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Interview with new UN-Water Chair: Zafar Adeel

February 2010


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.”

One such example, he believes, is progressive collaboration with its “sister mechanism”, UN-Energy.

“They are also taking the stance that they want to have universal energy coverage by 2025. “The two aspects of water and energy provision are not independent of each other. In fact, we can make significant gains by pushing initiatives that provide both at the same time. “Particularly with more innovative and green energy options, we can kill two birds with one stone. “So we need to convince policy makers and politicians that this is the way to go.”

Dr Adeel may have tough acts to follow, but his aims seem generally in the same direction as those of his predecessors, who include WHO’s Dr Jamie Bartram and Dr Steduto, head of water services at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO).


“I believe the chair of UN-Water has two core functions: one is to be an impartial facilitator of dialogue while bringing a focus on many pertinent issues. I can add my perspective of where the global debate is going, but only as an input to direct the discussion. “The other is quite different: a bit of an advocacy role in connecting with stakeholders inside and outside the UN system.“That builds on the first role. What comes out of the consensus of the membership needs to be conveyed to various stakeholders/policymakers on the outside. “That is just as important. To be able to describe the collective thinking [of the UN system] on water issues is a role of that has evolved even more in the past few years. In particular, there is a much greater interest worldwide in looking at the role of water in societal development, and my expectation is that it will get even more attention in the coming years.”

However, where those parties involved with UN-Water may see a slight change is in its relationship with member states. “So far UN-Water has primarily focused on building processes and tools where members and partners can come together. “But there hasn’t been as much attention to how we are serving the member states through co-ordinated and cohesive services,” he says. “That is a major new direction where UN-Water has to play a significant role in co-ordinating actions by its members at country level.”


With UN-Water’s limitations in being a facilitator rather than implementer, there are many obstacles to be overcome to that end. But Dr Adeel is under no illusions about its value. “If at the end of the day UN-Water is not serving the needs of member states, we are probably not doing our job.”

The optimist in Dr Adeel tends to turn other potentially significant obstacles to progress into “challenges”.

Isn’t future water provision threatened by climate change, industrial development, urbanisation and population increases? “With urbanisation and population increase, there are trends that I believe are going to continue, regardless of what we do.”

Dr Adeel points to indications that the global population is levelling out at something between 9 billion and 12 billion. “So in the medium term the population curve is going to flatten out.”

He believes the answer may lie in better management of demand and rethinking agricultural production and food-distribution policies.


On climate change, he prefers to focus on adaptation rather than mitigation. But he declares: “The biggest challenges are the perceptions in both political and policy circles. “In many developed countries there is the attitude that we have the resources and the technology to overcome any problem, and we have plenty of water anyway, so why worry? “In developing countries people say we must go through an industrial or agricultural development process at any cost.


“Both perceptions are incorrect. It is a fallacy that you can only achieve industrial or agricultural development without taking into consideration the availability of natural resources. And water is at the centre of both.


“Changing perceptions is a big challenge."


“The other challenges you were talking about can be addressed through correct investment of resources, correct delineation of policies.”


Dr Adeel believes his environmental-policy experience, involvement in water-pollution issues and work as director of UNU-INWEH in forming a bridge of knowledge between the scientific community and policy processes will stand him in good stead for his new role.


He also believes his Pakistani background will help. “Because I am from a developing country myself, I have a better sense of the kind of challenges people have in those countries, and also the institutional shortcomings that often lead to inaction or difficulty in achieving goals.”


The UN-Water members that appointed him for two years as successor to the well-respected Pasquale Steduto appeared to agree.


So how will he want to be judged when those two years are up?

“I don’t expect in two years’ time we would have done everything,” he admits. “I believe there are two kinds of measures. Within UN-Water, how were the meetings managed; how many initiatives were there; how much new funding was brought in through various donors; how many activities were generated?"


“Outside, how does the UN interface with the outside world – both the UN system and other partners and processes; we have agreed to engage in various policy processes and provision of services at country and regional level."


“The establishment of relationships in these various ongoing dialogues where UN-Water has a significant input into these policy processes would be a very good indicator of success.”

Last update:07 Oct 2014