Benedito Braga, an engineer and professor at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (POLI-USP), has actively worked to disseminate technical knowledge beyond the academic domain. As president since 2012 of the World Water Council, he is among the organizers of the World Water Forum to be hosted by the Brazilian Federal Government and the Federal District Government, in Brasília, from March 19 to 23. This eighth edition of the forum is the first in the Southern Hemisphere and the second in the Americas—in 2006 it was hosted by Mexico.
In an interview at the State Department of Sanitation and Water Resources in São Paulo City, Braga—who heads the department—stressed the importance of water being recognized as a central, strategic issue. It is, after all, a human right recognized as such by the United Nations (UN).
What are your expectations for the upcoming World Water Forum?
The forum includes a Thematic Process, which discusses current issues from a technical perspective; a Political Process, with delegates ranging from mayors to heads of state; and a Regional Process, which ensures the specific circumstances of each continent are taken into account. For the Brazil edition a group has also been created to discuss sustainability. This is the basic structure of the forum, which will look at real-world issues such as sanitation, sewage treatment, access to drinking water, municipal water management, and water security in the context of climate change. It will also discuss funding solutions for works needed to provide universal access to safe drinking water, and for the reservoirs and dams needed to increase resilience to climate change. Lastly, it will examine the ways ecosystems and biodiversity are being affected.
How is effective dialogue between academics, policymakers, and society achieved?
The issues raised in the Thematic, Regional, and Sustainability processes are summarized in letters of commitment. These inputs are then fed into the Political Process, where policymakers discuss a statement indicating their intended approach to addressing water-related issues.
How do you measure the success of previous editions of the forum?
One of the forum’s goals is to raise awareness among policymakers about water issues. The first edition in Marrakesh, in 1997, was attended by 400 delegates. In the most recent edition in Korea , we had 40,000 participants. Heads of state have attended in Korea and also in France . This appears to denote increasing engagement among policymakers in tackling water-related issues.
Are there any significant technical issues or proposals on the agenda?
We are hoping to discuss innovative project finance solutions for water infrastructure. In the context of climate change, we expect proposals will be put forward calling for water issues to be spotlighted at the next COPs [Conferences of the Parties], and recommendations will likely call for an increased focus on adaptation rather than mitigation in the area of energy. We need to become more resilient to our climate as it is today. Because the forum is open to new ideas, there’s no telling what other topics might emerge. But we expect discussions to extend across municipal water management, floods, solid waste, and housing. Water is a cross-cutting issue in all of these areas.
And energy? Hydroelectric plants need water to operate.
Water is used not only by hydro power plants, but also for cooling in other types of power-generating facilities. One of the high-level panels will discuss the nexus between water, energy, and food security at the river-basin level, and how conflicts-of-use can be minimized. The overarching theme of the forum is “Sharing ideas on sharing water”. Upward of 260 river basins are shared by two or more countries. How can water flowing across geopolitical borders be managed, and how can national sovereignty be reconciled with the shared use of water resources? Every State can do as it pleases in its own territory, but its actions will affect countries downstream. In Brazil, the Amazon basin is downstream whereas the Prata basin is upstream from our neighbors. We need to make sure water management practices are consistent across borders.
Is this also true for aquifers?
Yes, the same principles apply to groundwater.
Will water scarcity lead to increased use of groundwater?
Groundwater is a strategic reserve. The vast majority of cities in São Paulo State, other than São Paulo City, draw water from the Botucatu and Bauru aquifers, which provide an abundant water supply. But it is often easier to impound a stream and use the water directly; the disadvantage is that a higher level of treatment is required because surface water is often polluted.
Are there negotiations underway to privatize aquifers in Brazil?
Not to my knowledge. The notion of privatization exists in rhetoric only; water is a public good under Brazil’s Constitution. Municipal governments can grant to a public authority or a private company the right to operate a water and sewage treatment utility. I fail to see how it is possible to privatize an aquifer. A factory can drill a well to get access to groundwater, but in the state of São Paulo this is regulated by the Department of Water and Electric Energy.
What are your views on the organization of an Alternative Forum?
One was also organized in Marseilles, France. The organizers have an ideology and certain points of view that they want to promote. The motto for their event in Brasília will be “Water is not a commodity”. In other words, they are opposing the putative privatization of water resources, which as I have said is not possible. Apparently what they’re really against is any private-sector involvement whatsoever in concessions for water and sanitation services. We take no positions, for or against, any particular policy stances—quite the opposite: all parties can raise issues and they are debated.
Does the World Water Council not have stated positions?
The Council operates on the basis of dialogue—it is not our intent to impose positions. We want to raise policymakers’ awareness of the importance of water, but have no stated opinion on water and sanitation concessions. Utilities can be public or private, provided they are efficient. We provide thought leadership around water security: we give examples of places around the world that have done well in increasing resilience to climate change; and we have publications on the types of funding that can be used for water infrastructure, available at worldwatercouncil.org.
Is there ground for optimism?
I believe there is; we’re in a much better place than we were before. The state of São Paulo, for example, came through a water crisis in 2014 that was similar to the current crisis in Cape Town, South Africa—through planning, infrastructure, and the water-works that were put into place. Citizens also reduced their water consumption by 15%.
Would we be prepared for another 2014?
Yes, we are prepared. I hope it won’t happen, of course. There are decision-makers involved who have a high level of awareness that water is a crucial factor in development.