Asia-Pacific Nations face serious lack of water security

June 25, 2013 | By More

Water, more than any other resource, knows no borders. According to the UN, 148 countries worldwide share a river basin. But, water is a limited commodity. That’s why water cooperation is key to security, poverty eradication, and to social and gender equality.

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More than three-quarters of Asia-Pacific countries are experiencing a serious lack of water security, with many facing a water crisis, an Asian Development Bank study says. It recommends ways to take action.

“While the Asia-Pacific region has become an economic powerhouse, it is alarming that no developing country in the region can be considered ‘water-secure.’ Countries must urgently improve water governance through inspired leadership and creative policymaking,” an Asian Development Bank (ADB) official has warned. ADB water security specialists in charge of the Bank’s new study on water security, which it prepared jointly with the Asia-Pacific Water Forum (APWF).

What is new about this new Asian Water Development Outlook (AWDO)?

Ian Makin: It’s the first time anybody has set out to measure water security to make comparisons between 49 countries in Asia and the Pacific region. What we did was set up a system whereby countries can track how their water security status changes over time. No one has done this before. We now have a baseline, a methodology for looking at all dimensions of water security from the household level to water-related disasters. This is the result of a four-year project in which 10 organizations in Asia and the Pacific collaborated.

According to the report, household water security is essential, as it is the foundation for all efforts to eradicate poverty. It is also an important issue within the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG). According to MDG reports, in the last 20 years more than 1.7 billion people in the Asia-Pacific region have gained access to safe water, confirming in broad terms that Asia has achieved the MDG water supply target. Does the ADB study support this view?

Wouter Lincklaen Arriens: There is a huge difference between what the MDGs say is access to improved or safe drinking water and what we consider secure household access, which means a tap in the house. So for example, if you see the statistics for South Asia in the MDG report say that there is 91 percent coverage. But many women and children spend a lot of time carrying water from remote sources that are very often not what we would consider potable. But if you look at the piped water supply there is only 23 percent coverage. That is an incredible difference. Throughout Asia and the Pacific, the number of people with a tap in the house lags significantly behind the overall MDG figures for improved water supply.

The ADB water study is considered a leading measurement framework for a sustainable water development goal for the post-2015 era, after the deadline for reaching the MDGs has expired.

As important as a household water supply is, it is only one aspect of water security. What are the others?

Wouter Lincklaen Arriens: We look at water in five key dimensions, so besides household water security there are economic water security, urban water security, environmental water security and resilience to water-related disasters. And each of these five dimensions is ranked at one to five on the National Water Security Index (NWSI), with one being very insecure – what we call “hazardous” – and five serving as a model. And then we have a composite index of what we call national water security.

Ian Makin: Let’s look at Vietnam, for example: on the national level it is at two on the index. The government is starting to revise its approaches and increase its investment, but Vietnam is still a “hazardous” state. Household water security is actually quite good; they are putting a lot of effort into that. Economically, water security is very poor, level one; the main reason being that 80-90 percent of their water is actually generated outside the country, so they are very much exposed to what upstream countries do. Within the urban areas, Vietnam’s water management is quite poor – again level one – that’s partly because wastewater treatment is very low and they also suffer a lot from flood damage. And when we look at environmental water security they are at level two. They have had a number of pollution incidents; there are quite a lot of rivers that are not in good shape. And if we look at their resilience to water-related hazards, again they are at level two because they have a very long coastline, exposed to many typhoons and other water-related hazards, and they suffer from droughts.

What should Asian governments to do in order to improve their water security?

Ian Makin: In the report we have made 12 recommendations to the leading planning and finance ministries, for example, to make the best use of already developed water resources by investing in “reduce, reuse, recycle” systems; to transform the management of groundwater and irrigation services; and to mobilize rural communities for equitable access to water.

It is not that each government has to do all of these, but they are areas where we feel the return on investment is certainly worthwhile. Our objective is to show the impact of water insecurity on the economy and the security of their nation and to see where they can start to direct their resources to bring about water security. That’s because water security is about personal and economic security – and ultimately about national security.

What would be the consequences if governments failed to provide more water security?

Wouter Lincklaen Arriens: Economic growth would slow down; if the economy is more disaster-prone, it will suffer damage. But also public health: There are a growing number of studies that show that in some areas in Asia, cancer is on the rise because of persistent severe water pollution. So it has a huge impact on the economy, on health, on livelihoods – and on the costs of providing clean water. The more polluted water bodies are, the more expensive the cost of treatment to provide drinking water to the growing population as well as to industry.

Ian Makin: The country that has come to terms with this most rapidly is the People’s Republic of China. They recognize that over the past ten years, water security has become a major threat to their economic growth and of the sustainability of the economic advances that they have made in recent years. They are making a very large commitment to resources over the next 10 years, specifically to address water resource management and water use – and particularly pollution. They are putting a huge amount of effort into reversing the damage that has been done to many of the rivers in the country.

Wouter Lincklaen Arriens is ADB’s Lead Water Resources Specialist and the expert leading the publication of the report. Ian Makin is ADB’s Principal Water Resources Specialist.

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Category: Environment

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