Special Rapporteur on the human rights to clean drinking water and sanitation of the United Nations, Goldman Prize for the Environment 2003.
Good afternoon Dr. Arrojo, thank you very much for your time and willingness to collaborate with the magazine, if I may I would like to share with you an introduction to our work; AGENCIA magazine seeks to bring information in an accessible way to Mexican society to make them participate in making decisions about their living space and guarantee their well-being. In order for them to be able to value interdisciplinary work, teams can be formed to collaborate to achieve the objectives of sustainable development and thus obtain direct and indirect benefits in the improvement of their quality of life.
Dr Arrojo from the point of view, information and experience that you have been able to have in this last year as special rapporteur of the United Nations, how do you see the world in the next 5 or 10 years? New challenges that we will have to face and demands to meet in the world and according to your experience in Latin America?
Well I think the question more than knowing what will happen.... Because there is never determinism (there never has been) and what happens will depend on how we act to a large extent (Of course there are external elements that to some extent do not depend on us) but I prefer to think that what happens in the future depends largely on what we humans do collectively, what we can discuss, what we can do... I understand and we must, is to imagine and foresee what could happen with what we do?
I think what the pandemic is showing us (and not just rationally but emotionally) is our individual and collective vulnerability. In that context from which we feel vulnerable regardless of our nationality and level of wealth, no one is left out of risk in phenomena of global impact. It is true that normally those who suffer the most are the poor, because they always receive the most disproportionate impacts, but neither the richest nor the most powerful are left out of the risk.
This risk gives us the possibility of intellectual and emotional understanding of the validity of that slogan that has pursued human rights and the policies of the United Nations of “Live with no one behind”. This is going from being a slogan of goodwill with little involvement of what reality is, to being an inescapable reality, that is; if with the pandemic we are not able to vaccinate everyone, we all know that new variants of the virus will come and neither those who we are vaccinated 3 or 20 times we will continue to be vulnerable.
I believe that what we can see as a disgrace (because it is), it is also a lesson in the sense that, in these global crises, where borders do not stop viruses or climate change, we only have two options, or we take strategies with collective responsibilities of a global type to leave no one behind, or the future will be very dark. Obviously, if we persevere in the dynamics of neoliberal approaches where everything is resolved based on the capabilities that each one can hold, economic capabilities, capabilities of military power and political power, and we intend to shield the security of the future and the well-being of those who are already in a situation of power, the future is dark for all of us. The most terrible scenarios of sustainability, of public health bankruptcy, and uninhabitability conditions of the planet that would speak of a change to a dark era and of historical regression for humanity.
If, on the other hand, we are able to react and learn the lessons that this virus mercilessly gives us, we can and must aspire that this better world that I was talking about that is the topic of conversation in social forums is not only possible, but it has to be possible because it is necessary.
We can then speak of the pandemic as a watershed, where there is a before and after in the history of humanity?
I think that the pandemic is not the only reference of that watershed, it is not the only indicator of what we could call for a change of era, because we already had climate change underway before the pandemic and a series of symptoms of global crises, so I think the most forceful element of the pandemic is that it operates immediately, abrupt, and inevitable on everyone. Climate change is hitting local levels in one place and another, catastrophes announcing what is going to happen to everyone, but it is not continuous in the sense that a terrible flood occurs in one place and over time occurs elsewhere and there is always that perception that it is a not such an inevitable risk. However, the pandemic has that characteristic of hitting simultaneously in the short term and inexorably demonstrating that vulnerability that characterizes us as human species.
Dr. Arrojo have you talked about alternatives to change the neoliberal model? Any alternative to this inevitable panorama?
Obviously it is not simply a matter of will, the neoliberal model, as a phase of the development of capitalism has been installed because it has succeeded (let's call it that), enough to mediate the pain and bankruptcies that it has generated. Suddenly we find, for example, if we contrast how it was reacted to (as an effect on the other hand) to the financing of life, the omnivorous power of financial capital, not even of productive enterprises, we had in the year 2008 an economic cataclysm; bursting the real estate bubble, bursting a series of other bubbles generated from that dynamic of financing life and the reaction that occurred, well it was what it was... that of taking all public capacities and putting them at the service of those who had generated the crisis itself, then the famous strategies of the so-called austerity are improvised and launched, a false one because austerity is a virtue that consists on avoiding superfluous expenses but not in collapsing the basic needs of the people, but beyond what it was, at that time that model was imposed, that model on this occasion has not been tried, the pandemic arrived and there has been no discussion about who could react to such a public health cataclysm. Public health services have reached as far as they could but no one has looked the other way, no one has looked into what private hospitals could do and they were not expected to do anything, so everyone has looked at the public infrastructure that was for better or worse endowed (in most cases very poorly) but it has been the only one that has given a reaction, and the governments instead of saying; there are no public funds because we have destined those to save the banks, because they had to take the funds from wherever they were available to face the pandemic and now for the post-pandemic they are again proposing the destination of important public funds to countries that already have them.
Europe creates a socio-economic investment plan on the basis of public funds, USA too, not to mention Australia and Canada, the World Bank, the United Nations speaks of the need for a huge public effort to re-launch a new era with the Green New Deal taking advantage of the effect of the pandemic to face the climate crisis, including private capital and everyone does what they can and what they want but in a forced way, and knowing that it probably is not going to work. It has been necessary to respond with the only thing that was available even if it was in the partially satisfactory. Why wasn't austerity a reaction? Indicating that whoever is sick should pay for their treatment by going to a private hospital, it didn't make any sense because the neoliberal model was not being able to give any solution.
I am not saying that there is another model that is giving support, I am saying that the model that has been used and the dynamics that have been prepared for, everyone should solve their problem any way they could, and the market should also solve its problems. On this occasion there has been no debate because it was evident that this model could not even face the problem, much less to solve it.
We don't have the model yet. It is true, we don't know how to manage public health, true as well, but what was before in this context? A good, marginal thought of pure goodwill indicating that we have to empower the world health organization, or we have to empower a global governance of public health that allows universalization of vaccines and guarantee adequate means for the most vulnerable and unprotected, this has ceased to be the case, now it is a global outcry, it has ceased to be an idea of goodwill and everyone knows that this is not solved by the market, they know that this is solved by a global democratic governance, so ... Do we have the model? -No. Do we have the need? Yes. Do we have the evidence? Yes.
Now we need to organize the forces, the capabilities and the political will so that these needs have an adequate response, that is my opinion.
We are certainly talking about a rather complex context, where we have not finished focusing on the reactions but not the causes (if we limit ourselves to see it in a reductionist way).
This brings up a context that gives me a preamble to move on to the next question. The idea that cities or built space and architecture are always a reflection of the societies that inhabit them speaks to us about a new fabric and new demands to be met by domestic architecture. So, what will be the new considerations, challenges and opportunities to overcome for public housing in Latin America in this new post-pandemic context?
If we leave the current models (neoliberal and that each person should fix the problem any way they can) the perspective of the models of life is dark, of progressive bankruptcy, of collapse of the rural environment (also accelerated) not only by the conditions of public health, the pandemic and lack of sanitary resources, but by the progressive climate bankruptcy, prolonged critical droughts in some places and flooding in others.
All this will further harden the conditions of habitability and in some cases already uninhabitability which some arid or semi-arid territories have. Difficult to occupy and what is being predicted are phenomena of massive human migrations to urban centers caused by climatic conditions, this perspective offers a scenario of material unviability as unsustainable.
It is hardly arguable that cities of tens of millions of inhabitants in the situations of deep inequality in which people live are frameworks worthy of habitability, frameworks that are difficult to link in a sustainable relationship with the natural environment that supports our lives.
I think that if you insist on that viewpoint destiny is (as I have already said) very dark, it does not mean that nothing can be done, obviously a part of the future that is coming, will undoubtedly be like this so you have to be prepared. How big will that be? Will it be a dominant, inevitable, inexorable or a timber-yielding part? Will it be like climate change, how far can we go? Will It be increases in planetary temperature of 2, 3 or 4 degrees? depending on where we get to that will probably be uninhabitable.
That can happen, we can see cities of this type in a few periods of time with a situation of social inequality and vulnerability to pandemics and lack of services, with a lack of capacities to withstand those waves of climate migrations or migrations for other reasons, because when the issue gets ugly, the possibilities of war conflicts skyrocket, because of competition for resources or for a thousand other reasons, what I mean is, in a context of abundance there are many solutions, in a context of scarcity and competition the possibility of war conflicts, migrations and refugees for reasons of political instability will cause problems that will overlap each other.
I believe that these perspectives are hard and difficult, we will have to prepare and adapt what we can with what we have, so that these migrations can be received in certain urban spaces minimizing the risks. To adapt to the best possible extent to generate living spaces where the most basic human rights are respected. I see this hard and difficult; I think that this adaptation or those policies should be clarified as soon as possible. As Michelle Bachelet said "we must prepare plans for an overrun" (and not necessarily in the largest cities) settlements as close as possible to the traditions, culture and living conditions of the people who move in, displace a town that occupies an area of which I already spoke about towards the periphery of a big city is the best guarantee of maladjustment and probably of bankruptcy of the different city fabrics, the culture and the people’s capacities for resilience.
Therefore, I believe that adaptation policies should be made in rural areas, where these policies are viable (which is in most territories) to give people alternatives of habitability; in most of the territories there are adaptation plans that can be carried out, these are absolutely fundamental, that the people in their own territory perceive prospects of dignified habitability for the immediate, medium and long term future.
As this will only be successful in a percentage, there will also be an inexorable dynamic that will tend to take refuge in the spaces of large cities; it will also be necessary to take measures to adapt to these migrations and combine them.
It seems to me that currently there are resources and technological possibilities to make rural environments very livable, but we must change the policies, for example, from food production to food sovereignty not at the national level, but of the communities of the people within their own territory, it is not about growing wheat in Australia to take it to South Africa, you have to manufacture the food where people live, there are capabilities and possibilities but then the market would not be the main force that directs where and how food is produced, the market will be in there but it will not be the rector.
Another example is communications, we have transport and communication capacity that provide any rural environment with good communication with intermediate centers or with rural centers of greater entity and services at different scales, this is not a discovery is a reality, the difference is that they must be articulated properly in the territories where presently there is nothing or very little. The information that is key, we have satellite internet that is no longer a matter of the rich, it is within reach of whoever needs it, with communication and information comes everything else such as education etc.
Energy; for a while we thought that energy had to be produced in large energy centers such as nuclear power plants, central plants, huge networks over long distances that made huge infrastructures, today with wind or solar energy (which is a fundamental alternative for the immediate, medium and long term future) we can observe that these large centers are unnecessary, the energy sovereignty of communities and cities was unthinkable a short time ago.
Based on this it is possible to think and design decentralized models of housing, habitability, and good living (it is not necessary to think that you will have to live in conditions of infra-quality of life). I believe that these capacities exist if they are taken as a commanding position and referential for the models of public policies and territorial planning strategies, urban planning, hydrological planning etc. Either they are taken as a central reference, or they are set aside, and the future market forces will be allowed to design spaces of poverty, misery, and migration, as they want and as they can. I say this again, if we take the second option, the future is dark, if we take the first option we have many possibilities, many technological, social and cultural capacities to make a more balanced and therefore sustainable development.
Precisely this lack of strategy reminded me of what at the time motivated me in professionally to study these alternatives that are being presented in an emerging way to generate self-produced and self-built housing, in that research of which I feel very honored that you guided me and I’m forever thankful.
Dr. Arrojo, can we say that these are the strategies at the macro level of international scope, but don’t we need at a certain point to move them to the local, to the micro level? We need to take into account the people who design these spaces within the houses; they have a fundamental point of action, I am talking about construction professionals, housing developers, builders, architects, engineers and urban planners.
What are the skills that these professionals must acquire and what are the commitments they must fulfill within this new complex context?
Well, I am not the one who can determine this, I think that in that subject you have more capacity and more knowledge to be able to have an opinion, but, I get the impression that, as a general rule for professionals and non-professionals, the challenge of sustainability of life (and when I say sustainability I do not speak of minimums but the sustainability of good living) will depend a lot on two large dimensions: the first, how we relate to the living environment and the second how we do not relate to eachother; these are the two issues in which we have to set references that allow us to think and allow us to articulate a future of good living.
And that has to do with what you mentioned, how do you design the basic elements of housing? On a personal or family level in relation to the homes of others, in relation to the urbanism we do, in relation to the way in which we provide ourselves with livelihoods such as adequate food or access to clean water and sanitation services, I believe that housing synthesizes to a large extent (in the micro sphere) all these needs of what a dignified life requires.
Also think about the urban environment, let's call it more massive or competitive and less prone to community protection and areas of less intensive urbanism or rural order, where that capacity for community protection also gives you more possibilities. I am thinking of the most vulnerable and impoverished people; logically because the one who has many resources seek those means in any territory whether rural, urban or anywhere because they have the means to provide themselves with everything they need at least on a material level.
For me that means that an architecture adapted to the territory and the community is fundamental. It seems impossible, for example, if I talk about water and sanitation, to have these basic services for the 2.2 billion people who do not currently have access to water without recovering the good condition of the rivers and aquifers first on which ecosystems and those people depend on a daily basis. It is as basic as it is elementary!
If we are not able to recover the good physical condition of the environment on which we vitally depend on a daily basis (in this particular case water) it will be impossible! It is not feasible to say; we have the technological means to give you. They need to have at home a reverse osmosis filtering system that removes the heavy metals from the river from which it is supplied and it is contaminated, we can talk about this because it is a fact that this technology exists, but at the same time it is not reality because there are no economic means to do it, then the only solution is to prevent that river from being contaminated and on that basis you can build a dignified life in the future, otherwise it is impossible.
So at the architecture level it is the same, but you know that better than me, to know in each territory what materials are available, and ask yourself what are the traditions of a place because you can not get there and make an architectural innovation; what you can in any case is improve the techniques that in that territory have been generated as a result of the centennial or sometimes millenary experience in the use of materials, in the organization or structure of the house, that you can improve, maybe put a solar cell on the roof that until recently was not viable, but basically, a commitment must be made by professionals aimed at recovering a friendly relationship of the human habitat with the natural habitat and also with the tradition and cultural roots that are a force in those territories.
There is a challenge of democratic governance, when I talk about democratic governance I do not mean only current decision-making but to consider that democratic governance has its roots, has its history and traditions, has its ancestral thought and wisdom that must be updated and taken to the present because it has its relationship with the natural environment in which you have to settle and live. Architecture will have to respond to both those needs for global governance and environmental sustainability with the environment.
As we talked about at the beginning of the interview, nowadays there is the concern (due to a real and current context where it is evident that there is an important difference between the quality of life of the population of different countries and capacities between nations), to know what is the possibility that a country like Mexico has in this international competition and where do we see these possibilities reflected?
With the intention to look for the best ways to move from the macro to the mico, from international strategies to local strategies and which are the actors that are going to take action, especially in regard to the part that you commented at the beginning, how can we not leave anyone behind? How can the fulfillment of human rights be facilitated in the cities and homes of the post-pandemic world? What are the strategies that should be taken internationally to equalize the quality of life among nations? How should these commitments be reflected in the individual actions of the inhabitants?
The question is very complex and I don't have a clear answer. I think that on many occasions we place the responsibilities of our misfortunes in any country, inequality, and justice in the international order (certainly that exists), but I see more and more clearly that where we have great challenges in realities that go far beyond borders, that is why it seems increasingly evident to me the need to talk about a global south and north.
There are people who live in the most absolute misfortune and misery in the big cities of the United States, or in the big European, Chinese or Hindu cities (where there are billionaires too), they can be in different countries, but within the same countries there is north and there is south, there are rich and poor, there are abandoned rural areas and large cities with possibilities (or at least) better possibilities for development.
When I go to Guadalajara (Mexico) I do not see differences from those that occur in Madrid (Spain), I will try to explain myself better; I see in Guadalajara neighborhoods in conditions as good or better than the best neighborhoods in Madrid, and then I see here a proportion (probably in Guadalajara it is higher) of sectors of people who live in very degraded areas, with very little support, without work, in a situation of misery, etc. But I can say the same about Paris, of fields of Calais, refugees in France who live as badly or worse than any Mexican. By this I do not mean that there are no differences and injustices between nations, and the capacities or possibilities that the richest countries have and with more influence at the global level and the countries that live with less possibilities of development, certainly this exists and therefore there must be a reflection at the time of that world governance to restructure and strengthen economic and development capacities among the most impoverished.
But we cannot take refuge in any country (including Mexico) by saying – If there are problems here it is because the Americans oppress us or because the Europeans are unfair to us, at that level (at the time of designing that governance) there will be the contentious issues that will have to be talked about and they will have to be resolved, But what happens to our responsibilities between the urban and rural environments? What happens within the ways of life and the capacities of public policies that affect citizens within a large city such as Guadalajara? Where some live wonderfully and have clean water and sanitation networks, others have a situation that allows them to lead a more or less dignified life and others who are in marginalization and in absolute poverty, so what do we have to do with this? What is happening with rural issues in Spain, Mexico, Argentina or the United States? Should we continue to allow them to be decompulated simply by starvation? For lacking the minimum support of public services that allow the minimum of a dignified life within the rural environment and avoid as much as possible that kind of forced migration that will undoubtedly be accelerated by the impacts of climate change or phenomena such as pandemics and others regional and local levels. Do we need to promote policies that make possible to address at least this vulnerability of collectives, of families in the most impoverished social sectors in the perspective of the basic fulfillment of human rights and the minimum conditions of self-sufficiency and development?
I think that we will have to increase the emphasis on these issues, because our capacities to change is what is at hand, and other issues that are further away will have to be vindicated, but not be inactive in what we can do, arguing great injustices that are cooked in New York, or are cooked in Beijing and therefore we spend our time protesting injustice, but doing nothing with the things we could and should do in our immediate environment.
Of course, don't waste any more time on this chronic commiseration.
I'm not saying it does not exist, you have to claim that; we have to change many things within the global balances and imbalances, but what I mean is, when you say that we have to go down to the territory, we have to go down to the micro realities or closer to our capacity for intervention, there are many things to do, every government (no matter what happens at the international level) has great fields of action if it changes the priorities and places the central focus on its capacities and possibilities for human rights approaches, to mention an example.
That is not a privilege reserved only for the great powerful countries, that is, the right to drinking water and sanitation can be enjoyed by everyone! all the governments of the world! and when I say everyone it's everyone! Even the poorest have the capacity to guarantee water and sanitation to their entire population! If they take it as a priority.
Precisely what I mentioned a moment ago, resources, techniques and technologies can be within reach to those that we want them to be, we must have the power of agency and take as a priority what is truly indispensable as it is our own quality of life as humans.
Technologies are instrumental elements, they are not solutions in themselves, I can have solar or wind energy, but no person is going to mount that if there are no public policies in this case that enable and dynamize the energy democratization of society, Is this it viable? It is; but it is not a secret that it is in the hands of NASA, and it is not in the hands of NASA if Mexico promotes a line of energy sovereignty for Mexicans, as it is not in the hands of NASA (as a miracle) that a government develops a plan where 15 or 20 years from now, everyone is going to have clean water in their house faucets; that is plumbing and preserving the health of rivers. It is to prevent them from becoming polluted and that can be done anywhere in the world, you have the necessary technologies everywhere.
We are talking quite a bit about more about recovering the good state of our natural ecosystems with technologies that are already available, what we have to do is not break them and take care of them, that is why we have experiences and approaches to life such as those that have been focusing on us in a traditional and ancestral way in the indigenous communities and indigenous peoples. Preserving the natural environment is not a truth of just the past, it is a truth of the past, the present and the future and it is in the hands of everyone if there is a collective will to do so, if we also have technologies that allow us to decentralize information, decentralize the nuclei of energy production, and at the same time that I say decentralize I mean that we have the ability to communicate in a network.
All I am saying is about capacities of sovereignty of communities, of sovereignties located in their territories that in turn are linked in solidarity in dynamics and technologies that are connected in a network, in everything, food, communication, education, public health, transport, the production and distribution of energy, in everything we already have capacities, technologies and means to articulate in a more distributed way the resources, possibilities and capacities of people to technically build everywhere models of articulated life on a balanced and a sustainable relationship with the environment that surrounds them, building viable conditions (let's say) of good living, of sufficiency and sovereignty in the provision of food and basic service needs that we could consider as fundamental to a dignified life.
I love it and I agree with you. Above all understanding technology as an instrument (and not always high-end), understand technology as the strategies that all communities in the world have taken in an ancestral way. Dr. To conclude with this interview I would like to ask you, is there anything you consider appropriate to add or invitations to extend? Exhortations for those who are kind enough to approach this interview?
Dr. Arrojo: The truth is that I am overwhelmed by raising such broad issues, but I can insist on what is usually said, think globally act locally, not let ourselves be crushed by global dynamics, work where we can, and where we can is in our environment,,our capacity for protest and collective organization.
Thank you very much Dr. Arrojo, I know that you are a very busy man and the fact that you would allow me a space in your busy schedule is for me and for AGENCIA magazine extremely significant. I won’t say goodbye, definitively we are going to keep the communication.
See you soon, Ciao.
About Dr. Pedro Arrojo:
Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. He was appointed by the Human Rights Council in September 2020 and inaugurated his mandate on November 1, 2020.
From 2016 to 2019, Pedro Arrojo was an elected member of the Spanish Parliament in its eleventh and twelfth legislatures, a period in which he was part of the International Cooperation Commission on Human Rights. He was also a professor in the Area of Fundamentals of Economic Analysis at the University of Zaragoza (from 1989 to 2011), where he has been professor emeritus since 2011.
In 2002, Dr. Arrojo co-founded the New Water Culture Foundation, a non-profit organization from the Iberian Peninsula composed of more than 200 members from academia, public administration, and stakeholders from the water resources sector, which aims to promote a change towards a new water culture. This foundation focuses especially on human rights, transparency and public participation in the management and planning of water and aquatic ecosystems.
As president of the New Water Culture Foundation, he coordinated the first two Iberian Congresses of Water Planning and Management, held in Zaragoza in 1998 and in Porto in 2000, and the Latin American Conference for the New Water Culture, held in Fortaleza (Brazil) in 2005. Mr. Arrojo is also co-founder of the Public Water Network, which is part of Aqua Publica Europea (the European association of public water operators) and promotes the human right to water and sanitation in the European Union with initiatives such as Right2Water.
In 2003, Dr. Arrojo was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize (considered the Novel Sustainability Prize) for his contributions to the conservation of water ecosystems and his involvement in water-related conflicts that affect the human rights of communities in vulnerable situations. From 1997 to 2010 he was a member of the Spanish Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Programme on Man and the Biosphere.
His research has focused on the economics and management of water. He has published more than 100 scientific articles and 70 books.