Skip to main content

Access has to be the number one priority. When the Millennium Development Goals came to an end, everybody was applauding the fact that Latin America had reached or provided water and sanitation to almost 200 million people -- a third of the Latin American population -- but when you think of the 200 million that don’t have continuous access to water or the 450 million that don't have access to sanitation, it’s horrendous.

Host Will Sarni, CEO of Water Foundry, kicked off the very first episode of Distilled by explaining what people can expect from this brand new series. Each episode will be a conversation with a different global water leader. We’ll unpack the guest’s career to learn just how they ended up working in water, before getting their take on the challenges facing the industry, and what they see for the future of water. 

Distilled’s first guest is Sergio Campos, Chief Water & Sanitation Division at the Inter-American Development Bank. Will began by asking Sergio about his journey and how he first got hooked on water. 

Full video episode below or keep reading for the write-up.

Sergio on how he got into water

Sergio was born and raised in La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia, where he and his family often faced water shortages despite good access to water. Water scarcity was common and the country was home to the continent’s lowest coverage levels in terms of sanitation.

Bolivia doesn't have the highest coverage of water and sanitation. So despite the fact that I lived in La Paz, which has good access to water, it was not uncommon for me to sometimes experience a shortage of water.

He said that his mother often held water in the tap for the family to use and that when visiting the countryside, they would often not have access to sanitation. As a kid, he said, you would wonder why such a stark difference between the city and the countryside existed, which ignited his initial interest in water. 

Sergio was also educated by Jesuits who had students visit the countryside to experience the reality of water scarcity. This is where he saw women barging for water themselves and the reality of the situation — that not everyone had access to sanitation. 

Later, as an economist joining a private equity firm through the private arm of a bank, one of his first jobs was in equity and valuation for public utilities, which is where he truly became hooked on water. He said that all of the empirical knowledge and experience of water resonated in him and he realized how important working in water and sanitation was in improving the well-being of populations. 

Will then asked Sergio for his opinion on broadening the definition of water to extend past humanity’s relationship with it. 

Sergio said that, despite the cliche, there is no life without water and that is essential — it’s in what we eat and drink and is used to help us do the things we need to do. He said that it’s been well established that we cannot survive without water, and so it really is everything. 

Will responded by saying he wonders whether we should frame water as a critical resource issue in the way that Sergio did and start thinking of water as something that drives every aspect of our lives, from recreation to health and economic development.

Sergio on how challenges facing water today

Will then went on to ask Sergio for his perspective as an economist about what he sees as the biggest water challenges and what keeps him up at night. 

Sergio said that the main challenge is access to water, which needs to be the number one priority. He said that when the Millennium Development Goals ended, everybody applauded the fact that Latin America had provided water and sanitation to almost 200 million people — a third of the Latin American population.

However, he also said that to think about the 200 million people that have no continuous access to water and the 450 million that don’t have access to sanitation is horrendous. He referenced the pandemic, where the first line of defense was handwashing and knowing where a huge amount of people didn’t have access to continuous water, and the fact that people are already facing the effects of climate change, droughts, and floods.

Climate change is slowing the growth. In many cases, it's sending us back and sort of undoing the little progress that we’ve had. And we've seen that in too many hurricanes, too many droughts. And in Latin America, there's no reason why a drought should be the equivalent of water scarcity or a drought should be the equivalent of economic loss or life loss. It's inadequate management of water and sanitation. And yes, climate change is holding us back and it's making our work harder. The little progress that we make then needs to be rebuilt.

He said that the first thing that people want is to reestablish access to water and safe sanitation and that these are the first two priorities of the Inter-American Development Bank which is working closely with governments to bridge the access gaps. 

Will asked Sergio whether he thinks that the realization of the severity of the impacts of climate change has set progress back, or if we are just learning more about a very complex interaction between climate change and water.

Sergio said that climate change is slowing down growth, and in many cases, is undoing the little progress that’s been made. He said that there is no reason why a drought should be the equivalent of water scarcity or a drought should be the equivalent of economic loss or loss of life. He said that this represents the inadequate management of water and sanitation and that climate change is certainly holding us back. 

Will then went on to ask Sergio his thoughts about his time at the UN Water Week and what he learned from the diverse group of stakeholders that were present. 

Sergio said that he was amazed by the enthusiasm and passion shown by everyone there and that everyone understood the water sector’s complexities and importance. However, he also said that a lot of commitments were made that were not as rigorous as they should have been. 

He said that the most important people missing at the conference were the public utilities and local authorities like governors and mayors since they face the day-to-day problems of climate change and access to water and sanitation. He said, however, that instead of seeing this as a setback, he sees it as an opportunity to include and involve them more as they have much to contribute. 

Will mentioned how he was struck by how diverse the stakeholder groups were in terms of geographic and gender diversity, and said that this was an impactful and pivotal moment in the world of water and bringing relevant stakeholders to the table.

Sergio on what’s next for water

Focusing on the future, Will asked Sergio about what progress will look like in the future when considering the movement around digital technologies, democratizing access to data and actionable information, and non-centralized systems. 

Sergio said that he’s a raging optimist and that climate change is going to make the progress in water and sanitation an irreversible cause, referencing the droughts and floods across California, Pakistan, Sao Paulo, and Cape Town. 

He said that we always say that there’s a global challenge — climate change — and that the solution is localized. He said that countries, municipalities, and states are going to have to have holistic responses to climate change and that we’ll have to allocate financial resources to address the problem. He also said that he thinks that digital innovation — which came late to the water sector — is here to stay. 

We need to innovate. And innovation is not only digital or technology. It's legal, it's social, it's financial. It's in governance.”

Finally, Will asked what Sergio’s call to action would be to the listeners of the episode — both professionals and laypeople. 

Sergio said that his calls to action come from the commitments from the bank. The first of those is to stop looking at water as an isolated asset and manage transboundary waters through a more holistic approach. He said that 70% of the water in Latin America is shared and where 40% of the population lives. 

The second, he said, is better sanitation, and we need to be able to address needs on a short-term basis where a non-conventional solution is part of the response. The third is closing the gap in access to water and sanitation, especially in Latin America where the economy depends on water for food production, energy generation, and for exporting meat, flowers, and vegetables. 

Lastly, Sergio said that the most important action is to continue to innovate. However, he said that innovation does not just mean digital innovation, but legal, social, financial, and governmental innovation. 

Interested in more Distilled content?

Hosted by Water Foundry CEO Will Sarni, Distilled is a video podcast series that features water leaders from around the world. Each one-on-one conversation explores the guest’s unique career path, discusses the challenges and opportunities facing the water industry, and considers what’s next for water. 

You’ll find more episodes here.


About Qatium