Asia’s failed resilience and grim water future

Dr. Cecilia Tortajada2

Senior Research Fellow at Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

By Cecilia Tortajada

UNRAVEL | April 27, 2021

Governments ​in Asia need to ​focus on long-​term planning ​that informs ​policies, ​decision-making ​and allocation ​of finances to ​tackle the ​region’s ​water crisis ​

COVID-19 has ​made billions ​of people aware ​of the ​importance of ​having access ​to clean water. ​

Asia, home to over 4.6 billion people, hosts ​three of the ​five largest ​economies of ​the world: ​China, Japan ​and India. ​Together with ​the US and ​Germany, they ​account for ​nearly 55% of the global GDP.

In January ​2020, the World ​Economic Forum ​released growth ​estimates for ​these countries.​ Among them, ​China, with 6%, ​was expected to ​grow the most. ​In contrast, ​there were no ​estimates for ​India. It was ​considered that ​much had to be ​done to revive ​its economy, ​especially in ​areas such as ​labour reforms ​and infrastructure.​ Months later, ​it was clear ​that none of ​the estimates ​would be valid. ​With COVID-19, ​not only these ​countries, but ​the rest of the ​world, faced ​unprecedented ​social and ​economic ​challenges that ​are continuing ​for over a year ​now – ​changing all ​previous ​estimates. ​

Asia’s ​resilience ​tested

In developing ​Asia, billions ​of people lack ​access to safe ​water, ​sanitation ​services and ​treatment of ​wastewater. ​Surface and ​water bodies in ​and around ​cities are ​increasingly ​polluted with ​wastewater that ​is not treated ​properly, ​limiting their ​use, and ​negatively ​impacting human ​and environmental ​health. The ​Asian ​Development ​Bank (ADB) ​estimates there is an ​important gap ​between water ​supply and ​demand across ​Asia, and that ​this will ​become even ​bigger, in the ​order of 40% in ​2030; with 80-​90% of ​wastewater ​being ​discharged ​without ​treatment. In ​countries such ​as Sri Lanka, ​Laos, Cambodia, ​Indonesia, ​Nepal, Myanmar, ​Philippines and ​Vietnam, an ​average of 5% ​of the ​households ​are estimated to be ​connected to ​sewerage. ​

With COVID-19 ​and all the ​funds that have ​been diverted ​towards public ​health purposes,​ for containing ​the spread of ​the virus, and ​for counteracting ​the economic ​fallout, ​funding ​available for ​all other ​purposes is ​likely to be ​delayed by ​several years. ​This includes ​the previous ​goals of ​providing clean ​water and ​sanitation for ​all by 2030, ​reducing the ​number of ​people ​suffering from ​water scarcity, ​improving water ​quality by ​reducing ​pollution, ​increasing ​water ​efficiency, and ​protecting and ​restoring water-​related ​ecosystems in ​mountains, ​forest, ​wetlands, ​rivers, ​aquifers and ​lakes. ​

The so-called ​resilience of ​Asian cities ​and their ​population is ​under threat. ​The larger the ​city and the ​lesser prepared,​ the more ​vulnerable it ​has proved to ​be. Singapore ​is an excellent ​example of long-​term planning ​and preparedness ​for other ​countries in ​the region to ​emulate or ​learn from. ​

Asia’s water threat

Before COVID-​19, according ​to the ADB, out ​of the ​world’s ​estimated 1.1 ​billion people ​without access ​to safe water, ​nearly 70%​—or 700 ​million— ​were in the ​Asia-Pacific ​region. Given ​the pandemic, ​these numbers ​have become ​even worse ​during the last ​year. The ​population of ​India alone is ​nearly ​1.4 billion people and nowhere ​in the country ​can people ​drink water ​straight from ​the tap without ​boiling it, ​adding chlorine ​tablets, using ​carbon filters, ​or treating it ​by reserve ​osmosis when ​they can afford ​it. Otherwise, ​they risk their ​health. In ​developing Asia,​ except for few ​cities such as ​Phnom Penh in Cambodia, the ​population in ​general faces ​the same ​concerns on ​daily basis. ​

It is a fact ​that water ​shortages are ​the result of ​population and ​economic growth,​ urbanisation ​and increasing ​demand by more ​uses. However, ​it is also a ​fact that they ​are the result ​of short-term ​planning, poor ​policies, poor ​management of ​water resources,​ and capacity ​and financial ​constraints ​– ​something ​governments ​should have ​been able to ​improve years ​ago. How far ​can cities ​continue ​without long-​term plans that ​inform policies,​ decision-​making and ​allocation of ​finances? Not ​much. ​

A real concern ​at present is ​that natural ​sources of ​water are not ​enough anymore ​to cover the ​growing needs ​of the people, ​or the ​commercial, ​industrial or ​agricultural ​sectors – ​not in Asia, ​not anywhere ​else in the ​world. ​Pollution on ​the one hand, ​and climate ​change, and ​related floods ​and droughts, ​on the other ​hand, are ​exacerbating ​water scarcity ​situations that ​were already ​challenging. ​

Cities in Asia ​and elsewhere ​need to rethink ​resilience

The model of ​resilience that ​cities had in ​mind has ​clearly failed ​and needs to be ​reconsidered. ​It has proven ​to be short of ​what is needed ​to face the ​challenges ​resulting from ​climate change ​impacts, and ​clearly not ​appropriate for ​emerging ​situations such ​as COVID-19. ​Cities should ​change their ​current ​paradigms of ​development, ​and actually ​consider ​impacts of ​economic growth ​on the quality ​of life of ​their ​population in ​the long term ​and the natural ​environment ​under changing ​conditions. ​

Looking ​towards the ​future, ​resilient ​cities will be ​those that can ​provide all ​type of ​services to ​their ​populations ​reliably and ​efficiently, ​irrespective of ​the changing ​situations ​because they ​will have ​planned ​accordingly. ​Climate change ​and unexpected ​situations such ​as COVID-19, ​require ​preparedness, a ​word that very ​few developing ​cities in Asia ​or elsewhere, ​have been able ​to include in ​plans and ​policy ​solutions, much ​less in ​strategies to ​be implemented. ​

Water in all ​its forms has ​to become a ​political ​priority. This ​will be the ​first and most ​important step ​to move forward ​towards ​resilience. ​

This article ​was published ​by UNRAVEL, April 27, 2021 .


Share Your Comments

Only members can comment, Click here to sign up for free right now

(Your e-mail address will not be published)
Submit Review
No Comments Yet