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News INTERVIEW-Africa must invest to secure clean water-GE

Africa should tackle the prospect of increased water scarcity by investing now in technology and not simply hoping the threat will go away, officials of America's General Electric company said on Sunday.

Governments and development partners around the world must also accept that businesses can only provide clean water to users at a price that provides a commercial return, the executives said, explaining it could not be a "gift."

"The technological breadth we have puts us in a position to really solve any problem, anywhere," Jeff Garwood, president and CEO of GE Water and Process Technologies, a GE unit, told Reuters in an interview after attending the inauguration in Algeria of Africa's biggest seawater desalination plant.

"The only issue is how fast you're going to make a decision and who is going to finance or fund it."

The U.N. climate panel says 75 million to 250 million people on the world's poorest continent are projected to face increased water stress by 2020. In some African countries, it says, yields from rain-fed farming could be cut by up to 50 percent by 2020.

Earl Jones, GE Water's general manager, Global Commercial Development, said the third-largest cause of death globally was water-borne disease, meaning GE was very passionate about "getting at one of the biggest killers on the planet."

But he added: "You have to make a decision to invest in the infrastructure. Hope is not a method. If you hope that it's just going to rain and that's going to take care of it, you could find yourself in a very critical situation."

"If there is something substantive going on with our climate, the drought that you're in may not end the way that it ended the last time you had a drought. That's something we see government leaders wrestling with globally."

Garwood and Jones were speaking after the opening of Algiers' $250 million Hamma seawater desalination plant, which will produce 200,000 cubic metres a day, enough for a quarter of the Mediterranean capital's more than 3 million population.

GE, which has built, owns and operates hundreds of water treatment plants throughout the world, led the venture to design and build the Hamma plant and has a 25-year contract to operate and maintain the venture.

Garwood said GE expected to expand what he called large structured projects like Hamma by 80 percent in 2008 as interest grows in innovative high- and low-tech ways to supply water in a world increasing aware of the preciousness of the resource.

"There's about a billion plus people who don't have access to clean water every day," Garwood said. "Whether it be the U.N. estimates, our own or others, that number is going to grow to 3 to 4 billion within the next 15 to 20 years."

Garwood said Africa was a "special" case because of the large number of its sources of development finance, many of them spearheaded by celebrities from the world of entertainment.

"Bono talks about it, Oprah (Winfrey) talks about it (Rapper) Jay-Z's got a fund, there's a number of people who have earmarked infrastructure development, and we actually have had conversations with most of them."

But he said that while businesses would work to drive down costs, they could only provide their technology at a price that ensured a commercial return.

"Healthy water is not free. That is a fundamental premise," Garwood said. "The notion that there is a clearing price for water is one of the biggest challenges to evolving technologies and getting the right balance in supply and demand."

"We are a business. We have an obligation to understand how to meet our customers' needs and many of these same technologies are going to be applied ... in exactly the same way in Niger or Nebraska."

"The more we can come down the cost curve the more that makes it available for global consumption ... But our idea of technology development is going to be for a market, not for a gift."

Contact information William Maclean, Reuters
News type Inbrief
File link
Source of information Reuters
Keyword(s) water scarcity, drought
Geographical coverage Algeria, Africa
News date 28/02/2008
Working language(s) ENGLISH