Tomorrow’s biggest global risk – drinking water

Is this safe? As the Third World Centre for Water Management says, one will be hard pressed to find a single city or village in South Asia (total population over 1.65 billion) that has access to “clean” water that is “safe” to drink and not dangerous to health. It adds that at least three billion people now drink water of dubious quality. PHOTO: AFP

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe and Asit K. Biswas

THE BUSINESS TIMES | April 4, 2014 

The World Economic Forum (WEF) released the results of its annual global risk perception survey during its annual gathering in Davos in late January. For the ninth year, this survey identified the 10 most serious risks confronting the world based on a survey of more than 700 business, government and non-profit leaders. The risks identified were of the highest concerns. They are most likely to occur and potentially have significant negative impacts on several countries and industries over the next 10 years.

What is noteworthy in this year’s 10 highest global risks is the number of water-related concerns.

At No 3 is water crises stemming from extreme rainfall events (floods and droughts), deterioration of water quality and pervasive poor water management in much of the world.

At No 5 is failure of climate change mitigation and adoption, many of which will be manifested through river flow patterns and groundwater recharge.

At No 6 is greater incidence of extreme weather events such as floods and droughts which play havoc in both developing and developed societies in terms of economic and social costs and losses in food production and energy generation.

At No 8 is food crisis. Globally, nearly 70 per cent of all water is used for food production. In countries such as Egypt or India, nearly 90 per cent of water is used for food production. Unless the current dismal agricultural water practices are significantly improved, the world will have serious problems with food production.

While all these are critically important issues, we shall focus here on water for human consumption, the most important water use. The UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on water was to reduce the total number of people in the world who do not have access to “safe” or “clean” water by half between 1990 and 2015. In March 2012, the UN declared that 783 million people did not have access to safe water – and so it claims that the world has reached its MDG on water three years ahead of the deadline.

Let us consider the facts. As the Third World Centre for Water Management has pointed out, one will be hard pressed to find one single city or village in entire South Asia (total population over 1.65 billion) that has access to “clean” water that is “safe” to drink and not dangerous to people’s health. The centre further considers that at least three billion people now drink water of dubious quality and it considers this figure to be an underestimate. Aquafed estimates this number to be 3.4 billion.

This sad situation can be confirmed by the following findings of governments and/or independent institutions.

In China, in 2011, more than half of its largest lakes and rivers were so polluted that they were unfit for human consumption. In 2013, its Environment Protection Ministry admitted that “in recent years, toxic and hazardous chemical pollution has caused many environmental disasters, cutting of drinking water supplies, and even leading to severe health and social problems like cancer villages”. In June 2013, the same ministry said water quality situation in China is “far from optimistic”.

In 2013, India’s state-run Central Pollution Control Board reported that nearly half of the country’s 445 rivers are so polluted that their water is unfit for human consumption. This is only in terms of biochemical oxygen demands and coliform bacteria. If other pollutants like nitrates, fluorides, pesticides and heavy metals are considered, the percentage will be significantly higher.

Last year, the Pakistan National Assembly was informed that 72 per cent of samples collected from its water supply systems show that the water is unfit for human consumption, and 77 per cent of groundwater in urban areas and 86 per cent in rural areas are also unfit for drinking. In Nepal, in 2013, its Department of Water Supply and Sewerage concluded that 80 per cent of its traditional water supply systems are seriously contaminated with bacteria, iron, manganese and ammonia.

In Mexico, in 2013, 90 per cent of nearly 25,000 water utilities were operating in a state of bankruptcy.

The litany of water quality problems in other developing countries is similar.

The focus of the international organisations on “improved sources of water” is meaningless since it grossly underestimates the number of people with no access to “clean” or “safe” water. Sadly, “improved sources of water” is used interchangeably with “safe” or “clean” water, which is totally wrong.

Similarly, the term “sanitation” has been corrupted to mean only the removal of wastewater from homes. When the UN Water Conference first discussed sanitation in 1976, the idea was that wastewater should be collected from the houses, taken to treatment plants, treated properly and then discharged into the environment in safe ways. Sadly sanitation now means the existence of toilets and taking greywater out of dwelling places.

The reason nearly all water bodies within and near urban centres of all developing countries are heavily polluted is because of inadequate wastewater management. If the focus is changed from sanitation to wastewater management, the current situation is truly alarming. The Third World Centre for Water Management estimates that only about 10 per cent of domestic and industrial wastewater produced in Latin America is properly managed. The situation is probably very similar in Asian developing countries, and probably worse in Africa.

Sewage treatment
In 2011, a survey by India’s Central Pollution Control Board indicated that only 160 out of 8,000 towns had both a sewerage system and a sewage treatment plant. Furthermore, the majority of government-owned sewage plants are non-functional or closed most of the time because of bad management, poor maintenance, faulty design, lack of regular electricity supply, and absentee, untrained or uncaring employees.

In China, its Ministry of Urban-Rural Development pointed out in 2012 that while 640 out of 647 cities and 73 per cent of counties had wastewater treatment facilities, 377 plants built more than one year ago have not met national requirements, with average operating efficiency of less than 60 per cent. The ministry further pointed out that national discharge standards are so low that only 12 per cent of the plants can reach Grade 1A standards.

The anomaly between sanitation and wastewater management can be realised by the following facts. According to a 2011 census, 89.5 per cent of households in Delhi have water closets and thus sanitation. However, Delhi discharges nearly all its untreated wastewater into Yamuna River which becomes the source of drinking water for cities downstream.

Similarly Mexico City transports its untreated wastewater to Mezquital Valley and is considered to have a high level of sanitation.

Knowledge, technology and expertise on how to provide clean water that can be safely drunk from the taps have been available for decades. Investment funds for many countries are not a problem. For example, China spent US$112.41 billion on water infrastructure between 2006-2011, and yet much of its water is still undrinkable. Similarly, the Indian Supreme Court noted in 2012 that huge public funds were spent to clean up River Yamuna and yet the pollution level has “increased by the day”. Thus, if available funds are properly spent, money should not be a problem.

There is no reason why the world’s water and wastewater problems cannot be solved in the foreseeable future. It will need sustained political will, strengthening of non-functional water institutions, and convincing a sceptical public that better services are possible provided they are willing to pay for them through taxes, tariffs and transfers. It also calls for an enlightened media to point out the benefits of functional water and wastewater delivery systems and take politicians and bureaucrats to task if they cannot provide these services. A fundamental shift in the mindsets of water professionals from how much water a region has and how it can be increased to how we can manage the water available through efficient use, reuse and recycling is also necessary.

If changes do not occur and current trends continue, within a generation the world will face a crisis which no other earlier generation had to face. This will make the WEF’s prediction a reality.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe is Nestlé board chairman who chairs the Water Resources Group, and Asit K. Biswas is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, and co-founder of Third World Centre for Water Management.

Article published in The Business Times, April 4, 2014