Director of U.N. initiative discusses warming's impact on water quality, quantity

With developing nations likely to see the greatest impacts of global warming in the coming decades, the effect that warming is having on water sanitation and availability is a concern, particularly in areas that already have water quality issues. During today's OnPoint, Paul Faeth, executive director of the United Nations Foundation's Global Water Challenge, explains how climate change will impact water supplies and sanitation in both developing and industrialized countries over the next 25 years. Faeth explains which technologies have worked best to minimize water sanitation issues and explains how the international community needs to be addressing the link between climate change and water in the coming years.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Paul Faeth, executive director of the United Nations Foundation's Global Water Challenge. Paul, thanks for coming on the show.

Paul Faeth: You're most welcome. Glad to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: Paul, I wanted to first start off by having you give us a little background about what the Global Water Challenge does, what you guys are all about. And also talk specifically about how the issue of climate change is sort of refocusing your mission and the attention that's being paid to this issue.

Paul Faeth: Sure. The Global Water Challenge is a coalition of 21 various organizations that include corporate members, health agency members like the Centers for Disease Control, organizations that do water implementation on the ground like CAIR, and foundation like the United Nations Foundation and the Case Foundation for example. The focus that we have is on people in the world who do not currently have access to safe drinking water and sustainable, safe sanitation, which includes about 1.1 billion people who don't have access to water and about 2.6 billion people who don't have access to save sanitation. Where climate comes into this is because climate, the first thing that it affects of course is not only temperature, but water, the hydrologic cycle. In those areas that are dry it's going to be getting drier and wet areas getting wetter. So you have people who are vulnerable are the first ones who are going to be affected. And for those who don't have water now, they're facing the biggest challenge.

Monica Trauzzi: It's becoming apparent that we sort of have these two different tracks where water and climate change are meeting. One is that we're expecting droughts and floods to get a lot worse.

Paul Faeth: Yes.

Monica Trauzzi: And then, on the flip side, what you just mentioned, sanitation and water scarcity are still issues. So what are your top concerns when it comes to water and climate change?

Paul Faeth: A key concern is that we don't wait 30 years to get the water problem fixed. The Millennium Development Goals call for people getting more water. They're reducing the number of people around the world who don't have safe access. We think that we really need to get moving on that now and solving that problem. So as the climate problem gets worse, as water gets even more scarce, we're not then waiting to kind of figure out, oh, if this is a problem then we need to fix it. We're doing it now, basically moving with the adaptation around water now, rather than waiting to fix it at a later time when it's going to be much, much more difficult.

Monica Trauzzi: What percentage of water scarcity and sanitation issues are a result of climate change and where do you see that number going in maybe the next 25 years?

Paul Faeth: There was just a recent study that actually talked about that. And about 34% of countries now have water scarcity and have water vulnerability. And by 2025, because of climate change, that number will go to about two thirds. So a doubling basically of the number of people who will be vulnerable, in one way or another, to water scarcity because of climate change and that's a huge number of people that we're talking about.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's talk about outreach and solutions. The IPCC recently released its technical paper on climate change ...

Paul Faeth: Yeah.

Monica Trauzzi: ... and water for government review. How are you expecting the final draft to impact the international community when it comes to helping developing nations?

Paul Faeth: Well, the thing that struck me most when I saw that report was they had a chart about the various types of impacts that would be seen, the probability of them happening, and the probability of when they would happen. And water, the report suggested, water impacts are happening now. It wasn't 20 years away. It is happening now and the probability of it happening now was the highest probability of all the various impacts. So my takeaway from that is we should do something about water now and not wait. So, my hope is that governments will see that and begin to move. We do see, in the corporate world, that companies have been looking at these reports, seeing them, seeing what they might mean for their businesses down the road, and a lot of companies are moving to take action on managing their own water better, managing the water in the communities where they work, managing the water quality, etc., and trying to do something about that now. So we're hoping that governments will also pick this up and, as an adaptation strategy, begin to do something about water at home and abroad.

Monica Trauzzi: Can you get into some of the specifics of how the international communities should be approaching this issue, especially as we're heading into a period where we're discussing a post-2012 climate agreement?

Paul Faeth: Yes.

Monica Trauzzi: This is that the forefront of a lot of governments. So what exactly should they be doing?

Paul Faeth: The first thing, I think, is to address the issue of vulnerability and looking at vulnerable populations that are vulnerable now and are likely to be vulnerable in the future. And I think we need to be making investments in allowing those people to get sustainable access to water that will last throughout these kinds of changes and giving them the tools and technologies to help themselves. What's nice about that, if you will, is that that is not a very expensive response. It doesn't cost a lot of money to bring water to someone who doesn't currently have water now. For example, we do work on schools in the developing world. We have done a project with the Gates Foundation to bring water to 1500 schools in the poorest province of Kenya. The average price to bring water to a school with 500 kids is $19,000. So it really isn't that much money and that's a well that can last a long time, that's latrines in addition to education on this thing. You know, working at home is obviously something that we need to do as well. We see the problems with Atlanta and with California, etc. One good piece of news, in terms of legislation at home that's happening, is a couple of years ago the Water for the Poor Act was passed, but it was never funded. Well, this year there is now $300 million both in the House and Senate in the foreign appropriations bill that we hope will be passed. And that money is aimed at the most vulnerable and the poorest in developing countries. And that would be a great response for the U.S. to take, to actually help these people who will be vulnerable in the future.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, and you touched on the fact that that this is not just an issue in developing nations. It's an issue in the U.S. as well.

Paul Faeth: Yes.

Monica Trauzzi: Droughts, we've seen droughts in certain parts of ...

Paul Faeth: Absolutely.

Monica Trauzzi: ... the country. A lot of people have 2 gallon a day habits for water. And as we mentioned before, before this show, people are taking 20 minute showers. So how much of a reality is this going to be in the U.S. and how of a change are people going to have to make to their everyday lifestyles?

Paul Faeth: I think this actually is probably going to be among the most difficult changes for the United States because we have been used to living in an environment where water was a very, very low cost, was always available. You know the shock of Atlanta having 81 days of water, and they just sort of discovered it, and then having to do something about that is -- this is going to be something completely different for the United States and it's going to be something that's going to be a more regular occurrence and something that we're going to have to try and figure out how to deal with. It's happening in many areas of the country. Of course, we're in the middle of a big drought now, but there have been long droughts that have lasted decades in the United States out West well before the current problems which have only lasted seven years. So, this isn't really a new thing, but with climate, as the data suggests, it's going to get -- the dry areas are going to get worse and the wet times are going to get wetter. So we're in for a lot more chaos, if you will, in the climate system and that's going to be difficult for us to adjust to.

Monica Trauzzi: Switching back to the developing nations, what technologies that have been implemented in these countries have worked the best at getting them clean water?

Paul Faeth: The things that have worked the best are actually the simplest technologies that are actually quite cheap. For example, in Africa one of the responses that we've been doing with the schools is just to use a little bit of chlorine bleach. You can use a capful of chlorine bleach in a 20 liter bucket of water and 20 minutes later you have water that's drinkable. And for a family of four enough chlorine for a month would cost $0.30, so it's a penny a day for a family of four. These are not expensive responses. Even things that are going up the ladder to more expensive, Procter & Gamble makes a product called Pure, that if you have water that has a lot of silt in it, you pour it in, stir it around, and in 20 minutes you have clean, pure water to drink. It's actually the same chemicals that are used in our own treatment plants here in United States; they're just in little sachets. And then you go up to things like having to put in bore holes and drill wells to get water that's deep and those things become much more expensive responses. But we do find that people are willing, if they have access to these things, will find the money to help pay for some sure that, you don't have to rely completely on aid and grants and philanthropy to meet this problem. People do pay it, now, very high prices. The average is about 10 times what we pay for water and the quality is considerably worse. So there are responses that can reduce that cost and improve the quality. And people will pay for the access to that kind of water.

Monica Trauzzi: What impact is the water issue having on conflicts in these developing regions? Because we're hearing a lot about how climate change could be affecting conflicts to sort of arise in these areas.

Paul Faeth: Yeah.

Monica Trauzzi: Is the water issue specifically affecting that?

Paul Faeth: That's very hard to tease out. There are some people who say, for example, in the Mid East, in the Gaza, that if we could provide more clean water to those people that a lot of the conflict would go away because part of that is over water. Now, there's also these historical things that have gone on for many years and the water problems are a little bit more recent, so pulling that apart is a difficult question. It's one that many people ask. It's hard to say for sure is it water or is it not? But there have been, for some time historically, conflicts over water and the use of water. We just saw it in Atlanta and with the three states, where the drainage of a dam going out to Florida, there was conflict that we had to resolve right here in the United States. So it does happen, and I think one could expect that it would become more common as water becomes more scarce.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to have to end it right there. Thanks for coming on the show.

Paul Faeth: Glad to be here.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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