Interview with Anders Berntell, Director Stockholm International Water Institute SIWI

«Estimates are that 50% of the food produced is lost on its way from field to fork»
 Anders Berntell, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute SIWI, about the increased demand for water, the lack of clean drinking water and the will to help.

Mister Berntell, you are the executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute. What is the role of the SIWI?
SIWI is a policy institute, focusing on international water related issues in a wide sense, meaning that we are adressing issues such as water and food- or bioenergy-production, water and trade, water and security, corruption in the water sector, etc. etc. We try to influence decision making from the local to the global scale, for sustainable development of societies and for reduced poverty.
Looking at the past months, people in the western world seem to care more about oil and gasoline than water. When will this attitude change?
I believe that people should continue to be concerned about oil. But an increased concern about water is urgently needed. This concern will be forced upon people who live in regions where the water resources are over-exploited, where conflicts between various users will emerge and where lack of water will be a brake on further economic development.
Global demand for freshwater has tripled in the last half century and will continue to grow along with population increases and economic development. On the other hand water supplies seem to be shrinking. Are we trapped in a vicious circle?
This depends on in what region we are. Several regions will inevitably face an increased crisis, primarily due to the demographic changes, and on top of this due to the coming effects of climate change.
In big cities like Los Angeles and Mexico City troubles with the water supply have already started and groundwater is being overused. What can be done, to stop this trend?
In some citites things are already beeing done. Water use is decreasing, and water eficiency increasing. New ways of reusing water are beeing put in place, in agriculture, in parks, or with more advanced treatment of the wastewater for recharge of groundwater aquifers or even as source for new drinking water.
Once the groundwater level has dropped far enough, salt water will intrude and pollute the remaining water. Is this an irreversable effect?
In the short term yes, in the long run no. There are techniques whereby new water is artificially recharged into the aquifer which prevents further intrusuon of salt water.
In recent years the climate seems to be more extreme, very hot summers, followed by flood like rain falls and sometimes snow storms. Is there a way to moderate these effects or maybe even profit from them?
The problem is that most cities and regions are not even prepared to deal with the natural variation of water that we have today, and definitely not prepared to deal with the changes that will come. However, with better preparedness for variation, and a willingness to adapt to the changes, there are also opportunities for improved management of the water resources.
1.1 billion people lack safe drinking water and 2.6 billion are without basic sanitation. What is done to change this terrible situation?
Far too little. And the tragedy is that we know what to do, and how to do it. It is basically about the lack of will to do it. There is a need for political leaders at the heads of state level, at ministerial level and at the municipal/local level to get their priorities right. But there is also a responsibility at the household level, for husbands, to prioritise the santitation needs of their families.
The western world seems rather ignorant to these ills and cynics consider it a waste of money to help the poor countries to solve some of their basic problems. Are we really dealing with a lost cause?
No, it is possible, and affordable. It is about the will as forementioned.
Would not everybody profit in the end, if sanitary conditions would be globally improved?
Indeed, we would. Estimates vary, but for every USD invested in sanitation and hygiene, the return (for the society at large) could be between 7 and 34 USD, in terms of reduced health costs,
increased days at work (not staying home because of illness) and time saved from searching for a safe place to relieve onself.
A human needs 50 to 100 litres of water per day. If one counts food, it's 3500 litres per day. To produce a BigMac 1000 litres of water are used. Incredible figures. Is there a way to reduce this immense amount?
There are several ways. But to start with, there is a basic amount of water that is needed to produce a certain food item, since the crop itself requires a certain amount of water to grow, otherwise it dies. But beyond that, the water efficiency in agriculture can increase substantially, with better farming
methods. We can also reduce the losses of food in the food chain, from the field to the fork.
Estimates are that 50% of the food produced is lost. If we reduce this loss with half we would save 25% of the water that is currently used for food production. Lastly, we could also influence our own personal water footprint by shifting to a less water demanding diet.
Some conflicts in the Middle East root in the fact that groundwater supplies and sources are vital. Do you believe that there will be more transboundary issues in the future?
There will. Competition over scarce water resources will increase. Competition between different sectors of the society (ie agriculture/urban/industry), competition between upstream/downstream users, but also competition between countries.
Companies – i.e. Nestlé and Danone – own water sources (Perrier and Evian). Compared to other commodities like oil, corn etc. there is no substitute for water. Will private companies be able to control water sources in the future or will they be state owned at one stage?
Water resources should be considered as a public good, where some kind of public authority has the final say over its use and allocation. Private actors can come in as users of that resource for various purposes (industrial use, agricultural use, domestic use etc, etc) when the public authority after a transparent and consultative process has decided on the allocation.
Water is a necessity of life. Should it be a traded commodity at a stock exchange?
It is a necessity of life. The problem is that it is already today a precious commodity, with a high prize, for example for the slum-dwellers around the world who buy their water from private water vendors. We need to make that water available to all, in quantities that covers your basic needs, at an affordable price and with adequate quality.
Several factors contribute to the growing scarcity of water. Which issues are being addressed currently and have the most promissing outlook to be solved in the recent future?
From a water resource perspective (the water in lakes, rivers or groundwater) the most important thin is to address is the agricultural use of water. Far to little is done in this sector today.
What can we look forward to hearing from you at the conference?
We'll see. I am certainly looking very much forward to the conference.
Anders Berntell joined SIWI in 2002 as its Executive Director where he is responsible for overall development and direction of the Institute's activities. This includes administration of the World Water Week, SIWI's project work, and SIWI prize activities.

Anders Berntell
Keynote «The Water Crisis»,
Culture and Convention Centre KKL, Lucerne, Switzerland
October 27, 2008; 16.15 h



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