The Straits Times | March 22, 2011
Today is World Water Day. This year’s theme is the current challenges facing urban water management.
We are often told the world is running out of clean water. One billion people lack access to safe drinking water. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will face water stress, and the situation will become worse by 2050. Even worse, less than 1 per cent of the world’s water is usable.
These are red herrings.
The Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority is a fine example of this fresh approach. The PPWSA is in the capital city of Cambodia, a relatively poor country that still relies on foreign aid for more than half of its government spending.
Yet because of the work of the water authority, people can drink straight from the tap in Phnom Penh. Its water meets World Health Organization drinking water standards.
There is universal access and, more astonishingly, not more than six drops are lost out of every 100 through the pipes. In contrast, a private sector organization such as Thames Water in the UK loses up to 25 per cent of its water because of losses and leaks through pipes.
PPWSA has been able to do this because it has successfully tackled the three paradoxes dogging most urban water reforms.
What the collectors did was to pay the last few bills themselves as the bonus they would get would be higher than the bills. PPWSA knew this, but it did not hold the water meter readers to a strict accounting, especially since the outstanding bills were often from the very poor.
But within the organization, Ek has already found two or three people ready to succeed him. The lesson is not that of victory in the face of despair, nor overcoming of insurmountable odds – although both are true. The learning lies in the fresh-eyed and practical approach taken to solve an urgent problem. Phnom Penh is a pocket of success and good governance in a country like Cambodia, which in 2009 ranked No. 158 in the world corruption perception index of Transparency International.
The world’s urban water problems can be solved within a decade, with good governance, with the knowledge, technology and investment resources that we now have. The fact that we will likely not do so is a damning indictment of the way utilities are run, the lack of political will to consider water as an important public policy issue and the apathy of the public, which has become used to third-grade service.
If Phnom Penh, with its serious constraints, can supply all its residents, both rich and poor, with clean and drinkable water 24 hours a day, there is no reason other major urban centers in the developing world cannot do the same.
Asit K. Biswas is distinguished visiting professor and Leong Ching is a PhD candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS.
Article published in The Straits Times, March 22, 2011
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