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COP21 Interview: Benedito Braga

David A. Andelman, World Policy Journal’s editor emeritus, is reporting from the Paris Climate Conference. This week, he spoke with Benedito Braga, president of World Water Council, to discuss the crucial role of water in COP21’s climate negotiations.

David Andelman: We want to talk about COP21 and water. One of the issues that’s most critical right now seems to be funding. You’ve recently come away with a billion dollars in funding to save the world’s water resources from global warming, so I’d like for you to talk a little about what that might be used for and where this funding came from.

Benedito Braga: There is this idea of creating a Green Fund of more than a $100 billion for reducing the CO2 production, that is a fund that is very much focused on energy. An idea would be that some of this funding could be provided to water, with the sense that most of the impacts of climate change are felt in water. All the anxieties of political leaders and the community is that you have more flooding, longer droughts; so all the impacts of climate change will be felt in the water sector.

We need to provide the water sector with means to become more resilient to these impacts. Of course, this is a short-term view that we should provide funding for adaptation. I have compared the situation with a patient that has an illness, but at the same time he has fever. If you don’t take care of the fever he may die from the fever regardless of the illness that he has. This is the situation of the poor countries in Africa, in Latin America, and Southeast Asia. They are suffering the impacts, but they are not able to cope with these vagaries of climate. When there is rainfall their GDP grows, when there is no rainfall there is a drought, they go bankrupt, and they have famine, etcetera. Where this money would go is increasing their resilience, having more storage reservoirs, having more access to ground water. But, at the same time having coherent management of this infrastructure that is built, in order to use the water rationally, in order to capacitate the people to operate, and having better adaptation to the current climate situation. So part of the funds would go to adaptation in the water sector, this is the idea.

DA: So what would be the source of these funds? There’s been considerable discussion here whether is should come from governments or private sector, from companies, or a mix of these?

BB: Well, I think that all countries should be involved given their capacity to provide the funding. Also, the private sector should be involved because they are to benefit from the use of this fund. It will be to their benefit in the short-range but also in the long-range. I don’t see that we should have discrimination of who should contribute to the fund and who should not.

DA: Are there any particular companies or particular governments that have been especially generous that you’d like to single out?

BB: The affluent countries would be the first ones to offer the contribution. It seems to me very rational that say Europeans, Americans, the Japanese that are affluent countries could provide these funds. And of course, their own industry would benefit from using this fund to have cleaner energy production, to have good infrastructure, to have more resilient societies in the poor countries. It’s something that would be a win-win situation, it would not be just the traditional aid relationship in which the money is given and there is no follow-up.

DA: Absolutely. I’d like to get into the nature of the work that needs to be done, the nature of the crisis. It seems to me it’s a crisis of contrast in some ways. On one hand there’s too much and on the other hand too little at the same time. In terms of salt water, the oceans, we’re talking about too much.  The rising oceans, the troubles of countries like Kiribati, and some of the Polynesian and South Pacific islands, but even low-lying areas in the United States like Key West and so forth — the fear is of rising oceans there, which is basically too much water, in respect to salt water. Am I correct is that assumption?

BB: Absolutely. It’s all about water, be it fresh or be it salt water. Exactly, you’re totally right.

DA: In respect to fresh water though, it seems to me that the principle problem is that there’s too little of it. We can see the rivers in Asia for instance, in China, many of them are starting to dry up. With the glaciers melting and the water running off into the oceans potentially, there won’t be that source of fresh water. So how do you handle these two problems? First of all, how do you handle the fresh water problem?

BB: I think the fresh water problem needs to be dealt with from two perspectives.  You have to increase resilience with structural means, which are the physical reservoirs because in seasonal climates if during the raining season you don’t store the water then you will not have it during the dry period. For example, Australia has 5,000 cubic meters per inhabitant per year. If you take Ethiopia they have 55 cubic meters per inhabitant per year. So there is a tremendous difference in the storage of water in different countries. This is the reason why the Australians were able to face a drought of 10 years and have survived, of course with consequences but not the same if this were to take place in Ethiopia. So structural measures are very important, however, it’s not enough. If you build a reservoir and you do not operate it conveniently, if you do not use the water for irrigation or water supply, if you don’t use it efficiently, even with the infrastructure there will not be enough. So it’s a combination of infrastructure and governance, management of that water. And this is not just the operator who will open and close the valves, but the institutional and legal apparatus that is necessary to guarantee that the infrastructure that the water resource system will operate in a convenient way.

DA: But doesn’t that assume that the water is there to begin with? I think the fear about global warming is that a lot of that water is simply not going to be there. That the dry parts of the world will become even drier and even traditionally wet parts of the world will also become equally dry, that basically our planet is drying out. Is that a concern to you and how would you address that? Will carbon controls and lowering the rate of the rise in temperatures improve water circumstances?

BB: The variation, if we could use a statistical term, the standard deviation will increase in the process. That is to say droughts may be much more severe in time, but also in the quantity. And of course some areas may be subject to much longer droughts and they may have to rely on the reuse of water, which is to reuse the sewage that is produced because the amount of water is going to be very reduced. This is what Singapore is doing, what Orange County in the U.S. is doing, to reuse water for indirect potable use, for people. In Namibia they have for 40 years now reused sewage for human consumption. This is a very extreme situation, in a coastal area you could desalinize water for human consumption, this is possible. Of course you have the residual of salt that needs to be conveniently dealt with, but in situations of extreme these are the options — desalination or reuse.

DA: So it seems to me what you’re saying is that we can, at least in the short or medium term, deal with some of these shortage problems by new or inventive methods, scientific methods?

BB: Absolutely, yes.

DA: But eventually, we may need to take more extreme measures, like reducing the rise in global temperatures, which is the root cause of many of these problems. Is that your feeling?

BB: Well, this is the long-range plan. The energy community is facing this CO2 discussion. Of course, there are different visions, but we should always be cautious and choose the more reasonable way of doing business. I would incentivize renewable energy in order to reduce the risk of having this increase, and to augment the complexities of climate in terms of more severe droughts and flooding. In response, of course we need to look into the energy sector to make sure that we move more and more towards renewables, this is the long-range. In the short-range, yes, we have these opportunities of technology to cope with the situation.

DA: Are you concerned what the tax on the environment might be for some of these alternative sources, for instance like desalinization in places like Saudi Arabia and along the gulf? Are you concerned that the energy used in that may itself be contributing to the broader problem of global warming, that they may be working in cross-purposes; is that ever a concern?

BB: It’s difficult to say yes or no because what are the options for Saudi Arabia in terms of fresh water? They have very little. In general terms I would agree that we should be very cautious with when we deal with the environment, but at the same time we need to balance the local conditions of different countries.

DA: That’s very wise. So, we’re winding down towards the end of this conference, which is Friday [today], the negotiators in Le Bourget and outside Paris are down to the final details, hoping to achieve some kind of agreement that everybody with all of their disparate wants and needs and desires and priorities can come together on. What would your ideal outcome of COP21 be from the perspective of water and the World Water Council?

BB: Well we would be very happy if the climate community would understand that water is central in this discussion of climate. In the adaptation sector, as I already mentioned to you, the climate community should give more attention to adaptation because the poor countries in the world need to survive. The way things are moving, if they are not able to adapt to the current climate they will perish and will not even be there to try to help to solve the long-term problem.

Negotiators should understand the role of water in mitigation, which basically they say is energy, CO2. They are taking it for granted that water is going to be there when they need it and at the cost they think it will be there for them to produce energy. All sorts of energy producing systems need water. Hydropower, which is a renewable energy and a very interesting one, but needs water. Nuclear power needs water. Coal fired, any energy producing system, needs water. And they are not considering it; they are taking for granted that there will be water for their energy producing systems. They should be more attentive and bring into the discussion the management of water in order to guarantee that the steps forward in the mitigation, in the energy sector, are feasible.

DA: It’s very interesting having watched this. There’s so many of these, what one would think are outside issues, which are very much central to the debate and an understanding of the nature of the issues here. Just one final question, how are you trying to get this across to the delegates and the ministers here?

BB: I was at Le Bourget last week on Tuesday. We had a resilience day in which minister Ségolène Royal and minister Hakima El Haite from Morocco both participated. We passed on the measure that water needed to be in the discussions of the climate convention. We spoke with the Swedish ambassador in charge of negotiating for Sweden, and we have been approaching many governments and trying to convince them that it is important that water is considered in the negotiations. We created a network of institutions to jointly push governments forward, maybe in COP 21 we will not be that successful but maybe in COP 22 this issue of water will be more salient.

DA: Morocco, which is a core country for water, is it not?

BB: Yes. The minister was very enthusiastic, she even invited the World Water Council to organize a workshop in mid-June in Marrakesh to discuss the issue of water in order to be more systematic. Maybe the negotiators will give some attention in the next discussion in Marrakesh, hopefully.

DA: Well, that’s fascinating. It’s obviously an important subject that needs to be at the center of discussions here.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

[Photo courtesy of World Water Council]

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