Experts deliberate on Asian Water and Sanitation

At the Experts Consultation Meeting held in Singapore on Thursday, a gamut of issues ailing the water and sanitation sector were put forth by experts from funding organisations, water utilities, researchers, NGOs and a slew of other organisations.

Water experts are working around the clock to prepare a forward-looking document called Asian Water and Development Outlook (AWDO) which will act as a guide for policy makers of the region. AWDO will articulate the overall directions for water and sanitation activities needed to be pursued in an integrated manner by national leaders.

“People will not wait five to ten years for water. They will take it now, illegally if necessary. Time is of the essence,” said K.E.Seetharam, Principal Water and Urban Development Specialist at Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Great strides have been made by India and Bangladesh in moving away from open-defaecation, thanks to concerted efforts by donors, local governments and NGOs. “It is important for governments to act now, when the momentum is there – when a small effort can produce great results,” says Arthur McIntosh, a well-known water expert.

Mr McIntosh believes that it is good to involve the private sector which is well-placed to respond to the urgency of the situation. According to him, the great majority of water supply and sanitation projects experience significant delays in implementation, causing customer dissatisfaction, slowed loan disbursements and increased costs.

 “When Male in the Maldives urgently needed piped water and sewerage, the private sector was given full reign to design, construct and operate,” he said. “This was a big factor in its success”.

However, Prof Asit Biswas, leader of the team drafting AWDO and erstwhile winner of Stockholm Water Prize warned against a one-solution-fits-all approach. “The problems are different across Asia and even within a country itself,” he said. “We have to look for appropriate solutions.”

“It should also be understood that water is not just a resource but a service,” said Wouter Lincklaen Arriens, Lead Water Resources Specialist at ADB.

The AWDO document will be released in November, well before the Asia Pacific Water Summit scheduled in December this year, which will be attended by heads of governments, ministers, business leaders and other decision-makers.

It is hoped that AWDO will motivate leaders at the December summit to place water and sanitation high up on their national agenda.

“We would like AWDO to be a dynamic document, not something that will be launched and then stashed away somewhere to be forgotten,” asserted Ravi Narayanan, Vice-Chair of the Governing Council of Asia Pacific Water Forum (APWF).

APWF is a recently-established network which seeks to contribute to sustainable water management in order to achieve the targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Asia and the Pacific.

In recent years, water and sanitation have been perceived as important constituents of human development. When access to water and sanitation improves, virtually everything follows – health, education and economic advancement.

It has also been well-recognised that poor governance is the root cause of all problems in developing countries. Governance has been but empty rhetoric in most of Asia with only a few islands of excellence such as Singapore. A case in point is urban India where poor quality of water supplied intermittently has been accepted as a way of life.

Lack of political will has particularly hampered the cause of water and sanitation, not so much a lack of financing or physical resources.  It is this political will that the AWDO document and the summit seek to whip up this December.

“Our key message is that the water problems of the region are solvable,” said Prof Biswas. Indeed, there is no shortage of success stories and champions to illustrate this – from the community-driven toilet construction programme in Pune, India to the private-sector led improvement of water supplies by Manila Water Company in the Philippines.

“The role of women as important managers of water has been well-appreciated at the community level,” points out Mr Narayanan, who earlier helmed UK-based NGO Water Aid. Women are also spearheading the movement for sanitation in many places in Asia. “It has been documented that the availability of separate toilets for girls in many rural and peri-urban schools is dramatically lowering their drop-out rate,” said Dr Seetharam.

However, there are still not enough women who count as decision-makers at higher levels according to Erna Witoelar, the only woman in the Governing Council of APWF.

Another major challenge confronting water specialists in Asia is the lack of good quality field data. It is a well-known paradigm that what we cannot measure, we cannot improve. Yet, whether it is the quality of river water or the number of water connections or the details of underground pipes, experts are blindly groping for reliable data in Asia.

“It is ridiculous that in this day and age, we do not have a centralised data bank from where we can access information,” said Mr McIntosh. “Yet there is no dearth of data which is completely useless!” exclaimed Prof Biswas. So severe is the data problem that it has become difficult to carry out both inter-country and intra-country comparisons with regard to adequacy of water and sanitation facilities.

Currently, Water Poverty Index (WPI) is used to get an idea about availability of water, which is linked to the economic status of the people. However, it is difficult to apply this index to Asia where water quality and other data are not available.

To overcome this problem to some extent, Prof Bhanoji Rao has developed an Index for Drinking Water Adequacy for Asia, which will be introduced in AWDO. This index could be used by Asian planners as a tool for assessment, monitoring and benchmarking in the future. It makes assumptions such as using the data on diarrhoeal deaths as an indication of water quality rather than direct figures for water quality.

The deadline set by MDGs is just eight years away. Already the MDGs have received much flak from experts for being too unambitious and only targeting half the population unserved by water and sanitation. Many more people could be served in the same timeframe.

“When there are people without piped water or sanitation, you have a disaster at hand and you have to handle this on a war footing,” said Mr McIntosh. “Old rules need to be put aside to get the job done quickly.”

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