Five Takeways From The Singapore International Water Week
By Ina Pozon 21 July, 2010
Ina Pozon, gives us the highlights of the week…
1. The water issue needs a re-think
You know an issue has hit the proverbial wall when experts call for a paradigm shift. The current thinking is deemed inadequate to meet existing problems, and only an overhaul of the framework will do. We saw this ten years ago, when energy and climate experts began debating the outlines of a “new energy paradigm.” At this year’s Singapore International Water Week (SIWW), experts called for a “water governance makeover.”
Urbanisation is the new stressor in the mix. Migration from rural to urban areas has increasingly become the context for discussing water, and other environmental and social issues. According to the UN, by 2030 Asia will host 63% of the world’s urban population. The crowding of urban areas as well as the increasingly demanding lifestyles of city dwellers means that cities need to be built differently. The cities of the future are not just infrastructure, but complex living ecosystems. And water its sustaining lifeblood.
Arjun Thapan, special advisor to Asia Development Bank (ADB) president, stresses that with Asia’s growing water concerns, where demand outstrips supply, a transformational water paradigm is critical. What does this new paradigm involve? Thapan says inclusiveness needs to be at the center of this transformation: Because water is a local issue, the agenda will have to be informed by local stakeholders. There is also the importance of increased private sector involvement, a water price that reflects water’s real value, and planning that recognises the interdependence between food, water and energy.
These recommendations are not new per se; what Thapan refers to as “new water governance” is the integration of these elements –opposed to the usual practice of cherry picking from a slew of solutions. The problem with water, says Thapan, is at the stage where a wholistic approach is key if we are to avoid massive “social and economic disruption in our way of life.”
(Coming soon CWR interviews Arjun Thapan on the outlines of Asia’s water governance).
2. Water’s Cinderella story
The perennial question: Why isn’t more funding being pumped into the water sector? Why in spite of all the brokerage firms pushing sell on blue-gold investments, the water sector remains the “Cinderella of all sectors”– ignored, undervalued, and yet brimming with potential.
According to experts present at SIWW, finance is not an obstacle to building (and re-building) Asia’s water sector. Looking beyond the public sector, there is a range of funding sources that are a good fit for water sector investments such as infrastructure funds, pensions funds, private equity, venture capital, and financial institutions.
The real issue, according to the experts, is that risk metrics have not been aligned to allow the private sector to move in with confidence. This concern lays much of the blame or credit on government– does the government have the ability to guarantee that a project will move forward even in the face of local community concerns or local government politics? Can the government ensure a “right” price for water is mandated to allow a return on investment? Managing risks is essentially asking if government can guarantee the right environment for business to invest in water.
Unfortunately the risk metrics question also gets at the heart of the water debate– what is government’s role in water provision? And the inevitable follow-up question– what is business’? And we know how this debate spirals…
3. Context, context, context
A water footprint is a number that tells you how much water has gone into the production of a good or service. While it has it uses in helping a consumer understand how water-intensive a product is (which may or may not sway one’s purchasing decision), it falls short on presenting the risks of where that water is sourced and used i.e. the local context.
Coca-Cola’s director for Water Stewardship, Greg Koch, explains during a session at SIWW, how water management is not just about water use but, more importantly, about context. Where is the water used? What proportion does this represent of the entire resource in the area? Does its use present risks to the environment, community or to business?
While a number may seem a convenient tool to help us understand water use– and it is a good first step– ignoring local context means that water risks are not correctly assessed and can lead to conflicts later on. An example: Coke and Pepsi Cola’s ongoing conflict with the Kerala government over accusations of company plants’ over-extraction of water and pollution.
4. Where’s the beef?
The links between water and food security were made repeatedly at the SIWW. We understand that because most of our planet’s resources are used for food, decline in water quantity and quality bring risks to the agricultural sector. In China, recently we saw how the droughts in the South have affected tea, coffee, sugar, potato, and rapeseed production.
With water being an integral component of agriculture, why the obvious absence of food producers at the SIWW?
5. On an optimistic note: The Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC) won this year’s Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize.
The Lee Kuan Yew water prize recognizes contributions towards solving global water problems through application of technologies or implementing of policies and programmes. This year, the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Council recognised YRCC’s integrated water allocation programme, which balances water availability with social, economic and ecological developments. Along with improved and reliable supply of water, large areas of wetlands and biodiversity in the Yellow River Delta have also been restored as a result.
Another key feature is YRCC’s inclusiveness policy: with nine provinces and regions along the 5,464-kilometres long river, YRCC adopts a consultative approach to secure the support of the provincial governments and the people for its water allocation initiatives, thus preventing abuse and over-exploitation of water resources.
One wonders why the YRCC won this year’s prize considering reports on Yellow River’s increasing pollution and recent flooding. The answer is reflected in the YRCC’s commissioner’s speech: “The YRCC is deeply honoured to receive the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize for our efforts in revitalising the Yellow River. We recognise that more can be done to enhance the ecosystem along a river that plays such a vital role in China’s economic development and holds an important position in the hearts of its people. This endorsement reaffirms our long-term commitment to nurturing and improving the quality of life along the river through sustainable river management strategies,” said Li Guoying, Commissioner, YRCC.
We need to applaud every effort from China. In a country that thrives on competition and imitation, recognizing YRCC could very well push other governments in interesting places.
Read more from Ina Pozon →