Ray Suarez (RS): Let’s start with a quick overview. If you had to pick out two or three major challenges the world is dealing with in getting enough fresh water, what would they be?
Winston Yu (WY): The water crisis that we hear a lot about is only partly a crisis of scarcity. Water plays a constructive role in our society, as it’s required for agriculture. Water is needed for energy production, ecosystems and of course for humans. But on the other hand, water also plays a destructive role. You mention floods and droughts. We’ve seen worldwide the economic consequences that floods routinely play on economies. The question is how do we maximize the constructive role and how we minimize the destructive role.
RS: People are pouring into cities all over the world. Places that were tiny villages 50 years ago are now massive cities that rival the size of the biggest cities in the wealthy world. You’ve got those places straining under the weight of all these new populations and people in rural areas still struggling to have reliable water supplies.
WY: As the population continues to increase, it’s safe to say that in the future the human population will demand more services. The human population will demand more food. The human population will demand more energy. All of these things will impact the water balance. We only have a finite amount of water on the planet so the real question to me is how do we best use it and how do we best distribute it. How do we best put it to its highest value uses.
RS: When you look at rivers like the Jordan or the Euphrates or the Mekong that flow through numerous countries and each country is dipping in and taking out what it thinks of as its fair share, how you make international compacts that don’t leave the last country in the chain with a little trickle coming through? How you dole out a resource that is shared by many countries?
WY: That's a great question and that question is probably as old as human civilization itself. Rivers have always been contentious. If you think about the difficulties we have intrastate in managing water – look at the United States, look at India, how different states are often competing – interstate management becomes all the more difficult. A good example around the world where rivers have actually brought countries together is the Senegal River in West Africa. Three countries came together to build infrastructure for the betterment of all three countries. Look at treaties between the United States and Canada and how that has benefited both countrie. Water in some ways goes above politics and political rhetoric that happens.
RS: What are some things that we can do quickly and cheaply to do a lot of good for a lot of people if we had the organization and the will? What’s waiting in the wings that we just haven’t been able to pull off yet?
WY: When I think about what is needed in the water sector I usually break it down to investments, information and institutions. I put a lot of importance on the information aspect because you can’t manage anything if you don’t have information. You can’t operate your systems without information. The information base is often the weakest. I can go into some of the most remote places in India and my farmer can tell me the latest cricket scores between India and Pakistan but can’t tell me when it’s going to rain. I think there’s huge opportunities to better link information technologies to people to help them – especially in the agricultural sectors – to help them plan their cropping and help them plan their own investments. Similarly in the utility business, there are huge opportunities through IT to have feedback responses between consumers and providers.
The Global Water Challenge / Produced by Joseph Braude, Linda Gradstein, Constanze Letsch, Jim Luce, Michael Rhee, and A.C. Valdez / Additional production help was provided by Flawn Williams / Web producer: Javier Barrera / Photography: IRIN Photos, Jonathan Kalan, Jim Luce, Adam Reeder, and Michael Rhee.
Host: Ray Suarez / Length: 51 minutes / Airdate: June 2012