02 Oct 2012

This year, on the sidelines of the 13,500-strong Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) at Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre, 14 carefully selected water experts from all across the world huddled to hold an independent, constructive, and blunt discussion about “Water Infrastructure in Asia.

by Andrea Biswas-Tortajada

This year, on the sidelines of the 13,500-strong Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) at Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre, 14 carefully selected water experts from all across the world huddled to hold an independent, constructive, and blunt discussion about “Water Infrastructure in Asia: What is Needed and What is likely to be the Reality”. The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the Third World Centre for Water Management and SIWW sponsored the event to set the agenda on tackling Asia’s pressing issues in the water sector.

The meeting sought to emulate the original aim the World Economic Forum had set for its meetings in Davos, Switzerland, namely to set a template for luring influential political, government, business, civil and academic personalities to one place and tackle Asia’s most pressing challenges.

The group gathered to apply its intellectual muscle to discuss water infrastructure and the policy, institutional, legal, financial, physical, social and environmental pillars sustaining it. Discussions also centred on how to develop and manage governance frameworks and systems, public policies, physical structures and communication avenues through which water resources can be managed efficiently, effectively and sustainably in Asia, one of the world’s most vibrant regions.

Moving beyond conventional engineering and economics, studies from 11 Asian countries showed the extent to which each approach to address water requirements is context-specific and politics-conditioned. Any action requires the strong will and implementation commitment of all stakeholders, sizeable investments from conventional and new partners, comprehensive strategies, effective implementation and management and continuing technological adaptation and innovation. More importantly, any future ways of developing infrastructure would entail a profound change in our collective political, economic, environmental and social mindsets.

In Asia, the most populous continent in the world, on current behaviour, water demand would likely double by 2050 due to population growth, urbanisation, change in diets, intensifying industrialisation, challenges in raising agricultural productivity to meet food and energy requirements and climate changes, all of which add uncertainty to already highly complex and variable scenarios. Without any doubt, the challenges ahead are formidable, but so are the prospects for improvement, growth, and development.

The cost of inertia

Asia is urbanising and industrialising at a historically unprecedented speed. With 11 out of 20 mega-cities in the world, defined as cities with populations exceeding 10 million people, it is no surprise that Asian metropolis are also the continent’s economic and industrial powerhouses. Harnessing the region’s macroeconomic growth, Asian countries can use capital and human resources to approach water and wastewater management challenges as an indispensable step in any effort made to alleviate poverty and improve the population’s standards of living both in rural and urban areas. It is thus imperative to draw a much more tighter and clearer connection between water, food, energy, and environmental services and also between development, wellbeing, happiness and access to water, sanitation and wastewater management via more and better planned and managed infrastructure.

Unsurprisingly, Asia’s challenges and potential compel politicians and stakeholders to assign priority to all manner of engineering feats, to implement proactive rather than reactive approaches, to manage risk more effectively and to develop and strengthen human and institutional capacities and frameworks for improved, rational and equitable water management. Thus, engaging in this type of problem-solving, pragmatic dialogue could not be any timelier. Certain countries have already developed numerous water storage options and multi-purpose infrastructural projects, such as China or Turkey, but most of the potential in the region is still untapped. Nonetheless, significant hydro activity is being witnessed with new plants being developed, constructed and rehabilitated in countries such as India, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Bhutan and Malaysia. These advancements have become possible as governments overcome some of the planning, management and governance challenges that have hindered the construction of infrastructures in the past.

Nevertheless, the role politics play in water projects should not be overlooked or underestimated. Initiatives often face polarised fierce opposition or enthusiastic support by minorities, political parties and interest groups. Some projects are the whimsical, vanity or signature initiatives for certain politicians and their administrations. Inefficiently planned, built and managed white elephants faintly deliver the promised benefits and deter the construction and improvement of facilities needed by making wasteful use of financial and human resources and betraying public trust. Better institutions and more robust capacities can help avoid profligate projects that serve purely politically or financially opportunistic objectives.

All across Asia, countries are coming up with good examples of how to formulate sensible policies and mobilise high approval rates for the construction or expansion of infrastructures. Singapore has been long singled out as a case where water is one of the country’s key agenda drivers and where leadership, strong political will and coordinated institutional activities have positioned water as a crosscutting issue in the development policies and practices. That is an important first step.

Reservations that have led to loose, if any, policy collaboration and communication among public, private, academic and social stakeholders have been of little use to those still without access to safe and drinkable potable water, proper sanitation and wastewater treatment, a number in excess of 1.64 billion only in South Asia. Unless all relevant players are actively engaged, how can the general public support the development of infrastructure needed to provide these basic services in the scale that is required?

Engaging stakeholders

Assertive and coherent political guidance can also prove key in bringing about attitudinal changes. Awareness raising, keeping a mutually reinforcing relationship with the public and engaging civil actors are increasingly important factors in rallying support. Decision-making processes need to be made sustainable and more socially and environmentally responsible and responsive. For this, we need to think about the different avenues and ways in which public opinion, support, feedback and concerns can be brought on board to develop physical, social and political infrastructure. And whilst certain sectors face more barriers in winning support, illustrative examples of sizeable gains from safe water and sanitation are easier to communicate.

In places where information on overall good management practices has been disseminated, qualms on previous mistakes, which may have hindered new projects, have been removed. An excellent example is Bhutan, where political will, economic development and civil policy ownership seemed to have met at a comfortable middle ground in making of the hydropower export sector an engine for domestic socioeconomic growth. This is, while the primary purpose of harnessing water resources is to meet domestic needs, the export of energy greatly enhances revenue generation leading to socio-economic development, alleviating poverty and closing the gap between the rich and the poor. Bhutan-Indian government-government and public-public joint ventures are providing the US$15 billion investment needed to harness the 10,000 MW of hydropower resources Bhutan’s government reckons it will need by 2020. And whilst heavy Indian involvement has raised national questions of ownership, equity, energy security and fuel alternatives, the aim of seizing energy-generation potential remains primarily to meet domestic needs.

This meeting was a first step towards formulating useful policy recommendations and present constructive criticisms around key water infrastructure issues. Public, private, civil and academic actors can all benefit from engaging in targeted, pragmatic and honest assessments of the state of affairs in terms of what is available at present, what is needed in the future and how best the gaps in different Asian countries can be filled in a cost-effective, socially and environmentally acceptable and also timely manner. Tackling water challenges, Davos-style, promises to help direct water stakeholders’ minds, hearts and wilful determination on the right path.

Andrea Biswas-Tortajada is from the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico. Her email is