Conversation with Dr. Zafar Adeel, Director, Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) at the United Nations University in Hamilton, Canada and new UN-Water Chair.
The Millennium Development Goals relating to drinking water and sanitation are still attainable, according to the new man at the helm of UN-Water.
Dr Zafar Adeel, who officially succeeded Pasquale Steduto as its chair at the beginning of February, believes the global recession need not thwart the UN’s efforts to meet the targets by 2015. In fact, he believes the worldwide economic crisis – and the finances that are being pumped into it – may provide the perspective that persuades politicians and governments to ensure the ambitious challenges are met.
Dr Adeel, an environmental engineer, who has adapted to become a keen student of the policies that shape the environment, hopes that during his chairmanship UN-Water members and partners will use the economic downturn to their – and the developing world’s – advantage. Not a month into his new role and he’s talking in the positive – but confident – way that is liable to convince many waverers, both inside and outside the UN system. Though the real test will be whether it convinces the decision makers and those holding the purse strings.
“I’m a bit of an eternal optimist,” he says. “And I see a very good opportunity in using the economic crisis to highlight that this is the opportunity to rethink how we use our water resources. “Economies are now being shuffled and restructured, so this is a good opportunity to bring in a new perspective.“The figures we have in terms of meeting the Millennium Development Goals – what UN-Water and our member organisations have been saying – are that we need an additional $15-20 billion invested annually to achieve those goals.”
Big numbers by anyone’s assessment, surely? “The general feeling is that this is a very large number. Where is it going to come from? “The kind of funds that have been tossed at the economic crisis actually tell us that $15-20 billion is in fact not a large amount of money. “For example, in the US the two bailout packages (for the financial services) were each $750 billion. So mobilising the resources needed to meet this very fundamental human need… it actually strengthens our case.”
The goals will occupy much of UN-Water’s thinking during Dr Adeel’s two years as Chair, although already he is looking beyond the 2015 MDG deadline. His own organisation. UNU, has been doing just that. “If you start today to make those kind of investments, we would be able to reach universal coverage by the year 2025, so there is an interest in peering around the curve and looking beyond the MDGs,” he explained. “There are some good trends already. Development of the Sanitation and Water for All: Global Framework for Action demonstrates that both developing and developed countries recognise that not meeting this very primary need is going to have significant impairment of many other issues.”
Dr Adeel believes innovation of thinking and approach will help achieve the goals. “There is no question that this will require a phenomenal effort because meeting the goals or other objectives is not just about input of money. It is also about human investment, institutional development and technological capacity within various countries and various regions to provide these services.
“As you move more and more to cater towards the bottom billion – people without water and sanitation and generally in abject poverty – it would be more challenging to provide them access to these services.
“That is where we need to start thinking much more innovatively, and some of that thinking is coming through very clearly.”