The slow drip of poor water policy

PHOTO: street leica

Asit K. Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada

POLICY FORUM | July 6, 2018

Next week will be an important landmark for Singapore’s water history. It will celebrate the 10th anniversaries of both Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) and the construction of Marina Barrage.

SIWW, within only a decade, has become the most important global meeting in urban water and wastewater management. Thousands of the world’s leading urban water professionals, chief executives and senior officials of water utilities from different cities and countries, business professionals, and NGO representatives, will assemble to discuss urban water and wastewater problems of the world and their possible solutions.

As urbanisation continues apace in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, ensuring water security – in terms of quantity and quality – has become a critical issue. One can say SIWW has become the ‘Woodstock’ for people interested in urban water management!

SIWW this year is especially relevant because many of the urban centres of the world are facing serious water crises.

For the last 20 years, the world’s urban water management has been on an unsustainable path. In 2006, at the request of the Water Minister of South Africa, at a keynote lecture before some 1,000 mayors of towns and cities, we predicted that unless they radically improved urban water management practices, at least one major city would face a very serious water crisis within the next two decades. It would be a crisis of such magnitude that no earlier generation had ever faced. Cape Town confirmed our forecast.

Growing populations, rapid urbanisation and industrialisation are increasing demands for all types of water. The problem has been exacerbated by the explosive growth of middle-class households in the developing world.

As their incomes have increased, their diets have moved from primarily cereal-based to protein-based foods that require significantly more water to produce. Some 2,500 litres of water are needed to produce one kilo of rice. However, 10 times this amount is needed to produce one kilo of beef. Thus, when people’s dietary preferences move to animal protein, water requirements go up very significantly, a fact mostly missed by water planners.

Currently, agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of global water use. In countries like India or Egypt, this is around 90 per cent. As numbers of middle-class households increase, the water requirements to produce their preferred diet will go up very significantly.

Take a country like India. Its water management has been on an unsustainable path for at least half a century. In 1960, its population was 450 million, 18 per cent of whom lived in urban areas. By 2017, the population had increased to 1.35 billion, three times that of 1960, and the country’s urbanisation rate had doubled.

This, plus equally rapid industrialisation, has ensured that India’s total water use has gone up exponentially during this period.

Water problems have been further compounded because developing countries have consistently ignored water quality management. India’s capital, Delhi, expected to become the largest global agglomeration by 2035, now discharges nearly all its untreated wastewaters into the Yamuna river, which has become an open sewer.

Similar practices have meant all water sources in and around the urban centres of the developing world are already heavily contaminated by all types of domestic and industrial pollutants, constraining their future use.

Over the past 20 years, urban water management in countries like India should have been significantly improved if crisis was to be avoided. Only this month, NITI Aayog, the successor to India’s Planning Commission, finally acknowledged India’s water crisis is significantly more severe than the government had ever admitted.

The organisation’s report noted 200,000 people are dying annually due to a lack of clean water. Some 21 major cities will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people, while around 75 per cent of households do not receive any water at home, and 70 per cent of India’s water is contaminated.

Any serious observer of India’s water situation could have predicted this 20 years ago. Sadly, even if all recommendations of NITI Aayog are implemented, the probability of which is zero, India will continue to face very serious water crises since it has identified only some of the symptoms of the main disease, but not the disease itself.

The fact is India, like all other developing countries, does not have a crisis because of the physical scarcity of water. However, it is facing a severe crisis because of continuous poor water management, and an absence of sustained political will to solve this problem.

Sadly, there are no signs that these issues are likely to change sufficiently during the next decade to make any perceptible difference. Our prediction is that within next 10 years at least 10 important Indian cities will face even worse water crises than Cape Town.

Such aggregated crises may enrage the people. Local, regional, national and international media may then pillory dithering bureaucrats and politicians. This could galvanize political will to take some of the tough decisions which should have been taken at least two decades ago. Only a national, serious and prolonged crisis is likely to change India’s water management.

Providing clean water to people in urban centres of more than 200,000 people is not rocket science. The policies to make this possible have been known for at least two decades, as has been the technology. The missing ingredients have been sustained political will to take the right decisions and good governance practices.

One is reminded of Shakespeare salutary statement: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars. But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. National University of Singapore, Singapore. Cecilia Tortajada is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

This article was first published by POLICY FORUM, July 6, 2018.