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Solving Asia's water crisis

[Magazine exclusive] Too much, too little, too dirty - when it comes to water, Asia faces complex problems that require governments, multilateral organisations and the corporate sector to work together to solve.

Water security is one of Asia’s most pressing challenges mainly due to two reasons: agriculture and rapid urbanisation. Home to 60 per cent of the world’s population, the region needs to supply clean water not only to the rural areas – where most of the region’s people still live off the land – but also to fast-growing cities where rapid urbanisation is exerting strains on the precious resource.

The United Nations estimates that between 2010 and 2025, 700 million people will be added to the growing numbers in Asian cities requiring municipal water services.

This means that Asia Pacific needs at least US$59 billion in investments for water supply and $71 billion for improved sanitation to meet these basic needs, according to the Asian Water Development Outlook 2013 report published by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

These investments are needed to fund water infrastructure development and increase the capacity and efficiency levels of water utilities, so that demand for water can be met.

Until that is achieved, much of the region’s governments will be hard-pressed to meet the population’s basic need for water, experts say.

“The water issues that Asia faces can be summarised this way: too much, too little and too dirty,” Vijay Padmanabhan, technical advisor on urban and water, ADB, tells Eco-Business in a recent interview.  

“Some parts of Asia suffer from severe flooding which have gotten worse in recent times due to climate change. Secondly, climate change also poses the threat of water stress or severe drought to other parts of Asia. Lastly, in large parts of the region, the volume of untreated wastewater that leaches into accessible fresh or coastal waters is over 80 per cent,” he says.

Addressing these issues is therefore critical, says Prof Ong Choon Nam, director of National University of Singapore Environmental Research Institute (NERI). 

“The degradation of water quality not only poses supply problems, it has a huge and inevitable impact on marine life, polluting food supply and threatening security and economic development at large,” he adds.

NERI coordinates all environmental research done by different departments and schools within the university. 

In fact, much of the negative impact of water shortage is already evident across the region. Recent serious droughts in Thailand and the Malaysian state of Johor, and water rationing by Kuala Lumpur and Taipei are reminders that water is not something Asians can take for granted, Prof Ong says.  

Thailand battled serious droughts in eight of 76 provinces in February, and its irrigation ministry warned that the country will experience its worst drought in more than a decade this year.

Despite the many signs that the water crisis is beginning to have a negative impact, much of the region has not even begun to take steps to increase their water security.

According to the ADB’s Outlook report 2014, 37 out of the 49 countries assessed in Asia and the Pacific either have low levels of water security or have barely begun to improve their water security.

Governments need to do more

ADB’s Padmanabhan says that the bank has tried to consistently convey the message that the water crisis in the region is more of crisis in water governance.

“We lack the enabling environment to make access to water supply and sanitation available to most, if not all,” he notes.

There are many things that governments can currently do to manage their water resources better. They could, for example, use optimise water efficiency by minimising wastage of water and maintain their water assets better to ensure long-term sustainability of water supply.

They can also recycle and reuse wastewater for non-potable purposes, he adds. This reduces dependency on treated water, and allows more potable water to be made available to the general population and the vulnerable in particular.

The need by governments to manage water resources properly is something that Indra Djohar, managing director of the Indonesian operations of DHI, a Danish water research and consultancy firm, has witnessed first-hand.

The firm has been in the region for two decades, operating out of its Asia headquarters in Singapore, and looks at marine water quality, marine impact studies and environmental monitoring and management of water utilities.

“There is a growing recognition of the necessity of protecting water resources in the region but there’s still so much to be done,” Djohar says. “There’s literally no accountability in some areas, where industries are just destroying water resources by dumping untreated water into rivers and ponds.”

There needs to be greater enforcement of rules where they exist and new legislation where they do not, he adds. 

Recognising the need to promptly address the water crisis, the ADB is working with governments in the region on a comprehensive assistance package that includes infrastructure development and capacity building of the water sector based on its Water Operational Plan 2011-2020

This plan is based on five drivers of change: private sector development and private sector operations, good governance and capacity development, gender equity, knowledge solutions, and partnerships.

Solutions urgently needed

Addressing the water crisis therefore needs to start now, experts say. 

In some cities like Jakarta, there are some indications that things might be slowly improving. In recent years, Djohar notes that DHI has been asked to do more environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for the Indonesian government.

If a large company wants to set up a factory in a suburb near a water source such as a river or a lake, the DHI team goes in to assess the impact of the plant on the water source and the surrounding environment.

“We advise the local government if it’s okay to go ahead. If we advise against it, the plant usually doesn’t get built,” Djohar says. “And yes, they listen to us.”

DHI has projects in Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei, Australia, India, Vietnam, New Zealand, Pacific Islands and Singapore, ranging from managing small waterworks in factories to large utilities for regional governments.

Along with local governments, research institutes like NERI, multilateral organisations, and private sector firms such as DHI, are trying to address the water problem in Asia.

CDP, formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project, is one such group whose work is making a positive impact in the region.

The UK-based non-profit engages a global community of investors including 822 institutions with assets of US$95 trillion, to work with the corporate sector to disclose its impact on the environment and natural resources, and to take action to reduce them.

Cate Lamb, head of the water programme at CDP, says the group is getting the private sector to adopt the idea of “corporate water stewardship” in order to safeguard water resources and address the global water crisis.

“It involves collective action with other stakeholders and policymakers to ensure equitable and sustainable access to water resources,” she explains. “By focusing on company risks and impacts, companies are able to establish priorities, set measureable goals, take meaningful action and contribute to greater water security for all.”  

The group puts out a Global Water Report every year which is a survey of the water use, risks and opportunities in water around the world. This year, it is putting out a new report that is focused on China, where large private sector firms are still lagging their counterparts in developed nations.

Tackling pollution

Despite this, NERI’s Prof Ong says there are pockets of the private sector landscape or government in China that are more “enlightened”. For example, in Shanghai, NERI has been working with Chinese researchers to determine and monitor the occurrence of emerging contaminants in rivers and reservoirs close to Shanghai, home to 24 million people and the country’s biggest city.

“Once detection methods are in place, we want to better understand where the contaminants end up and at what levels. We would also want to study the toxicity effects of these emerging contaminants on human health,” he adds.  

NERI is, for instance, also working on finding early mitigation measures for algal blooms – a rapid increase in the population of algae in an aquatic system. A result of excess nutrients in fresh water, algal blooms has been a global problem causing water quality deterioration and killing marine life like fish. 

To address this problem, a team at NUS recently developed a sensor to monitor phosphates in freshwater. Algal blooms are a result of an imbalance between nitrogen and phosphate levels in fresh water; so monitoring of phosphates in fresh waters would therefore help on early warning of algal blooms.  

Using a similar approach, the team has also extended the system to assess arsenic, a highly toxic chemical.

“Hopefully, this technology will help governments address the (algal) bloom problem and legislate to prevent substances from going into water streams,” Prof Ong says. 

In another project, ADB has helped fund the Karnataka Urban Development and Coastal Environmental Management Project in India, improving the living conditions of about 1.2 million people in ten cities: Karwar, Ankola, Dandeli, Bhatkal, Sirsi, Kundapura, Mangalore, Puttur, Udupi, and Ullal.

The project laid 2,000 kilometres of water pipelines, and provided an additional 305.5 million litres of water per day to residents of these urban areas. Before the project, only 20 to 60 per cent of people in the 10 cities had access to the municipal water supply.

Thanks to the project, more than 90 per cent of people in these cities are connected to the water supply system and receive, on average, 4 hours per day of clean, drinkable water. The municipal solid waste management system benefited 800,000 people, and the wastewater component benefitted 440,000 people.

“Clearly, more work needs to be done throughout the region,” Padmanabhan says. “To enhance water security and ensure equitable access among a range of users, the region will need to use available water resources more efficiently and improve demand management.” 

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