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Conversations With Water Leaders: Jan Eliasson on Millennium Development Goals and Sectoral Cooperation


Third in a series “Conversations With Water Leaders” conducted by OOSKAnews in association with Singapore International Water Week.

In this edition, Jan Eliasson, United Nations Deputy Secretary General, speaks with OOSKAnews CEO David Duncan about his views on the various critical factors affecting solutions for water provision, including the private sector, local community involvement and political leadership. With 15 years of experience as a speaker on water and sanitation, Jan Eliasson stresses the significance of public awareness about water challenges and his desire to end open defecation. 

Jan Eliasson (right) in conversation with David Duncan, OOSKAnews

Hello, Mr Eliasson. Thank you for making time for this conversation this morning. I would like to start by asking you about the Millennium Development Goals. What you think are the biggest hurdles towards achieving the MDG vision?

The MDGs have made some progress in certain areas like education and extreme poverty, in large part due to progress in this part of the world, in Asia. There have also been some improvements in water supply, but some goals are lagging, and the most seriously lagging is sanitation. At the present rate we will have to wait anywhere from 50 to 75 years until we achieve the goals we set in the year 2000.  Therefore, [UN] Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has asked me to lead an effort to speed up implementation of the sanitation goals. If you improve sanitation, you reduce child mortality, you improve maternal health, you increase gender equality, you get better educational facilities, particularly for girls, and you reduce extreme poverty, so it has a multiplication effect. I think what I have seen here today in Singapore is exactly what I want to see – we need to take a systemic approach to water and sanitation and see that everything is inter-related.  Otherwise, we lose so much.

Let’s talk about technology and the sanitation challenge. What role can technology have, and should technology have, in providing solutions?

There are three factors that decide whether you really can make progress. The first one is technology, the second thing is organization, and the third is political will, and willingness to invest resources. All three are important, but they have to be seen together. If you have a system as I have seen here today making resources renewable and recyclable, then the pressure on resources is reduced. We have also seen today how progress is being made on desalination technology, which of course would bring enormous hope to the world. We must recognize the nexus between water availability and the resources of the energy sector, and all that builds on energy not being exorbitantly expensive. So I think technology is extremely important. The cleaning methods, and the kind of research that goes on here (in Singapore), I find very encouraging.

How do you think that countries like Singapore, which have made tremendous steps in solving water management issues, can take their expertise globally?

Well, I would say to my colleagues here, our hosts, that they should be as active as possible. Internationally, this type of technology, this type of organizing in a systemic way, is a good example to be followed by many others. There are situations where I’ve seen people and leaderships becoming almost overwhelmed by problems. You have, for instance, the significant trend towards urbanization. By 2020, 60 to 65 percent of the world population will live in urban areas.  If you have mostly poor people that move into poor countries’ urban areas, you see the creation of enormous slums where we don’t have the necessary infrastructure. I come back to the point that it is a question of technology, organization, political will and resources. These resources in the best of cases should come from the developing countries themselves, because giving priority to sanitation is an investment in the future. But I also think that the financial contributors, the banks, and the private sector could also gain a lot by investing in this sector.  So I would hope there is a mobilization around the water and sanitation problems, not only from governments, not only from conferences in New York, in Singapore or in Stockholm, but actually locally so that they will see that this is a way to improve lives, not only from the perspective of sanitation, but from the perspective of health and the future of the next generations. 

You have said in the past that the key is to focus on generating action at the community level. Could you share some of the more successful community actions that you have seen around the globe?

I have spent a lot of time in Africa and a lot of time in disaster areas, and I have seen the extremes -- for example, the problems in the villages in Darfur, in Ethiopia and in Somalia. Above all, in conflict situations, can you imagine the horror of poisoning water in order to chase away a population? If a resource is scarce, this can be a reason not only for competition, but for struggle and war. But I will say that areas in Ethiopia in particular have seen some fantastic examples of what can be done. I was chair of an NGO in Sweden, WaterAid, with the main headquarters in London, which works with these issues, and I am very, very glad to have seen examples of progress on the ground. But wherever I go, I want to spread the news that it can be done, because you have to fight this sense of losing control and hopelessness.

You mentioned the private sector. What do you think is the role of the private sector in helping the world to achieve the MDGs. How can we encourage people, and the public and private sectors, to work together?

Of course, I come from Sweden where the public sector is very strong, and public responsibility is accepted and we are willing to pay for it. But I also think that cooperation with the private sector is crucial, not least to encourage new technologies. I would hope that there would be a mobilization from the private sector, the scientific community, civil society, governments and local communities around the issue. But I come back to the fact that dealing with crucial aspects of the infrastructure of a nation is the responsibility of political leaders, both national and local. Infrastructure and the public good are the reasons that we organize ourselves as societies. The private sector is an enormously important branch, and ideally there is seamless cooperation, but I think ultimately the responsibility for organization and the systemic approach has to be taken by political leadership and the public sector. 

I’d be interested in hearing your views about the importance of public awareness of the water challenge. While there’s great awareness of climate issues, awareness of water issues has a lower position in people’s understanding. During today’s tour of Singapore’s NEWater Visitor Center, I was also interested in hearing you talk about semantics and the language that is used to describe these challenges. Can you please elaborate on that?

Yes, I have some examples. I have been speaking about water and sanitation for 15 years. I was President of the General Assembly [of the United Nations], and I once surprised the General Assembly by raising my glass, or in this case this bottle of NEWater. I pointed to it and said “This is a luxury for 880 million people around the world. Two and a half billion people do not have sanitation, and this is the reason why 3,000 children under the age of 5 die every day out of diarrhea, dysentery, dehydration and cholera. I have seen them die in front of my own eyes.”  I said that because I really think that we have to bring about much deeper awareness of this issue. On sanitation, additionally, there is a taboo. Many years ago it was almost bad taste to talk about toilets. I am a strong supporter of the aims of World Toilet Day, which happens on November 19th. I finished a speech in the United Nations in 2010 by simply saying we need to work for a life, and originally the text was “a life with dignity for all,” but I changed that for “a life with toilets for all.” My colleagues tell me that it’s the only speech they remembered!

On the topic of sanitation, you have spoken frequently about the need to end open defecation.

Yes, my latest use of speaking directly is that we have to fight the problem of open defecation. Twenty-two countries in the world, 1.5 billion people, practice open defecation, and the damage that this does to the environment, health and human dignity is enormous. So one of the parts of this call for action on sanitation that we just introduced is to end the practice of open defecation by 2025. I am now mobilizing the whole UN system -- all the different agencies working with water, from UNICEF to WHO and so forth -- but that is not enough. Regarding your earlier question, we also have to reach out in order to make sure that the private sector is there, that the NGOs are there, that the academic and scientific world is there, and that local communities exercise pressure on the issue. There needs to be pressure from the people on the ground who see the children dying, who see the girls sitting home taking care of sick children, who see mothers dying in childbirth because they have dirty water, so that we finally do something about this problem.

Do you have any final message you would like to give to our readers?

I am very grateful that your readers show interest in this issue, and, if this interest can be channeled into action, we can make a difference in the lives of millions of people. It is not as complicated as we think. Actually, the problems are easy if you look at it technically.  It’s just the way we have to organize ourselves. We should put the problem in the center, or the challenge in the center, and then bring all actors around the problem. We have a tendency to work and think sectorally, in silos, and then we only address part of the problem. The way to make change possible is to break down walls and bring in the different aspects, both actors and functions. This new method could almost revolutionize how societies are working, and there is a strong need to do that. Not only inside the United Nations do we need to break down walls, but also in society and international cooperation generally. So if you can contribute to this new thinking necessary in the new world, I am grateful, and I thank you for this opportunity to share my views with you.

Thank you so much for sharing your global perspectives with our readers.

About Jan Eliasson: On March 2, 2012, Ambassador Jan Eliasson was appointed Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. He took office as Deputy Secretary-General on July 1, 2012.

Eliasson was from 2007-2008 the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Darfur. Prior to this, he served as President of the 60th session of the UN General Assembly. He was Sweden’s Ambassador to the United States from September 2000 until July 2005. In March 2006, Eliasson was appointed Foreign Minister of Sweden and served in this capacity until the elections in the fall of 2006. He served from 1994 to 2000 as State Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Sweden. He was Sweden’s Ambassador to the UN in New York 1988-92, and also served as the Secretary-General’s Personal Representative for Iran/Iraq.

Eliasson was the first UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and was involved in operations in Africa and the Balkans. 1980-1986, he was part of the UN mediation missions in the war between Iran and Iraq, and in 1993-94 served as mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). He has had diplomatic postings in New York (twice) Paris, Bonn, Washington (twice) and Harare, where he opened the first Swedish Embassy in 1980.

Prior to his appointment as Deputy Secretary-General, Eliasson also served as Chair of WaterAid/Sweden and a member of the UN Secretary-General’s Advocacy Group of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).