Governments need to make water management a priority: Expert says

THE RECORD | May 2, 2013

Waterloo – The global water crisis isn’t a about running out of the precious resource, it’s about properly managing it.

The University of Waterloo’s Water Institute held its annual symposium Thursday to share research conducted at UW and around the world. Among the speakers was Dr. Asit K. Biswas, one of the world’s leading authorities on water management.

Biswas explained that even the poorest of countries can provide clean drinking water to its citizens — but it requires systems of delivery, treatment and oversight that are planned and managed properly by highly skilled professionals.

“The vast majority of the people in the profession talk about water crisis … but really we don’t have a water crisis, what we have is a crisis in management,” Biswas said in an interview.

Data from the World Health Organization estimates that almost a billion people are without access to safe, clean drinking water. Biswas believes the number is likely over two billion because there are so many regions where water is not treated properly before making into homes.

“In South Asia alone, it has a population of 1.7 billion, not one person has access to safe water you can drink right from the pipe,” he said.

The problem isn’t exclusive to developing countries.

Most countries, including Canada and the United States, fail to manage their water and sewage systems properly and rely on aging infrastructure — problems that only worsen in bad economic times as local governments are forced to cut costs.

“Many of the sewers in the U.S. were built in the time of the Civil War and they haven’t been kept well,” Biswas said.

Old sewage systems in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada all face challenges of being unable to handle the growing capacity of waste. With heavy rainfall, many systems back up and cause overflow, sending untreated waste water into natural waterways.

“All of the Western countries now need a tremendous investment in water supply and sewage management. That is one of the biggest problems that we are facing, is water contamination,” he said.

There are some unlikely regions that are showing leadership.

In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a public corporation, independent of the local government, has successfully set up a water management system that provides water to all citizens.

“They have developed an urban water supply system that is one of the best in the world,” he said.

Water comes at a cost for residents, but it is heavily subsidized for the poor and metered at individual homes so that high users — often the middle and upper class — are charged accordingly.

As a profitable business, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority is able to reinvest in the water infrastructure — including water and waste water treatment facilities — for the future.

A similar structure exists in Singapore, where Biswas is currently a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“Right now all the waste water in Singapore is treated to such a degree its quality is better than the tap water you drink anywhere in Canada,” he said. “It’s absolutely incredible.”

The Public Utilities Board that provides the water and infrastructure is also a public corporation independent of the government.

Consumers pay for the water and in turn, the company hires the top talent in the industry and sponsors scholarships for promising students to ensure the best leadership and advancements for the nation’s water systems.

Currently ten per cent of the treated waste water is reused as safe drinking water, with the remainder being purchased by industry at a profitable, but competitive price.

In the next 20 years, Biswas said the utility board also intends to raise the amount of reused drinking water to 30 per cent to ultimately make the country self-sufficient in its water supply. Half of Singapore’s drinking water is currently imported from Malaysia.

While Canada has plenty of fresh water, Biswas said the country should still be concerned with its treatment and preservation so it remains secure and free of contamination for the future.

From attracting top talent with financial incentives to funding research and education in water technology and management, there is a lot Biswas said Canada can learn from Singapore and Cambodia.

With the Water Institute at the University of Waterloo, Biswas said there is an opportunity to create a research hub for the industry right in Waterloo Region — there simply needs to be the investment and planning to do so.

“There is tremendous potential,” he said.