Improving water security demands new strategies

Published on Thursday, 04 April 2013

Published by on Thursday, 04 April 2013

Written by Ian Makin, Principal Water Resources Specialist

While the economies of Asia and the Pacific seem to have weathered the storms roiling Europe and America, the region might be approaching a significant crisis of its own. If these countries cannot find ways to ensure the availability of adequate and good quality water to sustain the socio-economic achievements in the region, then the social and economic advances of recent years will be in jeopardy. 

Water permeates every aspect of our lives. Obvious uses for drinking, cooking, washing and sanitation, amounting to somewhere between 50 to 300 liters per day per person, are the tip of the iceberg. We all depend on water for the electrical energy we consume, and many of the industrial processes that power the economies of the region depend on adequate fresh water. Agriculture consumes enormous quantities of water to produce the food we eat, and the more so when our diets include more meat. If the region’s leaders do not quickly respond to the enormous threats that our water uses pose to the economy and well-being of the region, then a Titanic-like tragedy may unfold on the population of Asia and the Pacific. 

Water security means having reliable access to over 3,500 liters of water per day per person for direct and indirect consumption. It also means that water is managed in our cities and towns to provide high quality services and amenity value, with adequate protection from the impacts of floods and droughts, and sustainable management of rivers and wetlands. Unfortunately 80% of rivers in the region are in poor health; large, and growing, numbers of the population are exposed to high levels of risks associated with floods and droughts; and water productivity is poor in many countries.

Asian Water Development Outlook 2013 (AWDO 2013), a report by the Asian Development Bank and the Asia-Pacific Water Forum, indicates that 37 of the 49 countries in the region are so water insecure that it should be of concern to everyone in the region. These 37 countries have a national water security index of below 3, assessed on a scale of one (hazardous) to five (model). No country in the region has attained level 5.  

Although it is now possible to measure water security, measurement will not be enough to bring water security for all. It will require well directed investments to avoid the sharply rising inequality in access to water and sanitation and the increasingly precarious state of rivers becoming substantive threats to health, peace and prosperity.

AWDO 2013 shows that the economic advances of Asia and the Pacific are, or will be, in jeopardy in about 75% of countries due to poor water security – a poor enough statistic. More frighteningly this means that about 93% of the region’s population lives in countries that must urgently find ways to increase and accelerate investments to improve water security. 

It is now an urgent imperative that water agencies and neighboring administrations make strategic decisions about how water will be used and urgently increase investments in water security. This may require substantive changes in agriculture, energy and industrial policies. It will involve investments in institutions, infrastructure, information, education and communication. It will also require new partnerships between government, private sector and civil society. Ultimately, it is likely to involve trade-offs between short-term economic gains and sustainable long-term socio-economic development. 

The choices made about water in the next few years will be a major determinant of whether the children of Asia and the Pacific will be able to enjoy the future they want in 2050. They deserve we do not delay.