Interview with Catarina de Albuquerque 27/02/2023
Chief Executive Officer, UN-hosted Sanitation and Water for All global partnership
Tobias Schmitz: For those people who do not work in the water, sanitation or hygiene (WASH) sector, there may not be a strong awareness of the importance of safely managed water, sanitation and hygiene for our health, for social justice, for economic development and for all life on the planet. How can we do a better job of communicating the importance of WASH to other sectors and professions?
Catarina de Albuquerque: I think there are several issues with water and sanitation. First, it’s something that a lot of people don’t discuss or prioritise – like talking about the air that we breathe. There is obviously a taboo around talking about sanitation. And when it comes to water, most of the infrastructure is under the ground and is invisible to the eye. In the Global North, people can just turn on their taps and access to water is a given. People in the Global South who are “better off” have another solution: they buy bottled water.
For those who have to walk long distances to fetch water, there is a fatalist vision of this problem, because this is the way it has always been. Additionally, the other issue is that there is a ’plan B,’ so to speak, for when you don’t have access to water and sanitation. For example, if you don’t have a latrine, you can defecate behind a bush. If you don’t have safe water, you boil it. Even if this has long term effects on your health, you don’t feel it right away, so it masks the lack of adequate access.
So what’s the solution? First, we need to talk about these issues and their connections to achieving human rights. I also believe we need to tell more stories so that the public can understand the plight of those who lack access: for example, the girls who cannot go to school or the women who cannot work. It is these connections that resonate with people who are not working in our sector. Stories have more power to attract people than data (although data, of course, is very important too). For example, the UN-hosted Sanitation and Water for All global partnership (SWA) recently launched a campaign called ‘Justice Begins Here’ which demonstrates that water and sanitation are preconditions for social justice. This campaign puts a human face on these rights.
Tobias Schmitz: We are fast approaching the first UN Conference uniquely dedicated to water in 46 years. Going into the conference, what are your thoughts currently about your message to member states, water sector organisations, financial institutions about how universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene can be achieved?
Catarina de Albuquerque: One of the main things we need to do in the run up to the Conference, is to think about how we follow up and stay accountable. Otherwise, on 25 March, everything will be forgotten, and then by the following Monday, we will go back to business as usual as if the meeting never happened. This is detrimental to the sector. We know that there is a Water Action Agenda, we know that stakeholders are being encouraged to make commitments. I don’t believe that reconvening under the UN Political Forum every summer will make sure that there is appropriate follow up. However, there are already mechanisms in place, including SWA’s Mutual Accountability Mechanism that can help us follow up.
Second, political commitment and leadership are key. We need commitments at the highest level – such as through Presidential Compacts and other initiatives – in order to prioritise water in all UN Member States.
And finally, human rights are a good indicator to assess whether we are doing things correctly or if we are forgetting about certain people we are supposed to serve. Are we involving those who have been most excluded? Are we allowing for participation? Do we have accountability mechanisms in place?
Tobias Schmitz: One of the things that comes to mind is that the FAO for instance has been calling for National Water Roadmaps in the context of the UN Water Conference, and I believe that towards the end of General Comment no. 15 on the human right to water, there is also mention of such road maps. So apart from political will, I suppose you also need a roadmap for the implementation of these objectives?
Catarina de Albuquerque: One of the elements of an ‘enabling environment’ to achieve our water, sanitation and hygiene goals, is to have a legislative, regulatory and policy framework. This includes having a resourced strategy or plan for the sector in place. Additionally, countries need to have sufficient institutional capacity. We need leadership to make this happen.
Tobias Schmitz: Precisely, now I believe that Sanitation and Water for All has been very active recently in providing clarity for parliamentarians about anchoring the rights to water and sanitation into law and national policy, about promoting a Mutual Accountability Mechanism for joint delivery on SDG 6 ambitions, and about delivering social justice for those who still do not have access to safely managed services. Can you guide us on how political leaders, organisations and individuals can best work with SWA to anchor the HRWS, ensure accountability and ensure that no-one is left behind?
Catarina de Albuquerque: Obviously we know that parliaments can and should play a crucial role because they pass legislation, they revise and approve budgets, and they hold the government to account. We started receiving requests from partners at the country level saying: we need guidance for parliamentarians.
SWA has already produced a handbook for ministers of finance on water and sanitation which has helped us to communicate outside the water sector. That’s why we decided to do one for parliamentarians. In terms of accountability, we are working with our partners - including almost 90 UN Member States - through SWA’s Mutual Accountability Mechanism, which is at the disposal of the Water Action Agenda. If UN Member States and other stakeholders want to table their commitments under our mechanism, we will do the follow up.
Tobias Schmitz: In terms of a reality check on progress, current assessments of progress on SDG 6 show that we collectively need to quadruple our efforts if goal 6 is to be achieved by 2030. This will require extra effort also from national water and sanitation related ministries, from financial institutions, from the private sector, and from Non-Governmental Organisations. Already, some organisations such as the Asian Development Bank are coming forward with strong commitments. Where are the key financial obstacles currently to accelerating progress and how can they be removed?
Catarina de Albuquerque: Look, we shouldn’t only talk about finance because we might give the impression that problems can be solved by dumping money on a country. We know that there is no absorption capacity, which is why discussions about money must go hand in hand with discussions about laws, institutions, regulations, national plans, etc. For example, we are working with the World Bank to organize a closed meeting for Ministers from Southern and Eastern Africa. The World Bank is willing to double the investments in the region, but this alone is not enough to make the sector function. We also need to have a discussion about political leadership. Our partner, the Asian Development Bank, is having the same conversations in their region. Without an ‘enabling environment,’ our partners know we will not be able to attract the money, use the money, and have the impact that we are looking for.
Tobias Schmitz: So, it is not so much about the money as the effectiveness of those investments and the capacity to put them to good effect. Another topic: our world is becoming more and more complex, and there are some risks outside the WASH sector that are affecting it. In its 2023 Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum listed ten global risks such as the cost of living, extreme weather and natural disasters, geoeconomic confrontation, failure to mitigate climate change, social polarisation, etc., which are all related to water. How can we best protect essential WASH services against these global risks?
Catarina de Albuquerque: If we think of natural disasters, climate and conflict, an important element is to make sure that we have the systems in place to respond adequately to all of these risks. This ensures that we are more resilient when they take place. For example, when we plan water allocation in a water scarce region or country such as southern Europe, Australia or the United States, shouldn’t we consider the decreasing availability of water before giving out licenses for types of agriculture that require huge amounts of water? We need a sector plan that takes these risks into account. At SWA, we bring together water and climate communities to incorporate water planning into climate commitments (Nationally Determined Contributions or National Adaptation Plans) and vice versa.