New Rankings to Help Asia Better Plan Water Strategy

Water tap in rural Nepal.
Water tap in rural Nepal.

By Bambang Susantono

Water demand in the region is coming under increasing stress from population growth, urbanization, and growing prosperity. But simply developing new water resources is not enough.

Attending the World Water Week in Stockholm this week for the first time, I am impressed by the scale of the event as well as the range and depth of discussions on offer in more than 160 separate events arranged around the theme of sustainable growth. The event covers water across all users, unlike other regional water weeks, which tend to have a more urban focus.

I am pleased that ADB has for the last few years been a leading voice for Asia and the Pacific in Stockholm. This year our staff have been involved in several events and we are co-organizers of four “Eye on Asia” sessions, headlined by the launch of our flagship Asian Water Development Outlook 2016 (AWDO 2016), which provides a snapshot of water security in 48 countries ranked according to five key dimensions: household access, economic viability, urban services, the state of their rivers and watersheds, and preparedness for water-related disasters.

A key message of AWDO 2016 is that Asia and the Pacific remains the world’s most vulnerable region to water insecurity and cannot sustain its economic growth unless it addresses this issue. Furthermore, water insecurity costs the global economy $500 billion annually with a total drag on the world economy of 1% of gross domestic product (GDP) or more. The repercussions from this are felt across all users – including most notably the private sector.

But there is an overall positive takeaway from the AWDO 2016 – water security in Asia and the Pacific has progressed in the past 5 years. According to the data sets, the number of water-insecure countries in the region has dropped to 29 out of 48 compared to 38 out of 49 in the last edition of the report in 2013. However, improvement does not mean that most of these countries have attained the level of advanced countries, which—predictably—lead the rankings. The biggest movements have occurred at the lowest levels of the scale.

There are also limits to the reach of our data. For instance, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has shown the biggest improvement among ADB’s developing member countries since 2013. But the rankings can’t capture some regional disparities, for example between the PRC’s less developed western regions and prosperous coastal areas in the East. The same could be said of other populous countries like India, where there are differences between performances of states.

One thing that does come out strongly from the rankings though is the correlation between water security and GDP. The report says that water investments can increase economic productivity and growth, while economic growth provides the resources to invest in institutions and water infrastructure. But high GDP in itself is not necessary as a starting point, as the case of the Republic of Korea showed in the 1960s and 1970s. The country reached its high degree of water security through a mix of good governance, leadership and a clear vision on what was needed.

Water demand in Asia and the Pacific is coming under increasing stress from population growth, urbanization, and growing prosperity, which tends to herald a shift toward more water-intensive, meat-based diets. The report concludes that we can’t meet this demand by simply developing new water resources.

We have already accessed almost all of our available freshwater and groundwater resources. We need to improve water productivity in agriculture (here up to 80% of water is used wastefully), better regulate water use in the cities, and improve management. Given the just stated economic value of water, this means taking water planning and making it part of overall integrated and holistic government policies – beyond the water sector to finance, energy, and other sectors.

I hope those in the latest edition of AWDO prove as useful as the last edition. For example, the recommendations of the 2013 edition fed into the formulation of the 13th Five-Year Plan for the PRC. Hopefully other countries can also take our rankings—the only ones of their kind—and use them to determine which dimensions of water they need to improve in order to bring about positive change.