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Friday, December 7, 2007

A price for solving water problems

Dec 1, 2007
A price for solving water problems
Subsidised drinking water rates will have to go to invest money on water infrastructure
By Tania Tan

WATER prices must go up if the region's water woes are to be addressed.

This politically sticky issue will be among the concerns that Asia-Pacific leaders will grapple with when they convene in Japan on Monday for the inaugural Asia-Pacific Water Summit.

Some 300 representatives from 49 countries will be at the two-day dialogue.

'We hope to seek commitment from the region's leaders to move water higher up on their national development agendas,' said Singapore's Ambassador- at-large Tommy Koh, who is also chairman of the Asia-Pacific Water Forum, the event's organiser. The summit is expected to be held every two to three years.

Key on the agenda: increasing public and private investment in water and sanitation projects.

Asia's water report card
The Philippine-based Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that some US$20 billion (S$29 billion) will be needed annually to help build the region's water and sanitation infrastructure over the next decade.

ADB, which is also a sponsor of the Japanese water summit, already invests some US$2 billion annually in water operations.

Another of its efforts to improve water infrastructure is

the launch of the Asian Water and Development Outlook report, penned by noted water experts, including Stockholm Water Prize laureate Professor Asit Biswas.

One message is that, with the increasing need to improve water services, it is 'impossible to continue with the traditional idea of providing drinking water free of cost or at highly subsidised rates'.

A United Nations report pegged the price of water in India at just US$0.01 per cubic m, while Cambodians pay just US$0.09. These countries also suffer some of the most severe water shortages and sanitation problems in the region.

Households in Singapore pay $1.17 per cubic m.

'By diluting the definition of access to clean water and considering sanitation only in a very restricted sense, developing countries, including many in Asia, are mortgaging their future in terms of water security,' said Prof Biswas.

The Stockholm Water Prize is the highest honour in the water industry.

The summit outcomes will be presented at future political events, including the G8 summit in Japan next year.

Live updates from each day's sessions will be available online at


Asia has its own models to beat water woes
Complex challenge can be met as keys to solution exist within region as a whole
By Asit Biswas

POTABLE WATER: A boy delivering drinking water to a village in Manila. A new paradigm is needed to solve Asia's water problems in a cost-effective manner. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

LEONARDO da Vinci said water is the driver of nature.
Nearly half a millennium later, his wisdom can be considered prophetic. Increasingly, water is seen as the planet's driving lifeblood.

Asia, poised for greater growth, needs rational water development and efficient water management to ensure that such growth is not jeopardised.

Moreover, having adequate access to energy and water is one of the keys to resolving many existing societal problems.

Human survival and ecosystem conservation depend on the reliable availability of adequate water of appropriate quality. After all, food and agricultural production requires water.

In recent years, this water-food linkage has become more complex because of social and environmental concerns, technological developments, globalisation and management practices.

With the Industrial Revolution, water needs started to increase significantly, as did its collection, treatment and waste-water disposal.

Environmental issues for water management became salient during the 1970s. Development activities, including those on water, had to consider environmental implications, which gained momentum in the 1980s and are now universally accepted as integral to efficient and rational water management.

With rapid industrialisation and demands for a better quality of life, energy requirements have gone up as well. In recent years, the energy needs of Asian developing countries have increased very rapidly and will keep doing so. These have major water-related implications.

We can confidently predict, on current assessments of water resources, expected future water demands, available technology, knowledge and experience, that Asian developing member countries (DMCs) of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) should not experience, or expect, a future crisis because of scarcity of water.

What is important is that, irrespective of the rhetoric on a looming global water crisis and likely water wars, there is now enough knowledge, technology and expertise available in Asia to solve existing and future water problems.

Nevertheless, some Asian DMCs will find it much harder than others to ensure their future water security. This, however, is likely to be the general situation not only for the water sector, but also for all other development-related sectors in those countries.

Major and fundamental changes in water governance practices are thus needed. There are many success stories in Asia in this regard.

For example, during the past 30 years, Singapore has made remarkable breakthroughs in its governance practices as a result of which it now has one of the best, if not the best, water supplies, waste-water management, and overall catchment management in the world.

In the process, its national water agency, the PUB, has gained full confidence of the public in the level of services it consistently provides. Most of this transition happened within about two decades.

It is now important for improving the performance of the water sector that a comprehensive search be made to identify similar success stories from all over Asia in areas like water supply, waste-water management, irrigation, and hydropower development.

These successes need to be reviewed independently by knowledgeable and experienced water experts in terms of their veracity, long-term sustainability, and potential replicability in other parts of Asia. It is also essential to analyse the enabling context of each success story to see how and why it managed to make remarkable progress, when other urban centres did not.

Successful Asian good-practice models are essential for South-South knowledge and experience transfer in the context of the special monsoon climatic conditions of the region. European and North American models have often not been successful in Asia.

Successful models from Asian monsoon areas are likely to be more replicable to other Asian DMCs than are models directly imported from Europe and North America. However, the Asian models should only be applied after appropriate modifications for site-specific conditions.

Improving data reliability and availability is another hurdle that must be overcome.

Data must also be readily accessible to the people who need them, ranging from national and international organisations to research and academic institutions, non-governmental organisations and civil society in general.

If the status of water development and management is to be improved, it is essential that collection, quality and management of data receive significantly higher priority in all Asian DMCs than has been the case to date.

A new paradigm of 'business unusual' is needed that can solve the region's water and waste-water problems in a cost-effective and equitable manner. It will require a new tripartite partnership, different from the earlier models: government, corporate (public or private) and society.

The tasks of the government could include formulation of an overall framework within which the three parties can operate, and the promulgation of regulatory regimes for the service providers.

The corporate partner could be public or private. If public, it should be an autonomous and accountable government entity with operational and financial autonomy, and free from political and bureaucratic interference.

In fact, many water utilities in Asian DMCs now fail to function efficiently because of unnecessary rules, regulations, administrative requirements, and bureaucratic and political interference.

Under such conditions, it would indeed be a miracle if a utility succeeds in providing reliable levels of services efficiently and equitably to all on a sustainable basis.

The Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority is to be held up as a model of an autonomous public corporate partner - it has already revolutionised the water supply of that city. This type of model needs further consideration for possible use by other Asian DMCs.

The third partner should be civil society, which, as a general rule, needs to move away from its current apathetic response to poor and unacceptable levels of water and waste-water service delivery.

Consumers will have to pay a fair price for receiving water and waste-water services, so they need to be encouraged to demand good-quality service.

Water quality management has mostly been a neglected issue in Asian DMCs. The health costs and social impacts are likely to be substantial at present. While these have not been carefully assessed for the region, the annual economic cost is likely to be billions of dollars.

Institutional strengthening and restructuring, inter-institutional coordination, and capacity building in technical, administrative, and managerial aspects are urgent requirements, as are significant improvements in the formulation and implementation of legal and regulatory regimes, and transparency and non-corruptibility of the associated administrative and management processes.

Considering the massive funding needed to manage water quality because of past neglect, it is highly unlikely that the public sector can generate the needed investment funds. Funding that can be generated from private sector and multilateral and bilateral agencies will be useful, but even this is unlikely to be enough.

New forms of funding mechanisms are needed, and need to be available on a sustained basis for a reasonable period of time.

Despite the deteriorating water quality in many Asian DMCs, the issue is not getting the political priority and social attention it deserves at national and local levels. Overall governance, including political, legal and institutional conditions, has often contributed to an environment that has not encouraged new investments. This situation needs to be changed, and a comprehensive perspective is essential.

Solving the water problems of the future will require additional skills and capacity, innovative approaches and new mindsets. A more holistic approach that can successfully coordinate the energy, food, environment and industrial policies of a nation, all of which have direct linkages to water, is needed.

All these factors make future water management in Asia a far more complex task than ever before. The challenge is formidable but it can be met, as the knowledge, experience and technology to solve the problems in a timely manner exist within Asia, not in one location, but within the region as a whole.

The writer is head of the Mexico City-based Third World Centre for Water Management, and winner of the 2006 Stockholm Water Prize - the highest honour in the water industry. This article is excerpted from his contribution to the inaugural Asian Water Development Outlook, a publication by the Asian Development Bank.

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