WATER EXPERT INTERVIEW: “What is happening in Cape Town could happen anywhere”

Paul Yillia, water expert, African Utility WeekCan we start with some background information on you and the work you have done in the water sphere?
I have spent most of the last 15 years doing analytical work on water resources assessment and planning and more recently focused mainly on the cross-sector interactions between water, energy, environment and other global development themes. Until June 2017, I was recruited by UNOPS to support the Global Facilitation Team at Sustainable Energy for ALL (SEforALL) as thematic expert on cross-cutting issues, the so-called Water-Energy-Food Nexus. At SEforALL, I led and undertook several key actions to incorporate the Water-Energy-Food Nexus perspective within the overall SEforALL Global Action Agenda and partner programmes.

I coordinated the SEforALL Nexus portfolio globally through its High-Impact Opportunity (HIO) on the Water-Energy-Food Nexus and led in identifying, developing and operationalizing project opportunities with key HIO partners, including FAO, GIZ, REEEP, IRENA and OFID. During this time, I interacted with several Government officials, including diplomats and senior water management experts and engaged with several international organizations, multilateral financing institutions, the business sector and civil society groups on mainstreaming the nexus perspective in their plans and actions. I planned and moderated several high-level discussions involving very senior representatives of international organizations, ambassadors/permanent representatives on the cross-cutting nature of various international development themes, including the SDGs on water, energy, climate change and ecosystems.

And before you joined SEforALL?
I held research and teaching positions at various academic and/or research institutions, including IIASA (International Institute for Applied systems Analysis), Vienna University of Technology, UNESCO-IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, the University of Sierra Leone and Egerton University, Kenya. At these institutions, I led the development and implementation of research, technical support and capacity building projects/programmes on various water resources development themes. In addition, I undertook several consultancy assignments with various governments and international organizations, including UNOPS, UNF, UN-Water, UN-Environment, UNESCO and UNIDO.

Any specific projects that were particularly exciting for you?
Yes, for example, research and analytical work on IIASA’s flagship research initiative on global water security was particularly exciting. The Water Futures & Solutions Initiative (WFaS) is the main research undertaking of IIASA’s Water Program with several ground-breaking studies seeking sustainable solutions to address water security challenges at various scales of management. WFaS considers a suite of possible future scenarios and how global transformations, e.g. population growth, urbanization, climate change, technological innovations and even socioeconomic factors would impact global water security at the nexus of water, food and energy security. Specifically, I contributed prominently to modelling work, stakeholder consultations and the global discourse on the relevance of the water-energy nexus perspective for post-2015 development agenda. I participated in several key international water and international development events, including the 7th World Water Forum in Daegu, South Korea, the annual World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, and as you know my regular yearly participation at the African Utility Week in Cape Town, South Africa. 

And your current role in the context of this conversation?
I am currently a guest research scholar with the Water (WAT) Program at IIASA and visiting scholar at Vienna University of Technology and supervising post-graduate research work on energy efficiency improvements for drinking water and wastewater utilities.

How relevant is such research work for the water industry?
Drinking water and wastewater utilities are typically energy intensive. They are the largest energy consumers of most municipal governments, accounting for some 30-40 percent of the total energy consumed. Energy costs can reach 60 percent of total operating costs of utilities and this is expected to increase in the coming years due to population growth, improvements in access to safe drinking water and stiffer regulations on water quality standards. Investments in energy efficiency and effective operations for utilities can produce a range of economic, environmental, and other benefits, for example, reducing operating costs, reducing carbon footprint and making utilities more capable and reliable to reach additional customers. This type of research is also helpful in contributing to the SDG 7 target on doubling the global rate of improvements in energy efficiency by 2030 and of course other related SDGs as well.

What in your view is the greatest challenge facing global water security?
I think there is no single challenge facing global water security. We are dealing with multiple and interlinked issues and problems but let me put it this way. The greatest challenge facing global water security is global transformation. The world is changing as we look on and this is happening at a very fast pace and impacting heavily on available natural resources, including fresh water. Take population growth for example. Increasing demands for water, food and energy from growing populations is placing increasing pressures on the amount of readily available fresh water. The estimates vary but there is sufficient reason to believe that global population will reach 9 billion by 2050. This is expected to push water demand upward to anything above 55% in many part of the world.

Correspondingly, energy needs are projected to increase by 80%, and the world’s food demand will rise by as much as 60% according to some reliable estimates compiled by FAO. In addition, urbanization, economic growth, poverty reduction and changing life styles towards more affluent and resource intensive societies will all impact water security in addition to energy and food production, which as you know also depend on water supply. Water scarcity will be further exacerbated by increasing land degradation, water quality challenges and the growing influence of climate change, which will affect both demand and supply in way we have never experienced before. Already many parts of the world are becoming increasingly vulnerable to floods and droughts, with accompanying water shortages and constraints on fresh water resources. In addition, the evolution of production mechanisms towards more resource-intensive technologies is intensifying demands on natural resources, including freshwater systems.

And how will this affect the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
As you well know the SDGs are very interlinked and interdependent, and in many ways, water can be viewed as the thin thread that runs through many Goals. For instance, ending extreme poverty; ending hunger; achieving good health and wellbeing; making more cities and societies sustainable; achieving universal access to energy; growing strong, inclusive, and transformative economies; and protecting our ecosystems all depend on access to water.

There is consensus that these goals and several others cannot be achieved without water and achieving the water Goal will accelerate success in many other Goals. Secure and reliable access to water is critical for basic survival, economic development and social security in every region of the world. But limitations, for instance, on the availability of fresh water in some regions are already restricting the type and extent of energy development, irrigation options and other opportunities for economic development and poverty eradication. This is the reason why many of the discussion and advocacy work we undertook leading on to the adoption of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change were focussed on seek the attention and support of international development partners to commit resources and support ongoing initiatives aimed at operationalizing the water-energy nexus perspective into concrete actions for the post-2015 development agenda.

Was this achieved and are you hopeful?
Yes, I would say we have been successful to a large extent on the advocacy front but more needs to be done with respect to operationalizing the concept. I am hopeful because the nexus approach continues to receive widespread attention and support, and more and more leaders are increasingly recognizing its importance as a conceptual framework to facilitate integrated planning and decision-making for the post-2015 development agenda. I am cautious, nevertheless, because the concept is not easy to operationalize and a more coordinated approach to sustainable resources management requires concerted action at all spheres of decision making and at all levels of implementation. This is not so easy to do.

What are your views on the water security situation in Cape Town in context of this conversation?
The current situation in Cape Town is a classic case of the long-held belief that climate change would be felt more severely through the hydrological cycle and that even the most water secure places on earth - whether they are in developed or developing countries - could face serious water security challenges due to climate change. Many still believe it is too early to say climate change is directly responsible for the current water crisis in Cape Town but almost every water expert I know agrees it is largely a supply-side problem due to weather extremes, especially the recurrent droughts that have persisted in the region in the last couple of years, coupled of course with increase in demand from population growth and economic development. Honestly, I found it surprising that for a long time and probably even now, the city authorities have been focusing largely on demand management as if it was more of a demand-side problem. This is not to blame anyone. In fact, I have interacted and hold to high esteem the water experts managing the utility in Cape Town.

I could imagine they had hoped that they can manage demand to a level that could sustain existing supply at least until the dams return to pre-crisis levels. They probably didn’t anticipate a situation were dam levels would precipitously fall to very low levels and consequently lead to the much talked about hypothetical ‘Day Zero’ situation that is, however, becoming increasingly likely in a couple of months from now. Otherwise, they would have focused resources immediately on alternative supply management options like additional desalination plants or shifting water from other basins or aquifers. But these are not cheap options and the resources requirements can be quite huge and intensive.

Are you saying that demand management measures were unhelpful?
No, not at all. In fact, demand management is very important and helpful but only to a certain point as it were in this case. When the water security challenge is predominantly a supply-side problem, there is a limit to how far you can go with demand-side management interventions especially if you focus mainly on behaviour change to reduce demand. First, you got to fix the supply because eventually when there is no supply, there will be no demand to manage. I am not sure about this, but my gut feeling is that city authorities hoped the problem will go away. That the weather situation will improve, that somehow the recurrent droughts will stop, and the dams will rise again, and they will not have to invest in alternative supply options that are too expensive. You know it is very human to think and act this way. It is like you are having a life-threatening disease. You know it will kill you if you do nothing, but you also know treatment is expensive and because you have other pressing needs, you are hesitant to seek treatment. So, you hope that the disease will eventually go away but it doesn’t, and it eventually kills you.

I hope the supposed ‘day zero’ does not happen at all because if it does, it will be the very first time in modern history a major city would have to turn off the taps and this would be serious for Cape Town. What is now a water security concern may quickly turn into a healthcare emergency, and maybe an economic or even a social and political problem. That is how interconnected water is. People will get sick as they seek alternative sources that could be contaminated or as they collect, store and handle water poorly in their homes. Health care facilities could be burdened quickly and overwhelmed. Businesses and public institutions will either seek alternative water supply options or they will be forced close and/or relocate. The strength and foundation of this very beautiful city will be shaken at its core. That is the power of water. It is soft and gentle, but it is also very powerful and sometimes harmful.

What is your vision for the water sector in Africa?
I share the sentiments of many renowned water management institutions in the continent and worldwide – the vision for all people to access safe and sufficient quantities of water that will provide for all their needs; sufficient water to support and sustain economic growth; as well as sufficient water to maintain sustainable and resilient ecosystems throughout Africa. I look forward to a continent where shared water resources will continue to act as agents of cooperation potential rather than agent for potential conflict; a continent that will take steps towards effective management of its water resources and is in the position to attract massive investments to develop its enormous water resources potential for energy generation, for food production and to support economic development and poverty eradication. As you could see my vision is ambitious, but I believe it is doable.

You are a returning featured expert speaker at African Utility Week in Cape Town in May – can you give us a preview of what your message will be at the event?
This year, I will be returning with no specific message in mind. But like last year, I will be chairing the Water Track at the African Utility Week. As you probably know the organizers have undertaken some significant measures to elevate and increase the Water Track this year. The sessions will be hosted in the newly built facility at the CTICC, which will provide a fantastic space and unique opportunity for water sector professionals and stakeholders to interact with each other under one roof. I will lead discussions on the current water security situation in Cape Town - what was done and what could have been done to avoid it.

In addition, we will be discussing the broader Africa water landscape - the trends and project pipelines, reducing water losses, state-of-the-art water management strategies, including smart water utilities, etc. I will also chair a round table session on innovative water projects and facilitate discussions on water pricing mechanisms in African countries, as well as a discussion on blended financing models for water infrastructure upgrades. You could see it is a rich and interesting programme and I am eagerly looking forward to participating in the discussions and networking. 

Anything you would like to add?
I would like to go back to the water crisis in Cape Town. What is happening in Cape Town could happen anywhere. As population in cities grow and economic activities increase, the demand for water will continue to increase. If we now factor in climate change and extreme weather events such as prolonged heatwaves and droughts, all of this will put additional pressure on water availability both on the supply and demand side. This is not unique to Cape Town. Utilities worldwide should take the threats posed by climate change much more seriously and focus additional resources on adaptation measures to cope with water security challenges that will be exacerbated by climate change.

The world in which we live is changing. We must be smart and quick with the measures we take to respond to that change. Many of the solutions we need to adopt are already available although additional efforts can be made to achieve a good mix of measures such as mixing emerging technologies and several other management options we already use. For example, we could mix behavioural change measures with innovative technology to manage demand or identify and retrofitting plumbing infrastructure especially in old buildings to reduce domestic and industrial water use. Additional action could be taken to support long-term water resources assessment and steps taken to strengthen planning and management capabilities for alternative water sources in places where existing sources are already threatened. I am hopeful the worse will not happen and Cape Town will be spared from experiencing the challenges and consequences of ‘Day Zero’, an undesirable situation millions of people without access to safe water are already confronted with daily in many parts of the world.