“In today’s world, a ‘business-as-usual’ approach to water management is tantamount to blind neglect of all living things and of ecosystems that sustain life and livelihoods”
Dr. Olcay Ünver is Coordinator of the United Nations World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) – the flagship programme of UN-Water – and the Director of the UNESCO Programme Office on Global Water Assessment in Perugia, Italy. We ask him about his vision of the green economy and what changes are needed to align water management and green growth.
My take on the green economy naturally includes a water lens. There are currently three main definitions:
The UNEP definition: A Green Economy is one that results in improved human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities
The ESCAP Definition: A Green Economy is one where economic prosperity can go hand in hand with ecological sustainability
The alternative UNEP definition: In its simplest expression a Green Economy is low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive.
There are also variants of the above. Rio+20 should work with a clear and widely agreed definition of the Green Economy, and, in order to achieve it, all stakeholders must have a thorough understanding of what ‘green economy’ actually means, including clear standards, criteria and measures to determine progress. While there is no international agreement on the definition, I believe we should consider the Green Economy an attempt to apply the well-known concept of sustainable development in an era of climate change. All definitions clearly indicate that the words ‘green’ and ‘economy’ should not be interpreted as if the focus is being shifted to only the environmental and efficiency aspects; equity and poverty reduction are equally important and must be incorporated into the frameworks and implementations that follow.
In conjunction with our partners and through our products – including our primary product – the UN World Water Development Report to be launched at the 6th World Water Forum in March 2012 – we underline the importance of water’s role in the Green Economy in tackling climate change and poverty reduction, and highlight the implicit, cross-cutting role of water in the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals .
It is important that actions to move towards a Green Economy should not be contradictory and should materialise in a strong and effective manner. It is vital that the overarching goal of sustainable development explicitly features water as a key component in the decision making process. WWAP aims to advocate, support and report on the analysis of water’s many values and various benefits, and to inform decision-makers on response options.
Why is water important for achieving a green economy?
Water is vital for the Green Economy agenda in a number of different ways and in a number of different areas; for example, mitigation of water pollution; increasing efficiency of energy use in water and wastewater’s distribution, reuse and treatment; reducing water losses in distribution and transmission; modernisation of irrigation systems to make them less wasteful; development of hydropower as a ‘clean’ alternative to fossil fuels; and more careful management of natural water ecosystems.
Types of projects such as these variously conserve energy, reduce the wasteful use of materials, encourage better use of scarce water, and reduce the impact of human activities on the natural environment. Many of these projects are win-win, potentially delivering benefits on several objectives simultaneously.
I’d also like to underline a major concern: unless water is explicitly and holistically incorporated in both the frameworks and the resulting processes of a green economy, it would be incorrect to assume that green economy-related action is ‘water friendly’ by default. We have quite a few examples showing how solutions to deal with some very real issues have resulted in unintended, additional pressures that have had adverse impacts on water resources. If water is not incorporated into the planning and decision making processes adverse impacts such as inefficiency, wastage and pollution can become a reality. I would also like to warn against compartmentalising water and treating it in isolation. Without taking into account water’s interactions with other sectors and decision variables, we risk drastically losing out on many benefits.
What change is needed in water decisions to move towards a green economy?
A holistic approach to water resources management needs to be developed, and water repositioned as central to development goals. The fourth edition of the World Water Development Report (WWDR4), presents the case that, in today’s world, a ’business-as-usual‘ approach to water management is tantamount to blind neglect of all living things and of ecosystems that sustain life and livelihoods. In the past and even today, lack of interaction between decision-makers and isolated water managers has caused serious degradation of water resources. The WWDR4 builds on the findings and recommendations of the previous Reports in emphasising the need to resolve the ‘water box’ dilemma. Leaders in the water sector – in water supply and sanitation, hydropower, irrigation and flood control – have long been aware that water is essential to sustainable development, but have in many cases failed to make necessary decisions on development objectives and the allocation of human and financial resources. Decisions are made or influenced by leaders in government, the private sector and civil society, and it is these groups that must learn to recognise the role that water has to play in helping them reach their objectives.
Addressing issues such as development, poverty, climate change, and economic crises in a ‘water friendly’ manner would not be difficult if decision-makers recognised the fact that almost all of water’s drivers of change are also either the drivers of the specific issue that they are dealing with or, in many cases, the issue itself. Climate change is a good example of this: it is a major driver for water; almost all decisions taken to tackle with it have impacts on water; and water managers have little control, if any, over the phenomenon itself or on the decisions concerning it. What they must do – in addition to managing water resources the best way possible under the existing set of constraints and opportunities – is to inform decision-makers and other sectors of the broader picture so they will understand how water has an impact on all their actions.
What are the main barriers to change and how can they be overcome?
To me the idea that water is a sector that can operate and be considered in a vacuum is one of the major barriers to progress. The WWDR4 highlights that water is not a sector but a cross-cutting resource required by all social and economic activities and ecosystem functions, requiring a cross-cutting and coordinated approach to water resources management. It is therefore important to work closely with ecosystems, local communities, growing cities and the private sector. Another barrier to progress is the fragmented and inadequate communication between the scientific community and decisions makers – assessment findings, best practices and practical ways to progress should be made available to decision-makers to share, act and improve upon. Funding is another obvious barrier to progress and private investment in water infrastructure and improved management of public funds should be encouraged. Action is therefore needed on the parts of water managers and leaders in government, civil society and business. Unless the challenge of improving water resources management and financing water infrastructure and development projects is met, billions of people risk remaining malnourished, impoverished, in poor health and highly vulnerable to floods and droughts.
What messages would you like to deliver to Rio+20?
Make water an explicit and integral part of decisions in order to achieve and sustain water security both locally and globally.
Water is not a sector and a cross cutting and a coordinated approach to water resources management is required. Stakeholders could be encouraged to engage early in decision making processes; and water managers, leaders in government, civil society and businesses need to take action now.
Insecurity and risks faced by several billion people could be reduced by leaders and decision-makers mobilising the funding needed, encouraging private investment in water infrastructure, and spending public funds wisely on better water management.