How To Make Water Issues Matter To World Leaders

By Asit Biswas, Cecilia Tortajada 17 February, 2020

Global water gurus Biswas & Tortajada explore how water experts can rethink their messaging with political leaders

While water professionals see water as the most important issue facing countries, no leader of any country save Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew has shown sustained interest in water in the last 50 years
Yet, water is every country's problem, even for developed ones e.g. in 2017, US’s dams, inland waterways & drinking water received a score of D & wastewater infrastructures received a D+
Water experts have to stress that water can be an engine for socio-economic development e.g. India’s former PM, Indira Gandhi was interested mostly in water because it was a means to an end

In December 1992, the UN General Assembly declared 22 March World Water Day, to be celebrated each year. With increasing populations and economic activities, many countries face water scarcity – which in turn limits their economic development.

Sadly, not a single World Water Day over the past 25 years has focused on how water could be put high up on the political agendas of countries on a long-term basis. Until this happens, probabilities of solving national, and then global, water problems are slim.

Except Lee Kuan Yew from Singapore, no other leaders of any other country have shown sustained interest in water in last 50 years

An analysis of the last 50 years would indicate that except for Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s prime minister from 1959 to 1990, no other leaders of any other country have shown sustained interest in water in normal times. They are interested in water only when there are severe droughts or heavy floods. Once these extreme events are over, and situations return to normal, their interests in water promptly evaporate.

In contrast to national political leaders, most water professionals from all over the world, from academia, public and private sectors and NGOs, explicitly or implicitly consider water to be one of the most, if not the most, important issue facing their countries.

If this gulf in perception between national policymakers and the water profession is to be bridged, the latter must change their current messaging.

In recent decades, the focus of the water profession has been exclusively on good planning and management. However, this has not got national political leaders interested in water on a long-term and sustained basis.

The message to political leaders should focus on how good water management can contribute to socio-economic development

This is because they are elected or judged primarily on the basis of improvements in the economic and social conditions of their countries. Thus, to attract their attention on water issues, the message to them should focus on how good water management can contribute to a country’s social and economic development, poverty alleviation, job creation and improved quality of life for citizens.

Everyone’s problem

Water problems are a global issue and leaders in both developed and developing countries should focus on them.

Developed countries still have major water problems to solve

There’s a misconception among most policymakers in developed countries who feel their water problems were solved over half a century ago. Developed countries still have major water problems to solve. However, these are different from the problems in developing countries.

In most developed countries billions of dollars are needed annually to keep their water and wastewater infrastructure functional, safe and in compliance with current and future regulations. For example, every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers grades America’s infrastructure using a simple A to F report card. The latest 2017 report gives America’s dams, inland waterways and drinking water a D, and wastewater a D+.

The US needs to invest >USD1trn over next 25 years to replace ageing drinking water pipes

According to the American Water Works Association, the US needs to invest more than USD1 trillion over the next 25 years to replace its ageing drinking water pipes. This does not include costs of updating sewer and stormwater pipes and water supply and wastewater treatment plants.

In developing countries, a large proportion of the population are engaged in agriculture-related activities, which accounts for nearly 70% of total global water use. In India, agriculture accounts for some 90% of national water use. Corresponding figures for Egypt are 86% and for China 65%. Agriculture depends on a reliable supply of water. So, nearly all developing countries have a dedicated water ministry because of its economic and social importance. Even then, water in such countries is not being managed efficiently and equitably.

India, for example, has had ten water ministers between 2000 and 2018. But not a single water minister in that time has managed to make any perceptible difference to how water is managed in India.

It has been difficult for India to find and retain good and capable persons as water ministers. For a total of five years at least, ministers holding another important portfolio were given the additional responsibility of running the water ministry. This includes the current minister.

Convincing policymakers

Water professionals have failed to convince senior policymakers of the potential of water to assure their countries’ economic and social development. They have been unable to put water high up on the political agenda by not realising or appreciating what influences the political views and priorities of prime ministers or presidents.

India’s former prime minister, Indira Gandhi, explained that issues like water or energy are a means to an end…

…& as PM, she was interested mostly in the ends

India’s former prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was a mentor to one of us (Asit). In early 1973, she noted that a water professional often thinks the “sun and the moon” revolve around water. As a prime minister, she had not much interest in water. She explained that issues like water or energy are a means to an end. As a prime minister, she was interested mostly in the ends: how could India’s economic growth be increased, how could poverty be alleviated, or how could a significant number of good and well-paid jobs be generated?

To attract the attention of state leaders, water professionals should make it clear that water can act as an engine for economic and social development, generate new employment and improve the standard of living and quality of life of the people.

Water professionals can also point out lessons from Singapore, whose leaders have consistently considered water to be a strategic issue for the country’s social and economic development.

“All policies had to bend at the knees for water survival”

Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore

During a series of private discussions with Lee Kuan Yew, we found out that he had three people in his office who examined all policies “through the lens of water” before they were approved. He noted: “All policies had to bend at the knees for water survival.” With such an enlightened outlook, Singapore’s water management, which in the early 1960s was similar to that of Delhi, became one of the best in the world only 25 years later. Water continues to receive high political priority in Singapore.

Even for advanced industrial economies, water can be an engine for their continuing social and economic development. Properly planned, water should contribute to a better quality of life and standard of living of their citizens. However, this is unlikely to happen without strong and sustained high-level political support.

Further Reading

  • 8 Asia Water Risks: Here Today & Here To Stay In Asia – Damaging typhoons, life & business disrupting water outages and threatening sea level rise… China Water Risk review’s 8 water threats too great to miss in Asia from just the past 3 years
  • Learning From Singapore’s Circular Water Economy – Hong Kong is facing an imminent water crisis yet Singapore’s novel circular water economy approach may offer solutions from which HK can learn. Utrecht University’s Julian Kirchherr & Circular Economy Academy’s Ralf van Santen explore
  • Climate Change, Groundwater & Agriculture In India – The hidden risks of groundwater are clear in India as it is key for the country’s food security and already is largely over extracted. What can India do? Dr Aditi Mukherji from the ICIMOD, shares ways forward
  • India’s Water Policies: Just Feel Good Documents? – Chetan Pandit, former #2 of India’s Central Water Commission, joins Professor Asit Biswas from the National University of Singapore in a “no holds barred” review on what’s gone wrong with India’s water management in the past 31 years
  • Hot, Thirsty, Sweaty & Wet: HK’s Future Down The Drain? – China Water Risk’s Woody Chan & Debra Tan look beyond current tensions and see very real threats to Hong Kong’s future from climate change. Get ready for a hot, thirsty, sweaty & wet future

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  • Climate Fight: Finance As Asia’s Most Effective Weapon – Green finance is set to take off as regulations promote carbon pricing and better disclosure but Dr Ma and Huang also see gaps that need closing like integrating ESG factors in risk management
  • Dirty & Thirsty – Not Just A Paper Tiger – China is the world’s largest paper producer but the industry is a Top-3 polluter. Pollution crackdowns have led to cuts across provinces and water quality has improved. With rising enforcement, is this just the beginning?
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Asit Biswas
Author: Asit Biswas
Professor Biswas is a leading authority on water, environment and development-related issues. He has been an advisor and confidant to Presidents, PMs and Ministers of 19 countries, six Heads of UN Agencies, two Secretary-Generals of OECD and several heads of IGOs and MNCs. He was also Director of Canada’s Department of the Environment. Asit co-founded the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), the World Water Council and the Third World Centre for Water Management and currently sits on the International Advisory Board of Pictet Asset Management and the Indian Institute of Technology and is Strategic Advisor to Singapore International Water Week as well as Distinguished Visiting Professor to the University of Glasgow. Asit is a distinguished Academician. With 950+ publications, his h-index of 44 makes him an ‘outstanding scientist’ and a Research Gate score of 41.89, puts him into the top 2.5% of all scientists across all disciplines globally. He founded the International Journal of Water Resources Development and is the author or editor of 88 books; his works have been translated into 41 languages. He has also seven Honorary Doctorates plus numerous prestigious global environment and water awards, ranging from the Aragon Environment Prize to the Stockholm Water Prize; Canada even named him Person of the Year in 1996.
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Cecilia Tortajada
Author: Cecilia Tortajada
Dr Tortajada is a leading international authority on urban water and wastewater management. She currently focuses on ensuring water future in terms of food, energy and environmental governance and ensuring water security through coordinated policies, which include water and natural resources management and water reuse. Dr Tortajada has advised major international institutions like FAO, UNDP, JICA, ADB, OECD, IDRC and GIZ, and has worked in numerous countries in Africa, Asia, North and South America plus Europe. She received the prestigious Crystal Drop Award and has been the only woman President of the International Water Resources Association during its 50 years of history. Dr Tortajada is currently a member of the OECD Initiative on Water Governance and juror for the Finnish Academy’s Euro One Million Millennium Technology Prize. She is also the Editor‐in‐Chief of the International Journal of Water Resources Development; Associate Editor of Water International; member of the Editorial Boards of the International Journal of Water Governance, Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research, and Urban, Planning and Transport Research Journal; as well as Editor of book series with Routledge, Springer and Oxford University Press. Cecilia has also authored and edited over 40 books by major international publishers. Her work has been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Mongolian and Spanish.
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