World Water Week: OOSKAnews Conversation With World Bank's Junaid Ahmad

STOCKHOLM, Sweden

At Stockholm’s 24th World World Water Week, OOSKAnews CEO David Duncan spoke with Junaid Kamal Ahmad, Senior Director for the World Bank Group’s Global Water Practice, to discuss the interrelationships between water and other sectors, the Global Water Practice’s mandate, and the challenge of spreading awareness about water issues.

OOSKAnews: This year’s Stockholm event has focused on the water-energy nexus, about which you have spoken. Can you share your perspective on the nexus challenges, and describe for our readers the rationale and hopes for the World Bank’s “Thirsty Energy” initiative?

Junaid Ahmad: I usually try to alarm people by telling them we are heading for the perfect storm. By 2050 about two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in water stressed countries. Over the same period, demand for energy will go up about 35 to 40 percent, and at the same time demand for food will go up by 50 percent if not more. And the need for irrigated land will go up. Demand for water is just going to skyrocket. How to manage this trade off is I think absolutely essential for sustainable development.

The Thirsty Energy initiative at the World Bank is tasked with looking at the energy industry in order to understand how we improve its water efficiency. To produce energy, you need water. Now, we are going into new areas of energy such as shale gas and shale oil, which will require even more water. We are trying to understand that nexus, and how to improve that nexus so that we don’t move into this perfect storm.

OOSKAnews: Do the solutions lie with water technologies?

Junaid Ahmad: It is not only a technological issue. It is an issue about institutions and governments.

For example, if you price water very poorly, water use is not going to be managed efficiently. If you have local governments that are not effective, their interface with communities in how to manage water will be difficult. If you have trans-boundary water, managing the trans-boundary relationship is essential to ensure that water is equitably allocated and efficiently managed.

Today, we see problems of dams being built in one country, and other countries being worried that that will affect the flow of their water. How do you create governance where hydrologic infrastructure is co-owned by several countries? These are the types of issues from an institutional and political side that we are looking at.

Let me maybe just emphasize here: I am not one who believes that technology is a problem. The world has been shaped by innovations in technology. Right now, on the shelf, there are a variety of technologies that could give us a boost in water and energy efficiency in the coming decades. However, the use of this technology, making it commercially viable, depends on the institutions that manage energy and water, the pricing systems that manage energy and water, and the regulatory framework. All of these are in the realm of the politics of how energy and water get managed. For me, that is a greater determinant than the availability of enabling technologies.

OOSKAnews: The bank has recently restructured its Global Water Practice. What was the thinking behind that? What are the positive outcomes expected from this?

Junaid Ahmad: It is a very major change, and perhaps I can summarize it from the lens of the water practice. First, we are an institution that is global and an institution that touches all the regions. In fact we are organized around six regions; Latin America, South Asia, Africa, East Asia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. The problem we have seen is our work in these regions may not lead to optimum knowledge flow between the regions. So there was a need to re-look at our organization to make sure that lessons learned in Benin about how to tackle cholera are being shared with Haiti, which faced cholera issues. Now, the idea is not that the solution in Country A can be transplanted to Country B. That is not at all the issue. The issue is, “let’s not re-invent the wheel.” Let’s learn from the development efforts of one nation and the principles it offers for another nation -- how the countries can learn, be informed, adapt and adjust their own context to this kind of knowledge flow. So, first is the need for knowledge flow.

Secondly, water in the World Bank was under 35 managers [and] four departments. So water and sanitation had no link to water resource management. Resilience had no link to water resource management. Irrigation was separate from water resources overall. I think there was a sense that we must bring water under one roof, where we can look at water, writ large: in the context of climate change, in the context of demands on water, in the context where we are still far short of universal access to water and sanitation and, importantly, that we understand that water forms an economic platform for countries. Unless we bring water together, water writ large, under one management, it is more difficult to deliver what we feel is the global best support to our client countries. And finally, we recognize that the World Bank is only one knowledge partner of a knowledge network. [There needs to be] the ability for us to integrate more into this knowledge network, so that knowledge flows not only within the bank, not only between the bank and the clients and the clients with the bank, but that the bank is part of a network of knowledge providers that connects with others. As a result of all this, [World Bank Group] President [Jim Yong] Kim had a really gigantic task in front of him, and took a bold step in moving the delivery systems within the bank into what we call the “Global Practices,” which bring together in the case of water all the regions under one management so that knowledge flow is easier.

President Kim is very concerned about how we measure our impact, and has made clear two important goals that he will hold “Global Practices” accountable for. One is that by 2030, to support the world in its movement towards ending extreme poverty, bringing extreme poverty below 3 percent. The other is shared prosperity, measured as the income growth of the bottom 40 percent of any country…that the income growth of the bottom 40 percent of households will be faster than the average. Boosting prosperity and ending extreme poverty are the two goals we are accountable for.

OOSKAnews: You mention information flow around the bank, and within the broader community of water organizations. World Water Week is an example of this.

There is also a need to share information with, essentially raise political and public awareness about, the urgency of water challenges -- the perfect storm?

Do you agree that where “climate” as an issue and “carbon” as an issue can make the front pages of international mainstream media, societal awareness of critical water challenges is relatively weak?

Junaid Ahmad: If you are telling me that there is a problem in terms of media reporting on water, and that it does not get due attention, then the onus is on us, the water family, to link and share with the media our findings to actually bring together the evidence of what is happening and what is not happening in the water sector. And I think you are absolutely right, that a week like this is an extremely important week for practitioners to come, but as the practitioners come together, we also bring other sectors into the discussion. The water portfolio in the World Bank today is about $22 billion USD. But in reality it is double that, in the sense that water the Urban Practice, the Transport Practice, the Energy Practice all engage in water issues. So we as professionals in the water family not only should worry about water that we are directly responsible for, but the important nexus between the water family and the other Practices. Knowledge sharing should include information in media, as media is a very powerful tool to influence the political economy. So I think the challenge that you are putting in front of us is to figure out how to build better bridges in terms of the information that we put on the table in front of media. I hear you loud and clear on that -- it is something that I will talk about with my leadership team.

OOSKAnews: Thank you very much for your time, Dr. Ahmad.

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