More people, less water

Kristalina Georgieva received a warm round of applause after her speech at the International Conference on Sustainable Development and Water recently held in Athens. Georgieva, a Bulgarian who chairs the board of the World Bank’s environmental sector, later presented us with her card, 30 percent of which is made of recycled American bank notes and 70 percent cotton. «I’m sure you’ve never seen anything like it,» she said. With studies in political economics and sociology at the University of Sofia and in environmental economics at the London School of Economics, Georgieva knows more than most about environmental problems. In her job at the World Bank she is able to propose and supervise environmental measures around the world, but not without some resistance, particularly on the privatization of water supply companies. Is the biggest problem with water about quantity or quality? These are inextricably linked. More and more people are sharing less and less water. In some countries, 40 percent of children under the age of five die from diseases related to the quality of the water. On average, 10 percent of deaths in poor countries are linked to water. What drives me mad is waste. For example, in Saudi Arabia they grow lettuce although they have a shortage of water. Why does the problem remain unsolved? The problem is that the governance of water resources is a long-term issue. One has to plan for the next 50 years. We only deal with the next step before us. Apart from those who are dying of diarrhea, most people don’t think about it much. For example, do you yourself have a shower in your home that saves on water? Unfortunately not. If I make you buy one of these showers, or to adjust your toilet tank to save on water, that would be one step. The cost of water is enormous but no politician decides to raise prices. Yet we pay for it indirectly in the form of taxes because it has to be brought into our homes somehow. But because we don’t know what it really costs, we waste it. Do the rich «deserve» more water? They already have more water. Do you know which people are the angriest about the prospect of having to pay for water? The rich, who use the poor people as an excuse. You have referred to the privatization of water companies. How can something vital to survival be put in the hands of the private sector? We carried out an international survey on the issue of «who water belongs to.» Nearly 100 percent of those polled answered that it belongs to everyone. But the question of who water belongs to and that of guaranteeing water are two different issues. The second costs money. This does not mean that water should be privately owned. It can be state-owned but managed in such as way as to «pay for itself.» Today, poor people are those who pay the most for water, because they do not have access to it and have to buy bottled water. Why do the rich, who are able to have 20 showers a day, pay the same price as the poor? I think that a certain amount should be provided free of charge, about 20 liters per person, an amount for the requirements of the ecosystem, and above that we should be charged for water. That way there will be enough for everyone, but the higher income groups will pay more. Is this practiced anywhere? In the Baltic Sea, the richer countries help the poorer ones to improve their waste processing systems on the condition that they gradually increase the pricing scale for water. So water is an economic product? In the end, it is. The fact that we have a right to water does not mean it should be cost-free. Do you believe that taking measures is enough? Generally I believe that people have a hard time thinking in the long-term. Those of us who are privileged to live in rich countries, do so at the expense of the planet. There needs to be a change in incentives. For example, why shouldn’t we tax natural resources and abolish the labor tax? We measure growth by means of the GDP – meaning, we are what we produce. If we put the reduction in natural resources into the equation, then we would create incentives not only to produce, but to produce sensibly. Only one country, Canada, has committed itself publicly to measuring pollution and the reduction of natural resources. Do you save water? Of course. In my home, all the light bulbs are energy saving, I always drive to work with another person, I drive a hybrid car and I have promised never to touch a plastic cup.

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