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

Asia’s failed resilience and grim water future


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 .


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