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Conversations with Water Leaders: Benedito Braga, President, World Water Council on Water Awareness and Policy-Making


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

In this edition, Benedito Braga, President of the World Water Council, speaks with OOSKAnews correspondent Renee Martin-Nagle about the shift in global water dialogue, the World Water Council’s influence on policy-making and its role in increasing water awareness.

You have dedicated your life to water, and your level of scholarship is very impressive.  How did you become interested in water?

What made me interested in water is something very unusual.  I wanted to be an electrical engineer, but the school I entered didn’t have electrical engineering in those days.  From a mathematical point of view, hydraulics was close to electricity so I started studying that. How the electrons flow in a wire is similar to how water flows in a pipe – the potentials and the roughness.  From hydraulics, I went to water management and quantitative and qualitative analysis of water.  I started with the mathematics, then moved to river basins and canals, then the interaction between land use and rivers, quantity and quality of water, flooding, and droughts.  From there, I focused on the people in the basin, and then water resources management -- the interaction of land, water and people in the river basin.  I also became interested in how you can clean up the water so that people can drink it, how you treat it to put it back into the environment, and how you can use it to produce energy.  I worked in hydropower systems and operation of reservoirs to produce energy and control floods.

You are now the president of the World Water Council but how did you become involved with the World Water Council initially?

When I was president of the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), I heard about the idea of creating a World Water Council.  At first, I was a little bit concerned that this organization would compete with IWRA in terms of policy focus. Then I soon realized the Council’s added value in being a common umbrella organization that united the disparate, fragmented, and ineffectual efforts in global water management at the time. I therefore got involved and IWRA was actually one of the founding members of the Council. Ever since its creation, I have been very interested in the importance of politics and policy in water management and one of my main objectives has been to draw the attention of decision-makers in order for water to get the attention that it needs.

Given your broad and lengthy involvement with water, how have you seen the dialogue change?

Back in 1997, when the Council was created, the subject of water was something we professionals would discuss among ourselves at our congresses and symposia.  The politicians would not even discuss this issue.  In some places, like the Middle East, water would be important, because water is scarce, but the public at large would not be interested.  In these past 15 years or so, the Council has increased the awareness of the political class around water.  At the very first World Water Forum in Marrakesh, Morocco, we had 400 people participating in the discussions.  High-level people, of course – for example the King of Morocco patronized the Forum, and some very important political people were involved.  Nevertheless, the number of participants was relatively low.   When the next Forum took place three years later in The Hague in the Netherlands, the number went from 400 to 5,000 participants. 

How did you manage to grow the forum so much in three years?

We had gained some valuable experience and it also helped that the Dutch government – which had already been involved in the 1st Forum - realized the importance of the subject. They brought ministers to the table to discuss the issues, and this was also the first time we had a ministerial declaration.  This meant that we moved from the think tank model of the first Forum to a politicized event where ministers came together and signed a declaration. Three years later in 2003, the Forum was organized in Kyoto, Japan and then in Mexico City in 2006.  In 2009, Turkey was the host country with Istanbul as the host city, and most recently last year, the sixth edition took place in Marseille, France. We had 35,000 people coming to the event with 19,000 registrations. The political interest has just kept on growing, and there were 120 ministers and 500 mayors and parliamentarians present in Marseille.

How does the World Water Council influence policy-making?

In our work, we are reaching not only the ministers but also parliamentarians and mayors.  Water supply and sanitation is a local issue, and the mayors are in charge of making sure that the population has safe drinking water and basic sanitation.  If you can reach these decision-makers directly, it’s much more efficient than going through national governments.  The parliamentarians are the ones that make the laws and approve the budgets and by reaching them, we help them emphasize and consolidate their role in the future of water.

How do you see the role of World Water Council in the evolution of water awareness?

The World Water Council is a young organization but I am proud to say that we have come a long way since our creation. When we held our first Forum in Marrakech, Morocco, we could not have imagined that water would be recognized as a human right by the UN only 13 years later and that 14 countries would have the human right to access to water in their constitutions. This is of course the work of the whole water community but I take pride in thinking that the Council, through its Forums, has been a part of this.  At the Forums, not only water ministers are coming but also environment ministers and sometimes planning and financial ministers as well.  In Istanbul and Marseilles, we had the Heads of State Summit with presidents and prime ministers, which is a testimony to the evolution in water awareness.

Water is sort of the hidden resource.  How can we reach a critical mass to conserve water and to appreciate it?

Well, I think that to be able to appreciate water, you have to have experienced the problem – the lack of it, too much of it. On certain continents, the problems are more felt than on others but in order to reach a critical mass and catalyze change, we have to have the help of the media.  For example, in Africa, anybody knows that water is an essential issue but this does not necessarily mean that the media is going to report on it.   I think it’s through large events that some members of the media see the importance of water.  They have the power to make people listen and in the end vote for change.  In order to reach the critical mass, we need awareness around events like the World Water Forum, the World Water Week and the Singapore International Water Week.

How do we achieve media awareness on water?

We can now see a tendency of the media reporting on water’s cross-cutting character through many of the society interests such as energy, food production and health.  In 2015, when we are organizing the 7th World Water Forum in Daegu-Gyeongbuk in Korea, we will be inviting the media to a forum to discuss how to best reach out to the public at large.  Shifting from sensational reporting on water wars to calls for action in how to secure the future is one of our main aims for the media right now. Professionals in the water sector don’t know the best way to get the attention of these people.  Some think that, through dark threats about the future, people will turn their attention to water.  But we from the professional community know that if you have the right policies in place, there will be no dark future in the water sector.  There is enough water.

Provided the policies are put in place soon enough.

Exactly.  This is the trick.  For instance, some people say the wars of the future will be about water and not oil.  That water is the oil of the future.  But if we have the right policies for managing the transboundary rivers correctly, there will be no wars.  However, if you do not start early, we may come to a bad situation.  Anwar Sadat, former president of Egypt, once said, back in the 70s, that the only issue that would take Egypt to war is water.

What impact do you think that Singapore is having on the global discussion and solutions for water?

I remember the first Singapore International Water Week started small, very focused on water supply and sanitation, and it evolved quickly to become a major international event. It is now not only an event for the Asia-Pacific region but for the whole world and the number of participants and the involvement of the industry has grown fast.  Lots of important businesses are done during their forum in the area of water supply and sanitation.  The SIWW has a huge fair with new technologies, like membranes for sophisticated water treatment systems. Lately, the organizers have started to reach out to policy-makers and high level decision-makers. They created the Water Leaders Summit and started a conversation with the prime minister.  I think it is a good thing that the event is becoming more and more political. As it has a strong focus in the Asia-Pacific region it also enables great influence there. The Singapore International Water Week is an extremely important event, and we at the World Water Council are very happy to collaborate and work together with SIWW.

What would you hope to come out of the next Forum meeting?

Implementation. In Marseilles, the Forum was called “The Forum of Solutions”.  Some of these solutions have been already tried and some are totally innovative.  We had commitments from different stakeholders – the NGO community, the private sector, governments.  Now, we have this multitude of solutions and commitments available – just ready to be put into practice. I hope that for the Forum in Korea we will be able to narrow this large number of solutions down to those that can be truly implemented and understand the conditions that are necessary to implement them in different parts of the world. 

What final message would you like to give to our readers?

I would like to give a very positive message. I think that water will certainly be understood by everyone in the near future as the one resource that has to be carefully taken care of.  People have started to understand that if we don’t, we will be in deep trouble in the long run.  Together we are making that awareness shift possibilities to catalyze change for this critical element on our planet.

About Benedito Braga: Benedito 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.

He was a member of UNESCO - International Hydrologic Program committee that designed its phase V (1995 – 2000). At UNESCO he was elected President of the Intergovernmental Council of the International Hydrologic Program (2008-2009). He served as senior advisor to the Secretary of Energy and Sanitation of the State of Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2010 and was a member of the Gulbenkian Think Tank for the future of water and mankind based in Lisbon, Portugal (2010 – 2012). 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), and chaired the International Steering Committee of the 6th World Water Forum held in Marseille in March 2012.

Braga is the author of 25 books and chapters of books.  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.

In 2009, Braga was awarded the Honorary Membership of the American Water Resources Association – AWRA for his eminence in the field of water resources. In the same year he was awarded the Flavio Terra Barth Award of the Brazilian Water Resources Association for his contributions to the water resources policies of Brazil. In 2011 he was awarded the Honorary Diplomate from the American Society of Civil Engineers due to his long and distinguished career in the field of water resources.

Braga spoke with Renee Martin-Nagle, a Visiting Scholar at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC.