Sibylle Vermont about the Flow of Water
On the second day of the Preparatory Seminar, the exploreASEAN team was honoured to welcome Sibylle Vermont from the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (BAFU), who gave a speech about this year's theme of exploreASEAN The Flow of Water. After the presentation the eA Communication team had the opportunity to interview Ms. Vermont.
Sibylle Vermont is a biologist, specialized in botany, zoology and legal studies. Since 1991 she is working in the International Affairs Division of the Swiss Federal Office for the environment as the Deputy Head of Section Global Affairs. Moreover, she is representing Switzerland as a senior negotiator in UN meetings on forests, wetlands, water and high seas.
Thank you so much, Mrs. Vermont, for taking part in this interview. In your presentation you talked about the importance of prioritizing water quality over quantity. Could you elaborate a bit more on this?
Mrs. Vermont: Yes, the quantity is an issue, a topic that has been discussed a lot. People are more worried about the quantity than the quality of water. And the quality does not go for say. If you have a lot of water, which is of very bad quality, you cannot drink it. If it is not drinkable, you need to clean it, which comes with huge efforts, and a lot of energy. And we talk about energy a lot nowadays. People forget that water is also about energy, pumping water from anywhere is costing us a lot of energy. Additionally, you have to prepare the water. The water I drink in Lausanne, for example, is prepared from lake water. It needs to go through various filters. That requires energy. Moreover, energy is needed to clean the used water before it is released back into the lake.
What are the biggest challenges for our generation concerning sustainable water usage in the future?
Mrs. Vermont: I think what you need to do is very much protect better, have a precautionary principle that is to be very careful what you engage in, what kind of products you are using, what kind of process you are creating. I believe you need to think of whatever you are going to do by bearing in mind the environmental consequences. Thus, try to have the least impact. Sometimes people think “Oh, we can do things now and then we will repair them later”. Though, repair is very, very costly. If we therefore can prevent things to happen, we should do it. In the future you will have to deal with water, which is of lesser quality. But you will have to work also with less energy at some stage or find new alternative energy. Thus, you will have to be very inventive. However, technology cannot save us. I think prevention can.
This leads us to what you have mentioned in your presentation about the Sustainable Development Goals. Do you think access to clean water for all is probable in the foreseeable future?
Mrs. Vermont: Yes. And we do have the means, but we are not doing the right thing as of today. We have the laws. We know what to do. But we do not take water seriously enough. And without water, you cannot live. Everybody needs water. I think that we need to put the proper amount of money into water, for people to start valuing water more than they do today. It is usually not in Western Europe or in the Developed World where we invest high amounts of money on water. It is in other countries, like people in slums, who have also a much lower water quality than we do. But we have to do a much better job in the future because we have all the tools.
I was actually looking at what kind of things can we write in the Ministerial Declaration on Water? We have written everything. It's all there. You just need to go to Agenda 21, Chapter 18. You will find that anything we have written in the ministerial creation was already there in 1992. So, what is it we cannot implement?
Concerning the Asian countries. What is your opinion on their sustainable water management and how can Asian countries learn from Switzerland or vice versa?
Mrs. Vermont: I think what Asian countries can learn from Switzerland is to preserve their ecosystems because water originates there. I think they are on the right track because they have set up the Mekong River Commission. Thus, they have the tools. However, it is very difficult in places where you develop very quickly. Of course, you need to have sustainable development and that is a major challenge to countries developing so quickly. We develop much slower in Europe than Asia is developing now. So, there are a lot of challenges for the government that one needs to understand. People need to live. They need to work, to educate themselves, to build their infrastructure. I think as long as you go forward and you improve your system, you are progressing in the right way. The fact that the river commission makes it possible for countries also to share information, to make guidelines together, shows that they can really help each other to improve some of the situations and taking preventive measures together. It is difficult. It is very challenging. But for all of us, it is. It is not just a question for the Mekong Basin. Everywhere we have issues. Also, another issue is the political will. But I think that is where the public is very powerful nowadays. This is where young people are moving the planet now, saying “we do not want this anymore”. We want to have a different world. You are the voters of today and tomorrow and you move things. You have the power to do it.
As a biologist you have a profound understanding of the natural damages and also the loss of habitats of many species due to unsustainable water management. Can it get difficult to keep a dialogue in international U.N. meetings with members who mainly have a legal or political background?
Mrs. Vermont: No, actually, you do some capacity building by explaining them what you think. I did it once in a meeting where I had young diplomats who had a legal background but not a biological background. I managed it by using facts. In fact, what you need to do as a negotiator, or as a biologist, is to explain in simple words what the consequences could be of such an action or why you want to protect that specific forest. Also, what kind of actions are needed. Then try to break it down very simply. I have been known to be a negotiator to bring things to the ground, to say “OK, if we are going to do that, what kind of impact is it going to have on the ground?”. This is why we are here. But you need to adapt to people that are not scientists and explain it in simple words to them. After all, I think for me personally, it was an advantage to be a scientist with a legal background.
We have heard that during your career you were able to learn a lot about different countries and their opinion on water sustainability. Internationally speaking, do you think that we all pursue the same goals on the globe?
Mrs. Vermont: Yes, we do. I mean, the water community is a community sometimes that is maybe talking to itself a bit too much, but at least we do talk. We have more than 33 organizations dealing with water. We are now in a consortium which is called U.N., in which we work and coordinate together. So, we are actually a good team. We understand each other. We have been having quite a few conferences together. I would say it is a community which understands the issue, but we would need more conferences to discuss things with other sectors as well. In order to to give them a better understanding of the problem like for example all those chemicals that enter the water that we need to clean before we actually send any drinking water into the pipes. In Switzerland, there was an inquiry saying that 8 out of 10 products contain allergenic substances or toxic substances, especially in shower gels. So how is it possible for those products to enter the market and this is probably an issue we need to think more carefully about. There are a lot of things that we agree on, but we need to reach outside the water box as well. We are trying quite a bit, but we are still in the beginning.