At the Asia Water Forum 2022, Woochong Um, managing director general, Asian Development Bank (ADB), delivered the keynote address on the water sector of Asia and the Pacific region. He expressed his views on the challenges of the sector, the strategies to combat water scarcity, and associated issues of climate change. Excerpts…

Water challenges have grown manyfold in the past years. Since 2018, the world has suffered from the outbreak of the pandemic, food security crisis, and climate change. Water plays a critical role in these issues as well and these realities have emphasised the need to quadruple our efforts to address water security and resilience needs. It is essential to find innovative solutions to tackle complex water challenges to build security and resilience for the Asia-Pacific region.

Prevalent challenges

Water is essential for life and it supports human well-being, economic development, and human health ecosystems and contributes to the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Solutions to water security and resilience are akin to climate adaptation. Asia and the Pacific are amongst the world’s most water-related-disaster-prone regions. The region is threatened by climate change, which implies that mitigation and adaptation are both essential. Water is a critical element of the climate change challenge. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report states that the adaptation gap is widening and without any action, it may soon be too costly or too late to act, neither of which is acceptable. According to the Asia Development Outlook, the ADB Flash Water Series, 22 out of 49 developing member countries in the region remain water insecure.

Through collective efforts, there are also gradual improvements in water security in some parts of the region. More needs to be done to serve the underserved, who represent more than 2 billion people or about 50 per cent of the region’s population. There are currently 500 million people without access to basic water supplies and over 1 billion people without access to proper sanitation in the Asia-Pacific region. Demand for food and energy will continue to rise in line with population growth and economic development although agriculture already consumes 75 per cent of freshwater and irrigation is the main contributor to groundwater depletion. In recent years, increasingly frequent and severe water-related disasters including floods and droughts have been witnessed. Besides, in small water-scarce countries, the sea level rise is contributing to saltwater intrusion into groundwater supplies.

Coping strategies

The water security challenges of the AsiaPacific region cannot be solved following a business-as-usual approach.Water has been undervalued and treated as an infinite resource for far too long, causing waste and misuse. ADB’s approach to building a resilient and water-secure Asia-Pacific in support of Strategy 2030 and the SDGs is based on five key principles. First, there is a need to better manage water by improving governance and breaking institutional silos. The integrated water resource management (IWRM) approach cuts across the sector’s levels of government. It is essential that nations work towards improving the catchment basins so as to meet and manage the growing demand for water. There is also a need to create enabling conditions to attract private investments in the sector. It has been estimated that countries in Asia and the Pacific need to invest an average of 1 to 2 per cent of the entire annual gross domestic product to achieve SDG 6, which is far beyond what the public sector and development assistance can provide. Public resources can be better used to de-risk and leverage more private sector investments in the space.

At the same time, private sector innovation and know-how can help drive significant efficiencies and development, and delivery of water infrastructure and services. Second, we must embrace the digital future in the water sector. The incorporation of digital technologies by water entities in the region has been lagging as compared to other sectors. New technologies such as earth observation systems and artificial intelligence offer huge opportunities to plan, manage and monitor water resources more easily and effectively. Third, we must also learn to work with nature and not against it. Nature-based solutions provide opportunities for flood protection, natural water filtration, and wastewater management and treatment.

Globally, wetlands are estimated to store 20-30 per cent of the world’s soil carbon but rising pollution and uncontrolled development are putting these valuable ecosystems at risk. The water quality of natural bodies is declining because of inadequate wastewater treatment and polluted agricultural runoff. A circular economy approach can help overcome water scarcity and reduce the region’s pollution levels. For example, treated wastewater can be used for agriculture, landscape irrigation, and groundwater recharge. Fourth, inclusion must be at the centre of various efforts to improve and expand access to reliable water supply and sanitation services. The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the need to ensure access to basic water supply and sanitation services, particularly for the most vulnerable. It is understood that hand washing is the first line of defence in preventing and reducing the spread of diseases, including Covid-19, but this requires access to reliable clean water supply. It is also women who often bear the burden of collecting water when it is not readily available, resulting in wasted time that could otherwise be productively used to work and study. So, we must do something about the so-called time poverty for women, children, and girls.

Finally, it is essential to recognise the central role of water in leading the region’s climate change adaptation efforts. Water is to adaptation what energy is to mitigation. Climate change cannot be tackled without building water security in the region. Transformative adaptation investments in the water sector will be the key for ADB to deliver its climate change mission of providing $100 billion in climate finance from our own resources by 2030. A positive side is that the adaptation finance is expected to come for at least a third of this amount.

In sum

Although the water challenges seem immense, it is essential that the region’s best water thinkers and doers collectively identify solutions to tackle the issues. The effect of climate change in the coming decades will be felt the most by young people. It is important to note that young water professionals are the key to tackling the region’s water security challenges by bringing innovative thinking and fresh ideas. „