Water Security - Good Governance and Sustainable Solutions

H.E. Mr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources of Singapore
Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore and Chair, Asia Pacific Water Forum Governing Council
Mr. Yoshiro Mori, President of the Asia-Pacific Water Forum
H. E. Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Republic of Maldives

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

This is what the people of Asia Pacific are saying about water: “The water is dirty.” “I am not in school, my mother needs me to collect water.” There is sewage everywhere.” “The factories use up so much water.” Four different voices with a single message – lack of access to clean water. Today, some 1.1 billion people have inadequate access to clean water and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation. These figures are shocking, but numbers hide even more shocking human stories of wasted lives and wasted opportunities.
Water, the foundation of life, is at the heart of a daily crisis faced by millions of the world’s people – a crisis that breeds ill-health, destroys livelihoods and inflicts unnecessary human suffering. Overcoming the crisis in water is one of the great human challenges of the 21st century. Developing clean water, removing waste water and providing sanitation are basic foundations for human progress. Success in achieving them would act as a catalyst for progress in public health, education for girls and poverty reduction. It would accelerate the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Equally important is water for livelihood. Here the focus is on water as an economic resource shared within countries and across borders, and on the capacity of governments to manage water equitably and efficiently including across borders.

Good governance and sustainable solutions for water security is not just about the availability of water. In broad terms, water security is about ensuring that every person has reliable access to enough safe water at an affordable price to lead a healthy, dignified and productive life. It is also about maintaining the ecological systems that provide water especially in the context of climate change.

Good governance and sustainable solutions for water security therefore have to address several issues simultaneously. Firstly, it has to deal with persistent inequalities, the growing development divide and competition for scarce resources. In high income areas of cities, people enjoy access to several hundred liters of water per day delivered to their homes at low prices. Meanwhile, poor households in both rural and urban areas of the same countries have access to less than 20 liters of water per person required to meet basic human needs. Similarly, in the world of agriculture and industry, while scarcity is a problem, it is not experienced by all. It is the small famers that have the least access. These issues can be addressed by good public policies, institutional approaches and investment in rural infrastructure, including through public-private partnerships. Political leadership matters in bringing these changes about.

Secondly, the Asia Pacific region is vulnerable to climate change. Extreme weather events such as typhoons, floods and droughts threaten to wipe out much of our efforts in development and poverty reduction. Ironically while some parts of the region suffers from flooding, greater part of the region is suffering from water shortage. We are reaching a critical stage where we do not have enough water. Countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan already draw more than 100 percent of their renewable water sources. Other countries such as Pakistan, the Maldives and parts of Australia, China and India are close to reaching that threshold. Even countries that have surplus water are likely to suffer short-term water insecurity because of climate change induced droughts and floods. Given the threat of climate change we must change our development paradigm and adopt inclusive, green growth strategies, and other eco-efficient approaches to urban development.

The good news, ladies and gentlemen, is that water security is achievable if we address three sets of issues:
The first set of issues deals with inefficient use of water. In many countries of the region some 30 to 70 percent of drinking water is unaccounted for. Part of the loss is due to old and leaking distribution systems. The story is similar in the agricultural and industrial sector. One of the key reasons for this is that many countries have chronically under-invested in water infrastructure and building institutions for water resources, supply and demand management.

Moreover, much of the water that is accounted for is wasted by inefficient water use by households, industries and agriculture. This is primarily because of poor pricing policies that unnecessarily subsidize the rich and the middle classes and fail to penalize water wastage and over use. The poor, who need the subsidies, often do not have access to piped water and end up paying many times more for water in the informal sector or by drinking water from contaminated sources.

To minimize wastage and increase efficiency in water use we need to charge the real costs of providing water. We need to introduce progressive pricing policies that on the one hand recognize the basic need of water for human existence and on the other, progressively charge those who over use or waste it. This would encourage households, industries and agriculturists to be more eco-efficient in using water.

Progressive water pricing policies would also increase the financial resources available to invest in rehabilitating and modernizing our water infrastructure. In addition to funds secured from such policies, governments must make a concerted effort to invest in improving water infrastructure and management. By reducing unaccounted for water to a minimum we can significantly increase our water resources and reduce our insecurity. We must also engage communities, the private sector and civil society in promoting water conservation and water reuse. Media campaigns to save water on the one had and the use of simple technologies such as drip agriculture, climate appropriate cropping, rainwater harvesting and grey water reuse can go a long way in increasing our water eco-efficiency.

The second set of issues we need to address is waste water and the pollution of our depleting fresh water sources. Of all waste water generated in the region, up to 85 to 90 percent is discharged with its full load of pollution and toxic compounds. This pollution is destroying both our surface and ground water resources as well as destroying our coastal areas. Water pollution not only puts the health and well being of people at risk, it also affects the economic future of many communities, including coastal and fresh water fishermen that rely on water resources to earn a living.

In treating waste water, first and foremost, we must adopt the “polluter pays” principle, particularly while dealing with industrial and commercial water use to ensure that we internalize the costs of water pollution. We can also benefit from the many recent technological and management innovations in low cost centralized and decentralized waste water treatment. We must also realize that waste water, if treated properly can become a resource allowing us to recover at least partial costs of treatment from selling its by products. In fact one estimate suggests that such innovations can create a market worth between 150 to 750 billion US dollars.
These new and special features form the core elements in the waste water revolution in Asia, called for by the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, which as many of you know is holding its meeting tomorrow afternoon and where I have also been invited to speak.

The third set of issues is related to management and governance of water in an uncertain future brought about by climate change. IPCC reports indicate that 93 percent of the impact of climate change will be on water related issues. With climate change all countries of the region are likely to face increased frequency and severity of droughts and floods. At this very moment while I am speaking to you, 2.4 million people from southern China are now suffering from severe flooding, while Vietnam is suffering from a drought. Both droughts and floods have huge direct and indirect economic costs. In addition to affecting agricultural production, the drought in Vietnam, for example, has led to power cuts in urban areas because there is not enough water for hydro-electricity.
We need to make our water resource management more adaptive and responsive to unforeseen and rapidly changing situations. Water conservation and increased efficiency of water use would increase our resilience, but active measures such as better watershed management, introduction of water recharge dams, large scale to communal water storage facilities and rainwater harvesting, would go a long way to make us more resilient to climate change.

Water security and water resources management is one of the key issues that will be discussed at the Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development, which is scheduled to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan from 28 September to 2 October 2010. Excellencies, allow me to take this opportunity to personally invite your governments to the Ministerial Conference.
While water security is first and foremost the responsibility of our Member Countries, we, at ESCAP remain committed to assist countries in addressing the issue. ESCAP can assist through identifying and transferring green growth and inclusive approaches to increasing water security, organizing high-level policy dialogues and by facilitating cutting-edge research and comparative studies to advance the state of knowledge on this issue. In fact we have documented and analyzed several innovative practices and policies in decentralized water and waste water management that are most applicable for small towns and settlements of Asia and the Pacific.
In our endeavor to assist countries in improving their water security we recognize the important role played by the Asia-Pacific Water Ministers’ Forum and look forward to further strengthening our close collaboration.

I thank you.