The Coming Water Crisis for Asia

Singapore, only 710 square kilometers in size and the most densely populated country on the planet, has managed the remarkable goal of becoming almost 100 percent self-reliant for water, according to a new study by the Asian Development Bank.

Previously dependent almost entirely for its water on Malaysia across the Causeway, with which it sometimes has maintained less-than-cordial relations, “Singapore faced the enormous challenge of water scarcity and vulnerability as its population grew rapidly after it obtained independence in 1965,” according to the ADB report, Good Practices in Urban Water Management.

In that, the city state has lessons for the rest of Asia, which faces serious water problems almost everywhere, according to the report, a four-year effort by the ADB and the Institute of Water Policy at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

Although the report doesn’t note it, Kuan Yew, then the head of the Singaporean government, set out to eliminate as much as possible the country’s dependency on Malaysia in case of strife. The country adopted an integrated approach to water management that took more than 40 years to complete.

“Singapore’s ability to manage its water supply, using it wisely to support its economic activities to become a city with a high standard of living is impressive,” the report continues. Since 2003, Singapore succeeded in using innovation to enlarge its water supply.

The island republic turned wastewater into high-grade reclaimed water and produced the end product on a large scale to enhance self-sufficiency, renaming wastewater “used water” to reflect its value for reuse. Its seawater reclamation is one of the world’s most advanced, although it remains expensive.

Other countries struggling with water scarcity and pollution have begun to look to Singapore’s experience for solutions. And they are crucial. Many cities face the same problems, including the sources and uses of raw water, the large proportion of water loss in distribution networks, intermittent supply and the quality of tap water.

In some cities, the report notes, excessive groundwater use has caused serious environmental problems, including rapid depletion of groundwater, deterioration of water quality and land subsidence. Many cities suffer from inadequate sewerage networks and wastewater treatment systems while a large majority still depends on septic tanks and other on-site sanitation facilities. As a result, pollution loads in freshwater bodies and groundwater sources have increased substantially.

In addition, heavy seasonal rains and frequent cyclones have led to massive flooding across Southeast Asia, particularly in Pakistan and Thailand, affecting more than 8 million people.

(Then there is the problem of sanitation. See attached graphic here.)

Overall, as the region passes through a period of rapid urbanization and population growth, by 2050, more than half of the population will be living in towns and cities, roughly twice the current population, meaning that “the demands on water, land, and ecosystems as resources pose tremendous challenges in the delivery of commodities like food, energy, and water for municipal and industrial purposes.

Delivery of sustainable water supply and sanitation services thus has become a crucial issue. Although more than 2 billion people have gained access to improved water sources since 1990, it is unlikely that the world will meet its sanitation targets set in the Millennium Development Goal. Some 605 million people are expected to be without improved drinking water sources, and 2.4 billion will not have access to improved sanitation facilities, the ADB report notes.

On a wider scale, the lack of availability of fresh water has led to a US National Intelligence Estimate on water security completed in 2010 that says that beyond 2022, the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism will become more likely, particularly in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

The report says floods, scarce and poor quality water, combined with poverty, social tension, poor leadership and weak governments can be expected to contribute to instability that could lead the failure of numerous states, with upstream nations, more powerful than their downstream neighbors due to geography possibly limiting access to water for political reasons and that countries will regulate internal supplies to suppress separatist movements and dissident populations.

“The task of reaching the unserved and delivering water and sanitation services to those who are covered, may only grow more challenging,” the ADB report notes. “Many parts of Asia and the Pacific region are in a water crisis. Accessible freshwater in the region has become scarce. Annual per capita water endowments have been declining at alarming rates indicating water stress. The gap between demand and supply is widening.”

The fact is that 29 billion cubic meters of water is lost each year in the region simply because of leakages in substandard water systems– enough to fill more than 11 million Olympic-sized swimming pools, causing Asia’s water utilities to lose more than $9 billion in revenue each year.

By examining water utilities in Asia – in Bangkok, Colombo, Jamshedpur, India; Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Phnom Penh, Shenzhen, and Singapore -- the report concludes that a low rate of water leakage, called “unaccounted for water,” is critical. As much as 60 percent of water is lost to leakages in some Asian water systems, the report notes. Loss of less than 20 percent is a realizable goal. Phnom Penh managed to bring its lost water rate down to just 6 percent in 2008.

The study identifies seven universal themes to serve as a model for replication by water utilities: corporatization for better accountability; economic sustainability; unaccounted-for-water reduction; holistic approach to manage water resources including water supply and wastewater management; staff productivity; collaborative engagement amongst government, utilities and society; and inclusive approach to addressing the needs of the urban poor.

The campaign “will put huge pressures on service providers’ ability to manage available water resources effectively,” the report notes. “There are questions about the equity and quality of services, and many utilities suffer from chronic mismanagement and poor governance. Financing also remains a problem, mainly because the poor performances of these utilities attract little money. There is an absence of comprehensive analyses of urban water management systems in the developing world.

“Concrete strategies for utilities to translate good principles into practice are often missing in discussions on water governance. Few positive models of urban water management have been identified and valuable lessons and experiences often are not shared.

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