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Interview with Tim Kasten: Water Quality Challenges

December 2010


Tim Kasten is the Deputy Director of UNEP's Division of Environmental Policy Implementation and Coordinator of the Freshwater and Terrestrial Ecosystems Branch of UNEP and currently serves as Vice-Chair of UN-Water. We asked him to reflect upon the achievements made to address water quality challenges over the past year and his thoughts on the emerging priorities for the near future.



In 2010, UNEP, UN-Water and its members and partners have made a concerted effort to increase international focus on water quality issues. What do you see as the most significant achievements made over the past year?


Starting on World Water Day and over the past year we have been able to raise awareness on issues of water quality. In the past, much more focus has been on water quantity issues and getting water to people, to industry and to agriculture, which is very important and we must continue to work on this. But at the same time we need an equal focus on water quality because if water arrives to people in a state that is not usable it can cause damage to people in terms of human health. Equally if water reaches municipalities,industries and the environment in a state where it is too polluted to use, then water in large quantities does not help.

Of course, it requires a lot of money and resources to clean up the water, which is why we stress looking at water quantity and water quality together. [This year] we have done this by beginning to raise awareness on this issue and have continued that thematic focus on water quality at the Stockholm World Water Week in September 2010 also. The UN Water membership and partnership have also agreed this past September to create a new Thematic Priority Area, where we will begin a greater and continuing focus on these issues of water quality. It is not just about raising awareness anymore, it is about documenting where we have problems, documenting where we have solutions and identifying the appropriate means of moving ahead.

The huge advantage of doing this through UN Water… is that we all have something different to add. The multi-disciplinary nature of UN Water, where some agencies are looking from a human health perspective, others from a groundwater perspective, from an urban water perspective, or in the case of UNEP from an environmental perspective, provides a more comprehensive view of the issues as well as a much stronger program to address them than if they were just being addressed by one agency.

At the 2010 World Water Week in Stockholm, you led a session on "Pathways to Shortcut Historical Pollution Trends". What have we learned? What can countries and communities do to decouple water pollution and economic growth?

Industrialized countries have gone through a certain level of learning experience both making mistakes and having successes. We do believe these lessons, and the technologies that go along with them, can be transferred to developing countries to shortcut pollution trends experienced in the past in industrialized countries. In the past, certainly from the 1930-1950's, industrialized nations saw no end to our natural resources and environmental resources and pollution was not really seen as a large problem. As a result, they were producing at the expense of the environment. Now of course we realize that development without the recognition of the environment was a mistake and the industrialized countries have moved to correct that. But many developing countries are still in that era of industrialization and development. We think a lot can be learned and transferred to developing countries so they do not need to make the same mistakes. Countries do need to develop, but we believe if that development occurs in the context of a Green Economy that development will happen in a more environmentally sustainable way.

There are several examples of solutions coming from both developing and developed countries that we can scale up and share experiences on. For example, in Nicaragua, where small-scale farmers have gotten together to share knowledge on best management practices for local resources and conditions and have implemented things like rainwater harvesting, agro-forestry and diversification of crops while reducing the impacts on the environment and maintained water quality for other purposes. By doing this they have been able to both increase crop yields while decreasing costs by reducing the amount of chemical fertilizer they have to use. We have a win-win-win situation because the farmers are spending less money, getting better yields, and there is less damage done to the environment as reduced fertilizer use means water quality is maintained for other uses.

There are also many opportunities for cleaner industry solutions. In the recent UNEP report, "Clearing the Waters" that was released on World Water Day, we highlighted an example of a tannery in Zimbabwe where they found new cleaner methods to remove hair from hides during leather making process. They have reduced costs and the reduced amount of pollutants coming out of the production and simultaneously profited from the effluent which is not toxic and is used as a new fertilizer source. These are some of the types of things we need to scale up and share experiences where they can be used.

There is also there is also a tremendous amount of learning to be done to improve water quality in industrialized nations. Industrial processes and cleaner technologies are areas, in particular where we need to move into at the large as well as at the small scale.

What do you see as the priority issues to improve and maintain water quality in the coming decade?

There are three main solutions that we have been promoting for the 2010 World Water Day, for the World Water Week in Stockholm and that we are trying to promote through a water quality brief of UN Water as well as other publications. The three solutions are Pollution Prevention; Wastewater Treatment; and Restoration.

In the first case of pollution prevention, we are looking at a couple of things to improve and promote processes that are less polluting and less harmful than some of the current ones that we are using now. So it is not only a substitution of inputs, in terms of using less harmful chemicals but it is modifying processes, both in agriculture and industry, that will minimize the contaminants being released as well as minimizing water use. At the same time we are promoting the use of less harmful chemicals. Going back to the case in Nicaragua for example, through crop diversification and use of natural fertilizers they were able to minimize the input of chemical fertilizers in those areas. Normally, pollution prevention is the best and least costly alternative , especially when you consider the cost of setting up new technologies [to remove pollution].

In the second instance, we would like to promote waste water treatment. It is still a major problem in many places even for domestic sewage, which is a source we have been addressing for many, many years. Yet about 80% of sewage in developing countries is still being released untreated into the environment. If we can put wastewater treatment in effect in developing countries we will not only improve water quality but we will improve human health and the host of benefits that come along with it. Wastewater treatment doesn't stop only with domestic wastewater treatment but it also includes industrial contaminants, where right now we have 300 to 400 tons of industrial waste consisting of heavy metals, solvents, sludge and other contaminants going into our water every year from industry, this is still an issue we need to address. The synergistic effects of some of these contaminants as well as their endocrine disrupting capacity still needs to be further researched and addressed.

Finally, where we already have water quality problems and degraded ecosystems we need to restore them. Restoring water resources is costly, which is why we focus first on pollution prevention and wastewater treatment. But even when you reach the point where you need to restore an ecosystem to restore water quality, and to restore the functionality of that system to purify, regulate and provide water, it is still usually brings a positive return on investment in economic benefits alone.

We have recently done a study at UNEP where we looked at some ecosystem restoration projects. In the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa, for example, the ecosystem was restored through re-vegetation and replanting of grasslands. That project cost 4.5 million USD and another 1 million USD for maintenance, which one may think is not cheap. But the returns on that investment are monetized at 7.4 million USD per year and it provides 300 jobs. This is very much a green economy issue: through ecosystem restoration we have created jobs and an economy at a cost that was less than the investment for the restoration of that very same ecosystem.

You are currently helping to lead the production of a major report with UN-Water for the upcoming Earth Summit 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Can you tell us a little bit about it?


Going back in Rio in 1992, in the Chapter on Freshwater1, there was a call for integrated approaches to water resources management. This has evolved into what is commonly called simply IWRM (integrated water resources management) and is a very well accepted process and means toward implementation of water resource management plans. What we would like to do after 20 years is take a look at how well we have done at integrated approaches to water resources management. Through UN Water and together with partners, UNEP will lead a new report and process that looks into what the advances have been made in water resources management over the years and will be released at Rio in 2012.

The report will certainly take into account the vast body of work that has been done on IWRM, but will also look at the broader spectrum of water resource management as it was implied in the Rio Convention in 1992. In particular, we will be working with a key UN agencies and partners such as the Global Water Partnership who, through its intersectoral activities and its network of partner organizations around the world, has been addressing IWRM for many years. We are very much looking forward to working with GWP and our other UN Water members and partners to pull this report together.. We are very much looking forward to working with GWP and our other UN Water members and partners to pull this report together.



Tim Kasten

Last update:07 Oct 2014