Third World Centre for Water Management


5Qs with Third World Centre for Water Management’s Asit Biswas


Singapore International Energy Week | 16 October 2012

Q1: Energy production–including renewable energy sources–is the largest industrial user of water today, impinging on the water supply that could go towards agriculture. How should nations better manage their water resources as they increase energy production?

Prof Asit K. Biswas: Only in a few countries such as France, and recently in the US, have the electricity generation sector as the largest user of water. Otherwise, the major use of water continues to be for the agricultural sector which accounts for nearly 70 percent of all global water use. All water uses are important, and all are essential. We thus need to make all types of water uses increasingly more efficient.

Sadly, across the globe, water, energy and food are not efficiently utilised. In developing economies, 30-40 percent of electricity is lost due to poor transmission processes, inefficient management, and sometimes outright theft. Efficient use of electricity leaves much to be desired the world over. Even in tropical Singapore, one has to be adequately dressed up to attend a conference in a hotel or the cinema, thanks to the constant air-conditioning. There is thus considerable scope for improving efficient use of energy.

Even though agriculture is the largest user of water and a significant consumer of energy, 35-40 percent of food produced is not consumed by humans but wasted. In developing nations, most of this loss occurs before the food products arrive at the market. Whereas in developed countries, food is wasted primarily downstream and at supermarkets. Overestimates indicate that the US currently throws out 35-38 percent of food produced, uneaten.

Similarly, water use in all countries could be significantly improved. Water production and use requires tremendous amounts of energy. Yet there is no single country in the world that has an energy policy which considers water requirements explicitly for energy generation, or a water policy which considers energy requirements for water production, distribution and wastewater treatment.

By treating energy, water, food and environment as different independent issues, we have created a major problem that will be difficult to solve. One influences the other three sectors and, in turn, is influenced by developments in the others. Unless we start considering all four sectors in a coordinated manner, the world will continue to have water, energy, food and environmental crises. While we see a beginning of an understanding of this interrelatedness of the four sectors, we still have a long way to go to manage them holistically.

Q2: With the water-food-energy nexus coming into sharp focus in recent years, water-scarce countries will find it challenging to provide for expanding populations. In your view, what best practices should they consider?

Prof Biswas: Countries are water-scarce not because of physical scarcity of this resource, but because of poor water management. Every country should be able to meet its water needs not just today, but also by 2050, when the world is estimated to have 9 billion people. However, this is only if they can improve their management processes significantly. Even if we consider the Middle Eastern countries, which are supposed to have serious water “scarcity” issues, water management continues to be poor. Take Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, a supposedly water-scarce country. Unaccounted-for water losses in Riyadh are nearly 800 percent higher than Phnom Penh, another developing city. An average Saudi in Riyadh uses nearly three times as much water as a citizen of Hamburg or Zaragoza, even though these latter two cities are in water-surplus regions!

Water management is not rocket science. We have the knowledge, technology and investment funds, but none of these are currently being properly used. The world is not facing a water crisis because of physical absence of this resource. It is facing a serious crisis because of poor water management practices!

The universal use of “best” practices is difficult to justify. What is best for Singapore may not be the best for Ulan Bator, and vice versa. There are many good practices in different parts of the world. These have to be independently and objectively analysed so we can develop “a community of good practices” for water management. Countries can then select a good practices that may be most appropriate for them and modified these to suit local social, economic, climatic and institutional conditions. After some 50 years of work in all the continents, I am convinced there are no universal solutions that will work throughout time. Each solution has to be location-specific and time-specific. Otherwise, they will not work.

Q3: Hydro generation is increasing in Asia. What is your outlook for hydropower as an energy source to power an ascendant Asia, and what issues must governments bear in mind when doing so?

Prof Biswas: There is no question that hydropower development will grow by leaps and bounds in numerous Asian countries, ranging from superpowers such as China and India, to small countries like Bhutan and Laos. New projects must ensure that the people who now pay the cost of the projects, such as those who have to be resettled, become the direct beneficiaries. We have sufficient knowledge to make such projects socially- and environmentally-acceptable. This knowledge has to be translated into practice.

Q4: What is your outlook for the region in 2030 in the area of sustainable development?

Prof Biswas: I am cautiously optimistic in my outlook for the Asia region come 2030. We know what needs to be done, and how to do it. We need political will and public support to do what is needed. Sadly, it will take a few crises to force politicians in Asia to make some difficult but correct decisions, pressured by an educated and well-informed public pushing for the right decisions. I expect to see major advances in the region during the post-2020 period in the areas of energy, food, water and environment. Many of these advances will be caused by disasters that will make governments take action which may be unpalatable over the short term, but extremely beneficial for their countries over the long term.

Q5: What do you make of Singapore’s journey and experience towards sustainable water management and energy production? What do you think are some challenges that Singapore will face in future in light of population increase and continued urbanisation?

Prof Biswas: Singapore has made remarkable progress in urban water management during the post-1965 period. In our forthcoming book Singapore Water Story: Sustainable Development in an Urban City State (Routledge, 2013), we analysed the enabling environment which made this possible. However, in a world of relentless competition, like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, Singapore will have to run faster and faster to stay in the same place.

Already, cities such as Hamburg and Zaragoza have bypassed Singapore in urban water management. Even though Hamburg and Zaragoza are in water-surplus regions, their per-capita water requirements by 2015 will come down to below 100 litres per day, while the city-state’s water per-capita requirements are likely to be 50 percent higher.

Thus, just as Hamburg and Zaragoza can learn from Singapore how to improve reuse patterns, Singapore can learn from the former how to use economic instruments to reduce domestic water demands. This is unquestionably the trend for the future. The best cities will learn from each other to constantly improve their urban water management practices, as well as to manage their interrelationships with the energy, food and environment sectors. We simply have no other choice.


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