Sustainable management of water resources and access to safe water and sanitation are essential for unlocking economic growth and productivity, and provide significant leverage for existing investments in health and education. The United Nations General Assembly also advocates for this through its Sustainable Development Goal number 6, which states “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”
Here in Ethiopia, the Embassy of the Netherlands has been pivotal in the front of sustainable management of water resources with its various development cooperation strategies on water and connected sustainable development. Within the embassy, Jelmer van Veen – First Secretary Water, has been building the portfolio of projects for water with a strong focus on Integrated Water Resource Management. Jelmer who has a Bachelors and Masters in Science in International Land and Water management from Wageningen University sees it as his key task to bring coherence and focus to the Dutch water-related activities in Ethiopia and aims to advance Integrated Water Resource Management in Ethiopia and support Dutch expertise in the WASH sector as well. Jelmer who also holds a B.A in Music (Classical piano) in his free time is a pianist for several jazz ensembles in Addis. Capital sat down with the Jelmer, for insights on the water resource management scene in Ethiopia. Excerpts;
Capital: What does it take to maintain and ensure clean rivers and cities at large?
Jelmer van Veen: Ensuring clean rivers in the city is not an easy task and cannot be achieved by one organization or individual alone. At first glance it can seem like a daunting and completely overwhelming task. There is only one way to face this challenge: head on, while embracing the complexity of the issue and with a radically inclusive mindset. Each stakeholder is indispensable. NGOs, government, research institutions, industry, communities, everyone has a role to play. In the Netherlands we have developed a so-called Dutch Diamond approach, where each of the corners of the diamond represent a different group of stakeholders that are all relying on each other and benefiting from the joint approach. Each member has their own interests but also brings their own expertise to the table. It can be a tedious process, but there is no other way, there are no short cuts. I think a priority should be to raise awareness at this time and to promote the use of waste water treatments for industry. We consider rivers to be the lifelines of our cities.
Capital: Apart from co-organizing this river cleaning campaign, could you please elaborate on how the Netherlands is supporting Ethiopia in addressing water quality issues?
Jelmer van Veen: The Netherlands is known internationally for its advanced water management and works together with partners worldwide in situations where there’s either too much, too little or too dirty water. Very recently, for example, the Embassy of the Kingdom of The Netherlands initiated the IWRM 4 WASH project that aims to protect the drinking water supply for the city of Addis Ababa in collaboration with Vitens Evides International, The Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority and the Water Bureau of Oromia. We have previously supported the establishment of some water quality testing laboratories, and are currently working with the Water and Land Resource Centre of Addis Ababa University in a watershed near Lake Tana where we execute scientific monitoring of ground and surface water quality to address a range of biodiversity and development challenges.
Capital: How can urban areas tackle the growing need for water?
Jelmer van Veen: We have to look at the whole system, from source to tap and back. At the source, acting with a sound understanding of groundwater dynamics, and maintenance for the reservoirs will increase the robustness of the system as a whole. Water conservation measures can increase the overall availability of water at the source. Then the efficiency of the conveyance system has to be improved as well to reduce water losses in leaking pipes. The water usage has to be looked at critically as well.
Wasteful use should be discouraged by intelligent tariffing systems that impose higher charges on excessive use to increase overall efficiency. Adopting sanitation systems that place minimal demands on water supply is another option that can make a big difference. Intelligent choices between allocations of water from inefficient, low-value usage to higher-value, higher-efficiency uses will have to be made as well. It requires political choices and good enforcement. And finally the treatment of our wastewater has to be facilitated as well, since wastewater might sounds like the end of our story, but it is the beginning of the story for downstream users.
Capital: Water management in urban areas is complicated, particularly in big cities in developing countries. Why is that so?
Jelmer van Veen: Water management is complicated all over the world, but what people tend to forget is that water management is less about managing water than it is about managing people. Water is often considered as a public good. Polluting it can be beneficial for one individual, while the burden is spread over a larger group of people and the environment. In Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, it is beautifully explained that if one individual will benefit from using a common resource at the expense of the group it will lead to a rapid deterioration of the common good. When there is unrestricted access, people act according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion and deterioration of the resource through their own uncoordinated action.
We have to disincentivize this kind of free-rider behavior by establishing and enforcing regulations and social incentives that reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. These incentives are often not in place, so that people don’t feel the negative consequence of their own action.
Capital: Can you give us an example of where learning impacts the recycling process and access to quality and quantity of water?
Jelmer van Veen: Learning about the issues, getting aware of them is the first step towards a solution. There are still quite some people that don’t think that throwing your waste in the river is a problem. It can even feel like a solution to them. People who are aware of this can start to get united with initiatives that aim to prevent pollution.
Capital: What is the current thinking on the sustainable management of water resources?
Jelmer van Ve en: I think that more and more people start acknowledging that water management should not be rigid. What works today might not work in 5 years. Adaptive water management is a concept that embraces the versatility of issues that put pressure on the resource. It acknowledges that certain flexibility in your management approach is needed to be able to adequately address the challenges of the future. In this rapidly changing world, where competing claims on water are already causing serious conflicts, we have to be willing to adapt our approach to accommodate for a changing reality. Sometimes we also have to accept that in certain situations, we have to accept imperfections in the system since we can’t make everybody happy.
Capital: What are the challenges in managing water resources in an integrated fashion?
Jelmer van Veen: Cleaning up a river, as we did on Saturday the 25th of September, in celebration of both World Clean- Up day and World Rivers Day, not only supports our ambition for a cleaner environment, but also supports our vision to recognize all different Values of Water. One of the challenges in managing water in an integrated fashion is that it means something different to everybody. We need to recognize the different Values of Water. Not only economic and environmental values, but you can think of cultural values and religious values as well for example. Cleaning it, makes sense financially, because of the economic value of the river for the city. There are obvious benefits like reduced environmental damage and lower health expenditure but there are unexpected financial benefits too: In the Netherlands we found out that property that is located close to a river (once it is clean) will sometimes double in value if the environment becomes more attractive. Those hidden benefits should be accounted for too! But cleaning the river might for example also restore a religious experience that people might have in relation to the river, or it might bring back the opportunity to practice certain cultural traditions. Al these different values of water have to be recognized.
Capital: How can Ethiopia maximize benefits of Rivers Abay, Awash, and other rivers it has?
Jelmer van Veen: Ethiopia has a large untapped potential in developing its water resources. I think that by recognizing the different values that these rivers have and represent to different people, Ethiopia can make large strides towards maximizing the benefits of the rivers it has and share those benefits equitably.
Capital: What contribution can the private sector make to sustainable water management?
Jelmer van Veen: Some private sector parties have already shown a great commitment. I know of some companies that do more than the government requires from them. It basically revolves around what message you want your brand to convey. Business that pollutes the environment should become a thing of the past. Nowadays some private sector parties are shying away from publicity because they know what they’re doing is not right. We need more transparency to expose these issues and start a Constructive dialogue.
Capital: What are the next generation jobs in water and sanitation?
Jelmer van Veen: Data collection and information management will become key in the water sector in Ethiopia. We can only manage what we can measure, so we have to invest in data collection for better water management. Automatization and smart IT solutions can expedite data management and help to feed decision support tools for smart water management. I think those are the jobs that will turn out to be very important in the coming few years.