AIDF Water Summit: 5 Takeaways

By Dawn McGregor 13 May, 2014

Dawn McGregor gives us her 5 takeaways from AIDF's Asia Water Security Summit

Water's link to GDP now widely acknowledged in Asia; around 90% of water released in Asia is untreated
Must adopt un-siloed approach to water issues especially as climate change means more vulnerabilities
3 areas of improvement identified for the water sector but best practices need to be developed

Summit Group Photo (330 pixels)

On 23-24 April 2014, Aid & International Development Forum (AIDF) held the Water Security Summit: Asia 2014 in Malaysia.  China Water Risk was an institutional partner. The summit attracted diverse speakers and participants from various sectors including international researchers, NGOs, UN organisations, government and the private sector.
Click here for the full programme.

Water risk has finally been widely acknowledged by Asian countries

The overriding message was that water security and related issues has finally been widely acknowledged by Asian countries. Now, the big question is how we resolve these challenges:


  • Around 90% of water released in Asia is untreated;
  • Around 73% of India’s population depends on irrigated agriculture; and
  • By 2050 the UN predicts that the world population will be 9.6 billion, 6 billion of which will be in urban areas significantly increasing water demand.

The importance and urgency of Asia’s water security challenges could not be clearer. Here are 5 key takeaways from the summit…

1. Water previously associated with health & sanitation, now linked with GDP

Water link to GDP is driving increased commitment to water security from corporates and governments

Water issues have long been associated with health and sanitation but what was encouraging at the summit was to see water being linked with GDP.
This more nouveau association appears to be driving increased commitment to water security from corporates and governments, as they realise water is a must-have resource for every sector (energy, power & food, just to list a few key ones).
Some key water-GDP highlights from the conference:

    • Asian Development Bank estimated in 2012 that  29 billion m³ of water is lost each year in Asia causing Asia’s water utilities to lose more than $9 billion in revenue each year;
    • As water security issues are solved more people will have access to clean and safe water, which will increase productivity and in turn GDP. This is not only through drinking water but also water used to grow crops; and
    • Coca-Cola has committed to recharging as much water as it withdraws: to ensure water for its production. In Indonesia, Coca-Cola with the help of USAID is working with locals to construct recharge ponds that help reintroduce water into the water cycle.

Recent food safety and water pollution in China has raised health concerns. With healthcare costs set to rise due to pollution, “the challenge now is to design effective policies to reduce the health impacts of environmental degradation”, says Jennifer Holdaway and Wang Wuyi in a chinadialogue article.

2. To successfully solve water security issues solutions need to be holistic and across sectors

Our view has always been that a holistic and un-siloed approach for water management is needed given limited water resources. So, we were pleased to see this view echoed at the summit by key policy makers and water security experts in Asia.

“Stop managing water sectorally”, “[we] need a holistic approach by all stakeholders”

H.E. G Palanivel, Malaysia’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment

So how do we achieve this un-siloed approach? Stefan Germann, Director of Partnerships, Innovation & Accountability, Global Health & Wash Team at World Vision, suggested that the answer lies in future business models. No longer will there be typical government, corporate and NGO sectors but ‘hybrid businesses’ that take all of these sectors into account resulting in truly sustainable operations and solutions.
Yes, it’s time for business unusual. A trend we called in our 5 trends for 2014.

3.  Climate change will impact food security

When discussing what the future holds for water in Asia, climate change and its impacts frequently came up. Key headlines were:

    • Impacts are going to be big (extreme and erratic weather);
    • Widespread implications (many sectors to be affected, not just water);
    • Exacerbate already existing water stresses; and
    • Long term goals required in order to mitigate the risks arising from climate change.

With extreme and erratic weather due to climate change, food security can no longer be managed as it is currently.
Water resources and their management are going to become more crucial than ever.

Climate change is certainly not new news but what is becoming more of a focus is the impact it will have on food security. With extreme and erratic weather food security can no longer be managed as it is currently. Droughts, floods and both in one season mean that water resources and their management are going to become more crucial than ever.
Agritech, hybrids, crop selection & diversification are all finding increasing roles in agriculture. More here on the state of agriculture in China. What is worrying is that despite increasing risk, there is climate change ‘fatigue’. A concern also echoed by Samuel Kwong, vice-chairman of Chartered Institute of Water & Environmental Management (CIWEM) in Hong Kong. CIWEM held a one day conference on the impacts of climate change on water and environmental management on 8 May 2014.

4.     Water sector: 3 key areas for improvement

Asia’s water security challenges are vast but here are three key areas for improvement in the water sector that can make a difference:

1.     Wastewater

Around 90% of water released in Asia is untreated, according to Dr. Salmah Zakaria, Economic Affairs Officer at UNESCAP. Data like this highlights the scale of wastewater in Asia and how increasing wastewater use could have significant implications in Asia. In China, the total discharge of wastewater for 2012 was comparable to the annual flow of the Yellow River of 58 billion m³ per annum (more on China’s wastewater here). In Thailand, 15 million m³ of wastewater is discharged daily, of which only 2 million m³ is treated. Many Asian countries face similar statistics.

Wastewater is becoming increasingly important given limited water supplies, health issues, rampant water & soil pollution.

So what is the future of wastewater? H.E. G Palanivel, Malaysia’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, said that wastewater effluents will become an asset. This is not as crazy as it may seem as Terrence Thompson, Senior Environment Health Advisor, World Health Organization highlighted that wastewater can be rich in nutrients and energy, which can be recovered and used in various applications. However, Thompson noted that wastewater use safety guidelines need to be improved.

2.   Groundwater

In Asia, groundwater accounts for around 45% of water used for irrigation. However, groundwater resources and quality is very vulnerable to urbanisation and industrialisation due to over-exploitation and pollution, see more on this here. Indeed, in China, 60% of groundwater is unfit for human touch, according to the latest government statistics (read more here).

To secure groundwater for the future, sustainable groundwater extraction needs to occur. Professor Partha Sarathi Datta, an independent water & environment consultant, said that better governance is needed to achieve sustainable groundwater management and provided a general model for such:

Sustainable Groundwater Management Flow Diagram FINAL

Various stages of the above are being done in China. For background on groundwater see Groundwater Crackdown – Hope Springs.

3. Non-revenue water

“Non-revenue water (NRW) is not sexy”, says Mark Nicol, Business Development Manager APAC of Echologics (a division of Mueller Co. that uses acoustic technologies to detect underground water leaks). Consequently, it is often neglected and viewed as a ‘quick fix’ project.

However, NRW not only results in lost revenue but also poses infrastructural risks and has a role in health and sanitation. The upside in water savings could be tremendous, check out Pure Technologies’ experience in tackling NRW in Manila.

5. Best Practice vs. Good Practice

We are always searching for solutions. Unfortunately, solutions are usually accompanied with their own set of issues and so the need for more solutions. The cause for this? The lack of standardization.

Best practice will allow us to move from curative to preventative measures

Dr Andreas Hauser, Director of Water Services at TUV SUD spoke on the urgent need for standardisation in the water sector. Dr Hauser’s main point was simple, there are good practices but what is needed is a best practice. That means a single practice that can be widely applied. By having a best practice, repetition is avoided resulting in not only financial savings but also time and labour savings. Dr Hauser isn’t suggesting a one-size fits all policy, instead that technology and systems be modulised allowing for interoperability.
Setting benchmarks for corporates and investors are also amongst our top 5 trends for 2014.
Best practice will allow us to move from “curative to preventative measures” as H.E. G Palanivel, Malaysia’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment said. Sounds like a good goal to aim for!

Further Reading

  • Pollution: 5 Reasons to Remain Optimistic – Given the recent release of depressing groundwater & soil pollution statistics, Debra Tan gives us 5 reasons to stay optimistic from changes in the environmental law to water tariff hikes in Beijing to the fear of being held criminally liable
  • China Water Risk’s 5 Trends for 2014 -With environmental risk cited as one of the top risks most likely to derail economic growth along with the banking crisis and housing bubble, check out our top 5 trends in water for the year of the Green Horse
  • Corporate Conscience: Beyond Charity – Why are so few companies effectively mitigating water risk? Is it time for the conscientious corporate to transition water from purely charity and compliance to a core business activity?
  • Business & Society: Building Trust – Given pressing societal issues, companies are now expected to lead the change across their business value chain. Edelman’s Ashley Hegland on why businesses need to reprioritize value to include such societal benefits to build & maintain trust or face reputational brand damage
  • One Year On: H&M & Water Stewardship – H&M’s Sustainability Relations Responsible, Julia Bakutis updates us on their Water Stewardship programme one year on. Find out what they have done & what challenges lie ahead for H&M as a water steward
  • Philanthropy: Catalysing Water for All – Water philanthropy in China can play a catalytic role in ensuring water for all in Asia. Lisa Genasci, CEO of ADM Capital Foundation on why philanthropists should take more risk by supporting research, public education, pilot projects & advocacy
Dawn McGregor
Author: Dawn McGregor
Dawn leads CWR’s work to help corporates navigate increasingly disruptive & material risks from water & climate threats, as well as transitional risks in the supply chain arising from new regulations in China. Here, Dawn engages extensively with the global fashion industry delivering on-ground workshops in China to keynotes and strategic input at European HQs. She has written at length on the end of dirty and thirsty fast fashion and her report to overcome gaps between brands and manufacturers for a clean and circular future inspired the industry to create a new wastewater tool. Dawn also works closely with the property and tourism sectors where she not only conducts strategic assessments of their exposure but builds collective action toward resilience via closed door working groups and invite-only events. Having helped build CWR, Dawn is a frequent keynote, panellist & moderator at events, including being twice selected as the lead-rapporteur at World Water Week. Her articles are cited in various industry publications including the UN’s ‘World Without Water’. Dawn previously worked in a global investment bank assessing geo-political risk, crisis management and business resiliency. She was born and bred in Hong Kong and has lived in France, England, Singapore and Beijing.
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