“Countries adopting water as a human right would have significant consequences for the green economy”
Dr. Zafar Adeel is Director at the Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) of the United Nations University in Hamilton, Canada and is the Chair of UN-Water. We ask him about what the water community need to do differently in the green economy and what role the UN-Water has in shaping the Rio+20 agenda.
Why is water important to the green economy?
Firstly, economic growth and the security of many things we rely on, such as food and energy, are very closely tied to water and how it’s used. It is argued that without accounting for water you actually cannot even have a green economy. Secondly, to achieve a greener society, its relationship with water has to change. You have to account for how much water is consumed in day-to-day consumables. For example, it is argued that you should eat less beef because it requires a thousand times more water than something like corn. So from this perspective, behavioural change in how we relate to water is essential if we want to transition into a greener economy and society. Thirdly, from a water security perspective, there is going to be less water available in the future, both because of population growth and because of changing patterns of rainfall and river flows. For many developing countries these changes will be for the worst. But if you really want to move towards a green economy, the developing countries cannot be left behind. Therein is the water security challenge – water scarcity and water quality deterioration will pose security issues for society and will also pose some transboundary challenges, i.e. conflict between countries over shared water resources.
What is new about the green economy concept?
I think the green economy is a rebranding effort. Sustainable development has been around as a notion since 1988 when the Brundtland report came out and then it was underlined with the first Rio Summit. During the first decade, people did a lot of navigating to determine what exactly sustainable development means, and although there are still some divergences, by and large people know what it means. But by the same token, it’s now become a bit of a jaded concept. I think politically you need something more flashy. The economic crisis from 2008 and 2009 also created the public perception that there was a need to reconstruct the economic paradigm, and I think that’s where this rebranding works very well. However, I think there are also some more fundamental differences between sustainable development and the green economy. If you look at Agenda 21, probably the most comprehensive manifestation of the sustainable development paradigm, it was still very ecosystem oriented. But now with the green economy the end point is actually quite different. We have to acknowledge development and growth as the primary engine of societal development. You have to fix your economic activity rather than trying to fix the environment.
What change is needed to move towards a green economy? How do we need to deal with water differently?
One thing that we’ve been saying now for almost two decades is that water needs to be integrated into economic development. We still think that there is a significant need for doing that. UN-Water is right now undertaking some fairly significant country by country analysis on how this integration has taken place. What we’ve found is that although there are a few developed countries where this has taken place to a significant extent, by and large we haven’t achieved it, and actually most of the developing countries are very, very far behind in terms of integrating water inside of economic development.
Another significant change needed, for which the process started last year, is defining water and sanitation as a human right. Eventually we would like to see a legislative change at the national level where countries essentially adapt and ratify this notion of water as a human right. This would have significant consequences for the green economy. If your starting point is that there’s a minimum amount of water that every human being needs and you define that policy at the national level, the water resource allocation would probably need to change quite significantly and that would have an impact how the economy grows. You can actually flip the question around and say how can the green economy benefit from water? A focus on provision of water, building water infrastructure, and supporting local entrepreneurs in undertaking some of this work can actually have a very positive impact on the green economy.
What are the main barriers to change and how can they be overcome?
I think most of the barriers are perceptional, particularly on the part of politicians and policymakers. This means there is a great need for advocacy. We need to get the word across in shapes and forms that are understandable. For example, last year we had a meeting for finance and economic ministers from developing countries in Washington DC. This was interesting because for the first time they started discussing water – and remember that these were not water people, they were mostly economists or politicians dealing with the economy. But, they started seeing the benefits they could get, for example reduction in public health costs, from investing in water. So I think that’s the way to break the barriers – provide information in a way that it is understandable to those who are not ‘water people’.
What role can UN-Water play in the transition to a green economy?
The UN can help by identifying messages, advocating them and translating them into policy guidance. We think that UN-Water as a mechanism already has demonstrated its value in bringing together the messages across the UN system and even outside the UN system. Together with our partners in the water community, we are in a position to express a collective view on how water can plug into the green economy or how the green economy can benefit from taking into account water issues.
The UN system can also be of direct assistance to member states. We know that integrated water resources management has not been implemented by nearly all developing countries, and there is a significant role that the UN system can play in supporting this process.
I am hoping that out of the Rio Summit, there will be a greater emphasis on using mechanisms like UN-Water, and there are others like UN-Energy and UN-Oceans. This would enable greater streamlining many of the initiatives that the UN system takes collectively. I see UN-Water playing a fairly central role in the post-Rio scenarios.
What message would you like to deliver to Rio+20?
The Stockholm Statement that came out of World Water Week 2011 in August is a fairly good encapsulation of what the global water community, including the UN has agreed upon. There are two types of messages that we would like to deliver and that are included in the Stockholm Statement. The first type is that we would like the member states to commit to and meet some specific targets, for example providing universal access to water, sanitation and energy by the year 2030. There is also a set of targets for improvements that we want to see by 2020, such as a 20% increase in water efficiency in agriculture. The second type of message points to the need to strengthen the institutional frameworks for a green economy. There is a need to reduce inter-ministerial divergence and conflicts, and to create an enabling policy environment in which green economy can be fostered.
What are you expectations for Rio+20?
If we look back to the original 1992 Rio Summit, the implementation of measures was less than perfect. However, it did change the landscape of the economic and development agenda, and it generated a change in how governments, policymakers and the UN system perceived environmental issues. So my sense is that the Rio Summit in 2012 will also bring about a change and the whole notion of the green economy will get a strong foothold. On the side, I think that while we have some very high hopes and we would like some of these goals to be taken up by the member states, I think that the outcome will be less than ideal. I’d like to be pleasantly surprised, but realistically I think we may get more compromised outcomes than most optimal ones.
What to you hope to achieve from the Zaragoza conference?
I think the key thing about the Zaragoza conference is that it’s starting to scratch below the surface. What you hear most of the time at the national and international level is repetitions of polemics and description of the green economy but there aren’t really a lot of examples on how it gets implemented. So I think the key contribution of the Zaragoza conference will be to bring out those examples to the fore and present us with case studies. I think that is helpful for policy makers and politicians if they can see tangible examples of how things are done. We are hoping that we will be able to identify a set of tools that will enable the implementation of the green economy. So in the spectrum of activities leading up to Rio+20 and beyond, I see this as a fairly significant milestone on that path, providing us with a lot of texture for moving forward.