Professor Tommy Koh: The Future Of Water Today

National University of Singapore’s Professor Tommy Koh highlights the importance of treasuring water and discusses solutions to conserve water.

AsianScientist (Dec. 5, 2013) – By Professor Tommy Koh – Water is more precious than gold. Without water, there would be no life on earth. The irony is that we take water for granted. In some countries, water is treated as a public good and given away for free. This invariably leads to over-consumption and wastage.

At the first Asia-Pacific Water Summit, held in Beppu, Japan, in 2007, the leaders agreed to recognize the people’s right to safe drinking water as a basic human right and a fundamental aspect of human security. The leaders also agreed to reduce by half the number of people who do not have access to safe drinking water by 2015 and to reduce that number to zero by 2025. The situation today is that about 700 million Asians and about 20 percent of the world’s population do not have access to safe drinking water.

The global demand for water is rising, but the supply has become more uncertain. According to the UN, by 2025, half the countries of the world will face water stress or shortage. By 2050, as many as three quarters of the world’s population could be affected by water scarcity. The problem could become particularly acute in Asia because of high population growth, rapid urbanization and poor water endowment.

Water will become a security issue in this century. In 2009, the Asia Society published a seminal report on Water Security in Asia. The report drew attention to some of the most significant water-related challenges, such as, water disputes between unfriendly neighbors; water conflicts resulting from agricultural and industrial pollution; and the alarming increase in waterborne diseases due to inadequate waste water facilities.

Five years ago, Singapore hosted the first Singapore International Water Week (SIWW). The event was highly successful because it brought together all the stakeholders on water. With each passing year, the SIWW has grown bigger and better and has become an important event on the world’s water calendar. The fifth edition of SIWW will take place from the 1st to the 5th of July. Having chaired the Water Leaders Summit for the past four years, I will try to crystallize the most important lessons I have learned.

Lesson No. 1: Treasuring water

The first lesson I have learned is the need to change the people’s mindset about water. In many countries, especially where water is given away for free or heavily subsidized, the people’s attitude towards water is a wasteful one. Water should, therefore, be priced for the full recovery of the costs involved in producing it. We should also promote a culture of conserving water and of using water efficiently. In Singapore, as Prime Minister Lee has said, “conserving water is like a religion.”

Lesson No. 2: Right to safe drinking water as a human right

The second lesson is that the time has come for the people of Asia to demand that their access to safe drinking water be regarded by their governments as a human right and a fundamental aspect of human security. The fact that 700 million Asians do not have access to safe drinking water while their governments are spending billions of dollars on wasteful and ego-boosting projects is unacceptable. The fact that in some Asian cities, the poor have to buy water from private water vendors at several times the price that the rich pay for their water is reprehensible. There is no country in Asia that is too poor to provide a few liters a day of safe drinking water to all its citizens, if there is a political will to do so.

Lesson No. 3: The key is good water governance

The third lesson is that, in most Asian countries and cities, the problem is not the scarcity of water, but poor water governance. What are the examples of poor water governance? They include: antiquated water infrastructure, high leakage, theft, corruption and incompetence. The solution is good water governance. In the water sector, as in other sectors, what we need is good policy and competent management. Transparency, integrity and accountability are the three core values of good governance.

Lesson No. 4: Public sector and private sector

The fourth lesson is that we should be agnostic about the choice between using the public or the private sector in delivering the water service to the consumers. In the case of Cambodia, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority, a public sector entity, solved the city’s water problem and is recognized as one of the best water authorities in the world. In the case of the Philippines, the water authority of Manila was privatized. The Manila Water Company has also solved the city’s water problem and is often cited as a role model. The wisdom is that, in some situations, where the government is incompetent or corrupt, we may have to rely on the market to solve the water problem. Water is a viable business. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have recommended corporatizing entities responsible for water services into autonomous bodies.

Lesson No. 5: Need for a water minister

In many countries, water is an issue that cuts across the work of several ministries. The ideal situation is to have a minister in charge of water. If this is not possible, there should be a high-level coordinating mechanism, at the cabinet level, to deal with water, sanitation and waste water. Water should be treated in a holistic manner and not with a silo approach.

Lesson No. 6: Harnessing science and technology

We should harness the power of science and technology. Four of the winners of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize, Dr Andrew Benedek (2008), Prof Gatze Lettinga (2009), Dr James Barnard (2011) and Prof Mark van Loosdrecht (2012), are scientists and inventors who have made enormous contributions to the recycling and treatment of waste water. The SIWW is a platform that enables scientists and inventors to meet and interact with the leaders of cities, countries and industries. With the support of international organizations, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, we are developing sustainable solutions to some of the world’s water challenges.

Professor Tommy Koh is Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rector of Tembusu College, Special Adviser of the Institute of Policy Studies, and chairman of the Center for International Law, National University of Singapore.


This article was published in the Tommy Koh Reader.
Originally published in The Straits Times, 30 June 2012; Photo: VinothChandar/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Asian Scientist Magazine is an award-winning science and technology magazine that highlights R&D news stories from Asia to a global audience. The magazine is published by Singapore-headquartered Wildtype Media Group.

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