integral component of broader decision making frameworks. An excellent example is the food sector. You may want to increase production, but if you don’t have the resources – irrigation water – you have a constraint. You cannot only resolve the food crisis - you create pressure on water resources that could turn into crisis.

With increasing water scarcity, water becomes increasingly a political issue. Does the report address this aspect?

It’s a fact, when you have abundant resources, everybody is happy. When demand increases or the resource decreases, then you start seeing competition, then you start managing the demand in many ways. It can be economic, social, legal or a combination. As the situation worsens, you may have to reallocate water from sectors to others, and competition can turn into conflict. Managing the competition is very important so that conflict will not arise. There are plenty of examples in the report on how nations or river basins or municipalities have dealt with these issues. There are statistics and examples of conflicts as well. Again, there are general recommendations. The report avoids sweeping generalizations and indicates at the beginning that like water problems, solutions depend on circumstances in the country or society – resource endowment, financial resources, culture, legal framework. Each country should look for their own solutions, using what can be learned from others who have successfully dealt with them.

What do you hope that the upcoming Istanbul Forum – the latest in a series of such meetings in the last 20 years – will accomplish?

I hope and wish that this one succeeds in getting water out of its box. The water community has talked to itself long enough and we have convinced one another sufficiently; now we need to go out of our box and go to the others in the broader decision making frames. We are not saying water is the pivotal decision parameter. It is a very important parameter that has to be incorporated properly.. Vis a vis the other sectors – energy, food, education, health, etc - water is not a completely new sector; it is an integral parameter that needs to be taken into account.

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