Professor Nardocci on Pilot Testing WREI in Brazil: An Interview

  • 2018/02/15     Dresden, Germany

    Embedded in the Nexus Approach, the Wastewater Reuse Effectiveness Index (WREI) is a tool to bring decision makers and scientists together to examine scenarios of resource use within the Water-Soil-Waste Nexus. Initially developed in Indonesia, it is now being pilot tested in Brazil. Prof. Adelaide Nardocci (University of São Paulo) facilitates the preliminary stakeholder discussions between UNU-FLORES and the State Secretariat of Sanitation and Water Resources of São Paulo, Brazil. In an exclusive interview, she shares her insights on WREI. Prof. Nardocci is also a member of the UNU-FLORES Advisory Committee.

    By Atiqah Fairuz Salleh, Communications and Advocacy

    In a Memorandum of Understanding, UN-Habitat and UNU-FLORES have joined forces to develop, test, and validate a monitoring methodology for UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 6.3. The index was endorsed by 11 countries that participated in a workshop organised by UN-Habitat, UNU-FLORES, and the Arab Countries Water Utilities Association (ACWUA) at the 2017 Arab Water Week in Amman.

    Based on your involvement in pilot testing, why do you think it’s important to develop decision-making tools based on science, such as WREI?

    In the last decades, science has made huge advances, but at the same time, the quality of the environment has declined. In my opinion, we need to be more effective in the transfer of scientific knowledge to help policymakers find the best solutions to real world problems.

    Tools based on science are more credible and bring more confidence. As such, it is important for policymaking tools to be science-based. Tools, such as WREI, can help improve policy decisions.

    WREI was born out of this rationale. At present, policymaking is commonly based not on scientific knowledge but often a result of economic interests. We can change that.

    There are many indicators and indices out there that enable us to monitor various developments across time and space. What makes WREI unique in contrast to other wastewater indices?

    Unlike typical wastewater indices, WREI considers not only biophysical but also institutional and socioeconomic factors. There is no doubt that biophysical indicators are important in monitoring the effectiveness of wastewater use, but they are not the only important ones.

    Today, decision-making is more complex than in the past. We need to aggregate different aspects, beyond just the biophysical. We cannot downplay the importance of socioeconomic development and the quality of the environment when making policy.

    WREI is intended to help policymakers customise or tailor policy actions. We also acknowledge the different circumstances of different countries. Is the index customisable or is the goal a common denominator that all countries can use?

    It is impossible to use the same index for all countries of varying circumstances, but there is some form of standardisation. It is important that the basic groups of information considered are the same, so that we can compare scores: biophysical, social, economic indicators, etc. These groups are not negotiable, but the specific indicators should stay flexible.

    There is value in having some flexibility to WREI; otherwise it will be difficult to operationalise. For example, in São Paulo, Brazil, we use a water quality index that the environmental agency produces every year. We can use this data because this information is available. Perhaps other countries have another index for that. For example, Indonesia uses different indices to estimate the quality of water. They can apply their own data to make WREI work for them.

    Drawing from both examples of Indonesia and Brazil, and how the index would be differently composed depending on what data is available, what about WREI then helps countries to monitor their ability to meet SDG 6.3 across space?

    I think that the focus should not be on just comparing country scores, but on the evaluation: how far along each country is on their journey towards sustainable development. The aim of WREI is to help us assess how each country – from different aspects – is working to reach sustainable development.

    “The focus is on the evaluation: how far along each country is on their journey towards sustainable development.”

    So, the monitoring is envisioned to take more of a constructive approach as opposed to a “name and shame” game. Given your background in risk analysis and particularly environmental risk analysis and management, how do you see WREI as a tool for monitoring risks then?

    WREI is not a risk indicator per se. But we can say that there is a risk monitoring element in WREI.

    If we improve the quality of the environment and of wastewater treatment and water management, of course, health problems will be reduced. If I improve my WREI score, I will decrease health risks.

    But WREI in itself is not exactly a risk indicator. It is an indicator of the effectiveness of the response to risks posed by deterioration of water quality.

    To corroborate the broader application of the WREI, based on your experience on the ground, what are some of the challenges in terms of validating the index under different circumstances?

    The first challenge is related to data: quality and/or availability of data. In Brazil there is data but of compromised quality. It’s a problem: if we don’t have good quality data, we’re unable to make good decisions.

    Secondly, convincing politicians about the use of data in justifying their actions is another challenge. In the State of São Paulo, we work collaboratively with the State Secretariat. It is important to have their commitment to the use of this index in political decision-making.

    Only then can they base their decisions on scientific knowledge, and in turn invest in improving data quality, addressing the first challenge. But this is not easy, and every country has its own specific interests and operates in varying social and economic contexts.

    This brings us back to the science-policy interface. Indeed, there is still work to be done in this area, but it appears that the WREI project has taken a step-by-step approach and at every stage involving stakeholders.

    It is important to involve stakeholders at various levels to get buy-in. We have to involve them in the process, constructing the product with their input. While this process might turn out to be more difficult and time-consuming, it ultimately increases the chances of the tool being accepted and adopted, thus increases its effectiveness.

    Are you optimistic about the future of WREI?

    Yes, of course. Sustainable development is a very important concept; but we need to look at it in a more effective and objective manner. WREI provides a way for us to do so.