Leader Focus: Closing the Water and Wastewater Supply Gap

Nov. 24, 2014
Benedito Braga is at the helm of the World Water Council - speaking with world leaders to help improve the provision of water services. What impact has the Council had so far and what results have been achieved? What is the progress of the 2015 Millenium Development Goal for sanitation?

Benedito Braga is at the helm of the World Water Council - speaking with world leaders to help improve the provision of water services. What impact has the Council had so far and what results have been achieved? What is the progress of the 2015 Millenium Development Goal for sanitation?

By Tom Freyberg

WWi: How can water investment and infrastructure development be made more of a priority for politicians and ministers?
Benedito Braga
, president of the World Water Council (BB): In my experience, politicians are very attentive to two things: the demands of their constituency and public finances.

First of all, political decision-makers need to hear from the population that they serve that water is a priority, an essential need and a right. Those in a position to make water and sanitation a reality for all thousands have the moral imperative to do so and consequently provide the appropriate financing. This requires awareness-raising efforts among population, who in turn pass the message on to their leaders.

Secondly, we need to make it clear that investments in water-related infrastructure have immediate and multiplied quantifiable returns. According to the United Nations Development Programme, every US dollar invested in water and sanitation provides on average an economic return of eight US dollars. Moreover, half of the hospital beds in the world are occupied by patients suffering from diseases associated with lack of access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.

Optimist? Braga says he is "optimistic with the future based on the results achieved so far"

The World Water Council is working together with political decision makers to create the conducive environment for more investments in the water sector.

WWi: According to the UN, at least 11% of the world's population lack access to improved drinking water. What is the World Water Council doing to improve this?
While the Right to Water and Sanitation was recognized globally in 2010, the implementation of that right is still not adequately addressed in all parts of the world. It is for this reason that the 7th World Water Forum is drawing particular attention to implementation of solutions across the world, in order to make concrete progress on today's water-related challenges.

Making water a priority has been a World Water Council goal since its creation. The Council and its Board encourage the international community to recognize the importance of this crucial resource and catalyze collective action among WWC members and partners in this domain. Moreover, the Council is engaged in ongoing dialogue with high-level political stakeholders including those involved in determining the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. The Council has also called for a dedicated goal on water among the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

The Council's task is ambitious and, in order to highlight water as a global issue, the Council is engaging in solid partnerships with UN bodies, States and governments, parliamentarians and local authorities. By establishing collective responsibility and leveraging political support, the Council will help to define the path towards sustainable solutions for water from theory to implementation.

To fulfil this endeavor, the WWC particularly calls for:

  • Water policies to be incorporated into national and international development processes;
  • World leaders and funding agencies to appreciate, in the long term, investment in wateras an opportunity rather than an obstacle;
  • Partnerships for action and innovation at all levels among communities, nations, river basins, and globally;
  • Increased cooperation between sectors (e.g. water supply and sanitation, agriculture, energy, industry), while balancing social, environmental and economic priorities, and "soft" and "hard" measures.

WWi: Do you think there's a disparity between the private sector and developing nations when it comes to increasing water services?
The real issue on providing water and sanitation services is not if it is provided by public or private sectors. It is about providing the adequate subsidy for the poor to have access to water and sanitation. In some cases, there are public funds available for capital investments; however, in many developing nations these funds are limited or not available at all. In such cases, the private sector can play an important role.

The needs will be enormous in the coming decades and a multitude of approaches will have to be used to meet these needs in different contexts, including private sector involvement. One key problem that can be addressed now in developing countries is non-revenue water (NRW). These losses can vary from 7% in Japan up to 50% in Bangladesh. The World Bank estimates the total cost of NRW to utilities worldwide at US$14 billion/year.

WWi: The winner of the Stockholm Industry Water Award – the former head of eThekwini Water in South Africa, Neil Macleod – believes that because present toilet technology was invented in the mid 1800s, it is very inefficient and a high water user. Do you think there should be a change in the way we think about sanitation?
Absolutely, the need for adequate sanitation services in the developing world is clear. Around 40% of the world's population (2.5 billion) either practice open defecation or lack adequate sanitation facilities. The consequences are devastating for human health as well as the environment.

Creating sanitation infrastructure and public services that work for everyone and that keep waste out of the environment is a major challenge.

The traditional systems with toilets, sewers and wastewater treatment plants require vast amounts of land, energy and water. They are expensive to build, maintain and operate. Existing alternatives that are less expensive are often unappealing because they do not provide the hygiene safeguards that are offered by the traditional systems.

Major improvements are needed in toilet design, pit emptying and sludge treatment, as well as new ways to reuse waste. Innovation and technology can help governments meet the enormous challenge of providing quality public sanitation services.

WWi: The Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for access to clean water was met two years ahead of target in 2015. What is the progress of the MDG for sanitation?
While it is generally accepted that the global target of halving the proportion of people without access to improved sources of water has been met ahead of schedule, the picture is somewhat different if you disaggregate the data according to regions. For example, sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has only reached just over half of its target for water so far. In 2012, 748 million people remained without access to an improved source of drinking water.

And despite the fact that since 1990, almost 1.9 billion people have gained access to an improved sanitation facility, the world is still far from meeting the MDG target for sanitation by 2015.

Money talks: the Council's President at the IMF World Bank Annual Meeting in October
Moving Mexico forward: Braga with the President of Mexico, Enrique Penã Nieto, at the 52nd WWC Board of Governors in Mexico

For example, 2.5 billion people in developing countries still lack access to improved sanitation facilities; only 63% of the world now has improved sanitation access, a figure projected to increase only to 67% by 2015. This is well below the 75% aim in the MDGs; and of 1.1 billion people who still practice open defecation, the vast majority (949 million) live in rural areas.

While some countries remain off track, achievements can be striking. The greatest progress has been made in Eastern Asia, where sanitation coverage has increased from 27% in 1990 to 67% to now. This amounts to more than 626 million people gaining access to improved sanitation facilities over a 21-year period. Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has provided improved sanitation for an average of 12% of its current population since 1995.

However, several individual countries have achieved significant progress over 20%, notably Angola, Rwanda, Cape Verde, Gambia, Botswana and Malawi.

WWi: How will the next World Water Forum bring about practical change to these problems?
On the occasion of the 7th World Water Forum, each of the 16 themes will design "implementation roadmaps" which will be translated into clear recommendations for policy-makers and will also form a comprehensive action plan for the realization of progress on a global level. This will also support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in the coming decades.

Through the Forum, we bring decision-makers together from every horizon, from the highest political level to National and Local Governments and Parliamentarians and ask them to become champions for water by supporting the implementation of the identified actions.

Regional actors involved in the Forum are also essential to global progress: they keep track of regional realities and keep promoting innovative solutions at local levels. We will only contribute to solving water issues by multiplying and scaling up the many concrete solutions that have been developed in countries to better manage and protect resources, which is possible through the sharing of knowledge and experiences enabled by the Forum. The World Water Forum is not an event. It is a process, which outputs develop overtime. As any political issue, solutions to water problems are achieved step-by-step and continuously. Hence, I am optimistic with the future based on the results achieved so far.

Tom Freyberg is chief editor of WWi magazine. For more information on the interview, email: [email protected]

Bio Box: Benedito Braga, President, World Water Council

Braga is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Escola Politecnica of University of Sao Paulo (USP), Brazil. He graduated from the same university in 1972 and holds a M.Sc. in Hydraulic Engineering from USP (1975), a M.Sc. in Hydrology (1976) and Ph.D. (1979) in water resources from Stanford University, USA. At UNESCO he was elected President of the Intergovernmental Council of the International Hydrologic Program (2008-2009). He served on the Board of Directors of the Brazilian National Water Agency – ANA from 2001-2009. He was President of the International Water Resources Association (1998-2000) and Vice-President of the World Water Council (2006-2012). Author of 25 books and chapters of books, Prof. Braga has edited several books on water resources development. He is the recipient of the 2002 Crystal Drop Award, given by the International Water Resources Association – IWRA in recognition for his life time achievements in the area of water resources management.

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