Peter Brabeck-Letmathe and Asit K. Biswas
TODAY | November 13, 2013
Water will be an important critical-resource issue for the social and economic development of the world in this century. Increasing demand for water and poor management practices over decades have already caused significant damage to the environment and the long-term development prospects of most countries.
Take India. The country’s pollution watchdog noted last month that water from half of the its 445 rivers is unfit for human consumption because nearly all major Indian cities discharge domestic wastewater, mostly without treatment.
In October last year, the Supreme Court of India expressed its dissatisfaction with the levels of pollution in the Yamuna River, saying it was “unfortunate that huge public funds were spent without showing any improvement in the water quality”. It noted that, “despite spending more than 1,062 rupees (about S$209 million), in addition to the amount being spent by local authorities in Delhi, Haryana and (Uttar Pradesh), the pollution of Yamuna has increased by the day”.
It is not only Yamuna that is suffering this indignity. The Ganga — the holiest of the Indian rivers and to which Indians are attached spiritually and emotionally — has encountered similar problems over the past four decades.
The Ganga Action Plan was initiated in 1986 to clean up the river. More than a quarter-century later and after expenditure of thousands of crores of rupees, it is more polluted than ever. A similar steady deterioration of water quality prevails in nearly all water bodies in or near centres of population.
CHINA’S DISAPPEARING RIVERS
The situation is no different for other developing Asian countries such as China. The rising demand for water, continuing poor management practices and erratic rainfall patterns are causing water crises all over China.
For example, the first official national river census estimated that the country had 22,909 rivers, each with a catchment area of at least 100 sq km, at the end of 2011. This is less than half of the more than 50,000 rivers estimated by the government only in the ’90s.
The primary causes of this trend are likely to be declining groundwater and river flow levels, due to continually increasing water withdrawals and widespread deforestation.
Like India, China’s water quality also has been deteriorating. In June, the Ministry of Environmental Protection said it is “not optimistic” about current water quality in China.
The stories of the Yamuna and Ganga and the disappearing rivers and deteriorating water quality in China are only symptoms of two important persistent diseases: Poor water management and near-total focus on short-term economic benefits.
COST OF NEGLECT: BILLIONS
To continue with the existing water management practices in India is not an option. The Third World Centre for Water Management has estimated that only around 10 to 12 per cent of wastewater generated in Asian developing countries is now adequately collected, properly treated and then discharged to water bodies.
The annual economic costs of neglect of water quality in countries like India or China are in billions of dollars. The World Bank has estimated that water and air pollution is costing China around 5.8 per cent of gross domestic product. Similar reliable estimates for India are not available, but are unlikely to be less than for China.
With accelerating industrial and commercial activities and rapid urbanisation, proper wastewater management is steadily becoming a serious health and economic issue in India. As the nearby surface water and groundwater sources for urban areas are increasingly contaminated with domestic and industrial waste, these polluted sources will require higher levels of treatment before they can be used safely as potable water.
This means that treatment processes needed to decontaminate polluted water are likely to become more and more sophisticated and expensive, which may not be economically feasible in the future. This can already be witnessed in many urban and rural areas.
A decade ago, Indian households generally boiled water or used simple systems like carbon filters to make water drinkable.
In many urban and rural areas, residents are currently using membranes and reverse osmosis to produce clean water—the same process used for sea water desalination.
THE GREAT S’PORE CLEAN-UP
Yet, it does not have to be so. A good example is what Singapore has managed to do since 1965 when it became independent and was considered to be a developing country.
Its urban water and wastewater management practices were very similar then to those that were prevailing in India. The Singapore River was then more polluted than the Ganges.
By considering water as a national strategic resource, Singapore managed to develop an urban water and wastewater management system that, within two decades, became the envy of the world.
The Government invested the necessary funds to make the river clean. The people living in slums on both sides of the river were resettled. Economically, for every dollar the Government invested in cleaning up the river, it has received at least S$10 to S$12 of benefits.
The Singapore experience shows that, not only it is possible for a Third World country (as it was back in 1965) to achieve a better-than-First-World water management system within 15 to 20 years, but that this conversion is also economically attractive.
There is absolutely no reason India cannot do the same.
Peter Brabeck-Letmathe is the Chairman of the Board of Nestle and Chairman of 2030 Water Resources Group. Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bhubaneswar. He is the co-founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico.