Insights and Analysis

Better Urban Water Management Needed for Asia’s Cities

March 19, 2014

By Lisa Hook

By 2050, estimates predict that close to 70 percent of the world will live in cities. Asia is home to 17 of the 25 most densely populated cities in the world, and the mass migration from the countryside to Asia’s cities is “unprecedented in human history” and has significant environmental consequences, according to the Asian Development Bank. The UN Population Fund forecasts that the global urban population will rise from the present 3.2 billion to nearly 5 billion by 2030, and that three out of every five people will live in cities. Asia will be home to at least 10 megacities – cities with populations over 10 million – a size that is close to the entire population of small countries like Sweden and Portugal. China will soon be home to the world’s first 50-million person city. These megacities, including Jakarta, Dhaka, and Manila, face the unique challenge of developing sustainably built environments for millions of people.

Dhaka Boats

A city’s ability to provide water services is an important indicator of its “greenness.” However, many of Asia’s poorer cities are not able to provide wide-reaching, consistent water services. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Key to their success will be the ability to provide the most critical of services: water. Projections from the 2030 Water Resources Group indicate that the global gap between water demand and supply could be as large as 40 percent by 2030. Access to clean water, disposal of sewage and wastewater, water conservation, reuse, and sanitation are critical for a growing city’s competing demands – from the public and industry. To further complicate these challenges, climate change is contributing to the increased variability of water supply – often leading to too much, or too little water, such as in water-scarce Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, or the flood-stricken delta of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City.

A city’s ability to provide water services is an important indicator of its “greenness.” However, many of Asia’s poorer cities are not able to provide wide-reaching, consistent water services. According to the Asian Development Bank, almost 1.9 billion people in Asia do not have basic sanitation, which represents over 70 percent of the global total. Additionally, more than half of the world’s total people without access to safe drinking water reside in Asia. Costly investments in infrastructure, polluted rivers, and groundwater being drawn at unsustainable rates contribute to these challenges. With the exception of Southeast Asia, all other sub-regions of Asia will not meet their sanitation targets to halve the 1990 number of people without access to water supply and sanitation by 2015.

One Asian city that has made strides in addressing the challenges of urban water management is Singapore. Since its independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has prioritized water management and sustainable development and is now a “hydrohub” and a global leader in new water technologies and best practices in water management. Not naturally endowed with water resources, Singapore currently imports 40 percent of its water from Malaysia, but has a goal to achieve water self-sufficiency by 2061. The nation-state, with a population of approximately 5 million people, is pursuing a multi-pronged vision for a “smart” urban network for water management. Two thirds of its land surface now serves as a water catchment area through 17 reservoirs. It has constructed two desalination plants, and has a goal for desalination to make up 30 percent of its water by the 2061 deadline. Currently, approximately 30 percent of Singapore’s water comes from its “NEWater” factories, which treat wastewater through micro-filtration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet technology – the process treats the water so that it’s good enough for both public drinking and industry use. However, in the face of climate change, even Singapore is not immune – the country that is used to consistent rainfall is currently experiencing one of the worst droughts in recent history, and in January and February of this year, suffered the longest dry spell on record.

While not all of Singapore’s practices are suitable for other cities in Asia, due to varying levels of development (the nation-state is among the wealthiest in the region), there is one major takeaway from Singapore’s experience that can be applied to other Asian megacities, which is that water governance is critical to sustainable urban water management. According to Siemens Asian Green Cities Index, which rates major cities, including 22 in Asia, for environmental performance in eight categories, a city’s ability to implement policies effectively greatly influences its environmental performance rating. Singapore ranked at the top of this list for its water management and environmental governance. Its Public Utilities Bureau (PUB) is a coordinated governing body that has full jurisdiction over the city’s water management. The city regularly monitors its environmental performance, sets goals, publishes information, and involves the public in decision-making. The PUB’s governing body, the Ministry for Environment and Water Resources, is responsible for providing a clean and hygienic environment for Singapore. On the other hand, Metro Manila, which is listed as below average for water performance, for example, is governed by split jurisdictions that cause variation in environmental governance within the metropolitan area. The list ranks Hanoi below average for environmental governance, primarily owing to weak policies for environmental monitoring and management.

Bangkok on the other hand, ranks above average in the environmental governance category, performing well for having a dedicated environmental department and the capacity to implement its own environmental legislation. At the same time, the capital ranks below average in the water category due to higher than normal consumption and rising pollution. Moreover, Bangkok’s ability to cope with variable climate conditions has received criticism, including for its response to the 2011 flooding.

New and often expensive infrastructure and technologies can be seen as barriers for cities to achieve water management like those implemented in Singapore. However, what is most needed to ensure that Asia’s cities are able to provide for current and future populations is effective and coordinated water governance.

Lisa Hook is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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