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Interview Details

Interview with András Szöllösi-Nagy

  • Director of the Division of Water and Secreatry of IHP, UNESCO
  • Dated: Thursday, November 20th 2008

  • EWP: Talking about the future… “Is the glass half empty or half full”? Are you optimistic or pessimistic concerning the water future of Europe? Do you think it is appropriate or exaggerated to say that there is a “water emergency” in Europe?

    András Szöllösi-Nagy:
    It depends how you define water emergency. Is it an emergency of the resources that is we are running out of water or it is an emergency that the institutions don’t work properly? I think it’s the latter. But in that regard I’m a servant of the all world as I work for the UN so my knowledge of the European is somehow limited. However, I’m definitely optimistic because Europe has excellent Institutions and the WFD is a very revolutionary thinking. It’s a long term vision so I can imagine that is difficult for national policy makers to turn that into national strategic goals and then into policies… But: it’s there! So if the other regions of the world would be able to have something similar, if there will be an African Water Directive, a South-East Asia Water Directive - not necessarily modelled on the European WFD - that would serve everybody’s proposes. In that regard I am definitely optimistic, I am European and hopefully I will be living here for the rest of my life. The emergency maybe lies in some of the uses and perhaps in not recognizing that there is a tremendous resource under the ground that is not been utilized properly. Very few know that groundwater is THE option, not only for human water supply but also for adaptation strategies, not to forget that 90 % of the unfrozen water is under the ground! There is a tremendous resource there! UNESCO has recently published the map of underground resources, and this is step number one: knowing how much we have, step 2: how it is distributed in space and time, step 3: how does it change in time, what are the dynamics, step 4: having monitoring systems.

    EWP: How likely is that Europeans one day will speak one voice on water? Water is a uniting or dividing force? Do you think that the European Union will achieve a common legislation on water based on shared values or national and private interests will prevail?

    András Szöllösi-Nagy:
    I’m not sure. The moment you have different jurisdictions there will always be different interests - although they all say that water is the most important thing for human life… All conflicts around water are often disguised problems because the root of the problem it is somewhere else. Ethnical, power and also strategic conflicts. If you look at history, the past 4000 years show a very surprising thing: there is only one war ever fought over water, while normally water acts as a uniting rather than a dividing force. the only real war fought for irrigating water was in sumer and then they come to the conclusion that they had to sit down and find a solution There is no win-lose situation if you don’t cooperate because the one who’s winning now is the one who will lose in the long term. The question is how to create a “win-win situation” around water. The concept of IWRM (Integrated Water Resource Management) was born during the UN Conference in Mar del Plata in 1997. Now everybody knows that IWRM is the way out. History has proven that water doesn’t divide, it connects. It has a tremendous social power and a psychological aspect. Water is present in all religious acts, it is rooted in the human psycho.
    I think that Europe will achieve a common legislation, but the point is: what will it be? There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. But there are principles to be used as guidelines.

    EWP: You are the co-chair of the political process for the 5th World Water Forum. What effects do you think the political recommendations resulting from the Forum will have on the policy-makers in Europe?

    András Szöllösi-Nagy: I hope it will have a positive effect. We try to get away from the formal ministerial declaration because we felt that these declarations have lost their credibility. The last one in 2006 was even going backwards and most of the times they only confirm what it is already confirmed. Governments are not willing to make commitments for two reasons:
    First, they have their own fora to make discussions (intergovernmental processes, UN, EU, etc.) where they also make businesses or bilateral talks. But if they are forced by, for instance, an NGO then they feel very uncomfortable. So for Istanbul we tried to reshape the whole system. I asked the governments in a statistical way “if you are fed up with this not credible declarations, does it mean that you don’t want your ministers to be there?” The answer was: “no, we want them to sit all together, but we don’t want to be told what to do; we want to see what the needs are that would help us setting up the agenda back home at the national level”. So for Istanbul it will not be a ministerial declaration but rather a ministerial agenda, a very inclusive interactive process of consultations. Ministers will listen to what the neighbours and the regions are saying, what are the emerging issues. And these discussions will be summed-up in a 20-30 pager document - which is non-binding because is coming from a forum, i.e. a place to exchange ideas. There will be also other political products, such as a declaration of principles, ethical norms, moral standards by Head of States who will be asked hot questions regarding water as a human right, water for the poor, etc. big principles to elaborate on the ministerial agenda. The next player will be the Parliamentarians, who will discuss how to include water in all national legislations. And the lowest but most important level will be the local authorities, the Mayors, who will discuss the Water Urban Consensus. These levels are all parallel but not independent; there is one thing that connects them: adaptation strategies. The future agenda needs real visionary thinking. I hope with these actions will have an impact on decision-makers.

    EWP: Loïc Fauchon from the World Water Council said that the aim of the Forum is to ask all politicians to declare water as a human right in each national Constitution. What are the obstacles to this proposal?

    András Szöllösi-Nagy: Implicitly water is a human right. Looking at the universal declaration of human rights, a bunch of lawyers have made a set of legal arguments drawing the conclusion that access to water IS already a recognized a human right. Perhaps a more pronounced declaration would be necessary; personally I would go for that. Again because of the importance of water, and because water is a very important tool for community building, to build peace instead of those bombastic statements saying that the next war will be fought over water. It is just nonsense.
    This power of water needs to be utilised and underpinned with a very specific declaration that states that access to water is a human right. I would even go a little further, but it’s a personal opinion, that the provision of clean drinking water should also be part of human right, but this will be a burden for governments. They are the providers, they are meant to PROTECT their people. But what about defending their people from dying of hunger? That’s also defence. I think it’s a very sticky political issue. There should be a global understanding of what defence and security mean. Security is not only against the “bad guys” but also against floods, droughts, against lack of water, sanitation problems. If one would be able to convince governments that this security issue is a larger notion, then you could go for it, but you need determined politicians, you need statesmen, that are a little higher then politicians. So I hope to see these changes emerging from the whole political process. I used to ask my students: “if you look at the MDG (Millennium Development Goals), what is it that connects all goals? If you look closely at the political declaration then you see that is water…

    EWP: Many people especially in developing countries see solidarity and shared values as the main drivers to make water a driving force for cooperation rather than for conflict. Supposedly we should have already achieved solidarity in Europe… Is it really true or in the future we will possibly witness conflicts over water resources on the European soil as well? And for which value we should call for?

    András Szöllösi-Nagy: Many people especially in developing countries see solidarity and shared values as the main drivers to make water a driving force for cooperation rather than for conflict. Supposedly we should have already achieved solidarity in Europe… Is it really true or in the future we will possibly witness conflicts over water resources on the European soil as well? And for which value we should call for?
    Minor conflicts can happen, probably between counties and the issue of sharing benefits will be a complex issue to manage. But these conflicts are not conflicts that can’t be managed or handled. People, especially politicians, shouldn’t be so scared about conflicts. Compromises are important. Water is not only about technologies, water is a social and a political issue. This needs a long-term vision that politicians do not have because too often they only look at their short mandates. That’s why there is need for statesmen-hood, statesmanship. That’s what we want to transmit and what serves exactly the purpose of the WWDR (World Water Assessment Report) published every 3 years: it is based on latest technologies and science but there’s not a single equation in the whole volume, but policy recommendations. We know what will happen if the sea keeps rising: 2/3 of the Netherlands will be flooded, so they are starting to build a dam and reinforce their system, which is a long term investment and it’s a political measure!
    This is what we look at and that’s why we are an intergovernmental institution, you don’t need to do science in an intergovernmental Institution: you can do science in a laboratory (except nobody listens to you). Here we try to connect these parties, the science and technical connected to the political, and both can learn. When I was in my 40s I was wondering how much did I change or contribute to the change of difficult situation about water. I had couple of books, lots of smart students, but.. so what? But ever since I’m in UNESCO, now 20 years, this is giving me a fantastic opportunity, maybe less fun because no science- no good students, but because of this dialogue and connection with the politicians it is very satisfactory, in the sense of “yes, you can make a change”. “Yes, we can” (very popular slogan for Obama’s campaign).

    EWP: You are the Director of the Division of Water and Secretary of the International Hydrological Programme (IHP) of UNESCO. What kind of tools does UNESCO use to educate people on water issues?

    András Szöllösi-Nagy: We have the largest education institute on water in the world, a graduate school in Delft “IHE”, which serves entirely the needs of the developing world. We realised that to achieve the MDG in Africa money is not enough: you need people who do the job. You need to have water professionals. Only in Africa you would need to increase the number of water professionals by 300% in 7 years and you need money for that, education programs, teachers, it’s all a chain. Even in Latin America you would need to increase the number by 50 %, so there’s a tremendous need out there. The political declarations alone don’t do the job. If the current trend and tendencies continue going as they do, in sub-Saharan Africa the sanitation-related millennium goals will not be reached before 2080 (65 years later). And that’s a wake up call. Alongside with formal education you have other programs called “awareness raising” and that’s equally important. You can’t put a politician in a PhD course in hydrology, but you can tell the politicians what the big issues are, cause these people are very sensitive to social issues. What we try to do at UNESCO is to have interdisciplinary courses to bring various disciplines together: we have conflict resolutions courses in the Balkans, in the Mekong basin, etc. The most difficult thing here is building up the trust. Trust-building is a huge challenge in a multicultural environment.


    EWP: Talking about awareness campaigns (even if probably you don’t need to be further sensibilised), what makes you change your behavior?  What serves better as incentive to adopt water saving attitudes, the carrot or the stick?

    András Szöllösi-Nagy: The answer is KNOWLEDGE. The four fathers of UNESCO (very smart guys) after the Second World War when everything was destroyed recognized that, and this is the first sentence in UNESCO’s constitution, “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed”. This is the depart of UNESCO which sometimes was very good, sometimes less efficient…I recently heard that the US delegation composition needs to be approved by the president and only three other institutions: the UN general assembly, the international atomic agency and UNESCO. This tells you a lot: the defense lines of peace should be established through cooperation and education, science and culture, and the whole concept of UNESCO is based on that.

    So for me the answer is knowledge. 


    EWP: Many people consider education as the main tool to achieve real changes, but this probably will work for the next generations whom will be taught since the first childhood to respect the environment and our precious resources. But what would you say to the present generations who did not have this special education and see their single efforts as lonely and useless “drops in the ocean”? 

    András Szöllösi-Nagy: Every effort counts, as the current state of affairs in pollution was the result of a collective effort of polluting the world. Recently I was in Soudan and the most striking thing I saw while driving in the desert was the number of flying plastic bags in the air: if you look around you see nothing but plastic bags. It’s horrendous; it gives you the vision of a possible future which is awful. That was the sum of individual actions so the solution will be the sum of individual efforts. Politicians will have to design sustainable policies, not only from the economic point of view -current policies failed totally- and the social one, which so far failed as well, but also taking into account environmental policies which are hopefully coming up. 


    EWP: To conclude, what would you put as first priority on your to-do-list in order to move Europe towards a water friendly culture?  

    András Szöllösi-Nagy: Education. We are trying to present water as education material that connects the same way various disciplines, so the ultimate answer is education from kindergarten. 


    EWP: Thank you for the interview.

  • András Szöllösi-Nagy
  • Director of the Division of Water and Secreatry of IHP, UNESCO
  • András Szöllösi-Nagy, Director of the Division of Water and Secretary of the International Hydrological Programme of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Since 2000 he has also served as Deputy Assistant Director-General of the Natural Sciences Sector. Mr Szöllösi-Nagy was born in 1949 in Budapest, Hungary. He holds a Civil Engineering Diploma (1972) and a Dr. Techn. (Summa cum Laude) in Hydrology and Mathematical Statistics (1975) from the Budapest University of Technology. He holds a Ph.D. in hydrology from the same university. To read more please click here.
Water is a social issue. The solution is, however, education, education, EDUCATION at all levels.

- András Szöllösi-Nagy
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