Buckets flew fast from supermarket shelves across Kuala Lumpur as nearly one million people stock up on water just before important repairs of a major water treatment plant would start in August 2001. Their reaction stemmed from memories of a miserable six months of severe water rationing in 1998.
In Beijing, the announcement of shutting down its water system following a chemical plant explosion in November 2005 sparked panic-buying of bottled water, milk and soft drinks that left supermarket shelves empty.
Due to a prolonged dry spell that lowered water levels in several dams, including the Angat Dam which supplies 97 percent of water needs of the estimated 12 million residents of metropolis in July 2007, Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales asked churchgoers and schools to pray for rain.
These water problems are just dress rehearsals for what will happen in the coming years. “If the present unsatisfactory trends continue, in one or two decades, Asian developing countries are likely to face and cope with a crisis on water quality management that is unprecedented in human history,” warns Kallidaikurichi Seetharam, principal water and urban development specialist of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila.
Dr Sandra Postel, director of the Massachusetts-based Global Water Policy Project, believes water problems will be right there with climate change as a threat to the human future, and global warming will worsen water problems. “Although the two are related, water has no substitutes,” she explains. “We can transition away from coal and oil to solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. But there is no transitioning away from water to something else.”
Only 2.5 percent of the water that covers over 70 percent of the earth’s surface is considered fresh water. And only 1.3 percent is available for human use since most of the freshwater are trapped in glaciers, ice sheets, and mountainous areas. Fresh water is drawn either from wells (tapping underground sources called aquifers) or from surface flows (like lakes, rivers, and man-made reservoirs).
“Water is the most precious asset on Earth,” says Dr Postel. “It is the basis of life.” Ideally, each person needs 50 liters of water every day to meet basic needs – for drinking, food preparation, cooking and cleaning up, washing and personal hygiene, laundry, house cleaning.
The amount of fresh water on Earth remains the same since the beginning of time -- less than a million cubic kilometers. In Asia, around 1,444 cubic kilometers of freshwater is withdrawn annually for human consumption. “That is equivalent to about 500 cubic meters per person per year,” simplifies Thierry Facon, senior water management officer of the regional office of Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Bangkok, Thailand.
The water demands – and shortages -- of many cities throughout Asia are expanding. Between now and 2025, Asia’s urban population will swell to 60 percent from the current 40 percent. By that time, some cities will have more than 10 million inhabitants, among them: Tokyo, Mumbai, Delhi, Shanghai, Jakarta, Karachi, Manila, Beijing, and Osaka. “Although cities and towns account for less than ten percent of world water use, it is a very concentrated demand,” warns Dr Postel.
Take the case of the Philippines. “The rapid urbanization of the Philippines, with more than 2 million being added to the urban population annually, is having a major impact on water resources,” notes ADB in its recently-released, Asian Water Development Outlook 2007. In Metro Manila, for instance, residents often complain of lack of water during the summer months. In some parts of the metropolis, the water supply situation reaches a vulnerable state that the little amount water some residents get is not enough even for emergency purposes like cooking and drinking.
Not a drop to drink
Several factors contribute to water shortage, including variability in climate, demographic patterns, and unsustainable water-use patterns. In some urban centers of Asia where water is available, 50 percent never reaches the designated consumers due to leakage, theft and poor management. These identified problems are compounded by the degradation of water resource base.
For instance, many of Asia’s largest cities are located in watersheds (also called catchment areas or drainage basin) where all available water is being used. “Land use and vegetative cover in the watershed are very important because they affect water flow and water quality,” explains Patrick Durst, senior forestry officer of FAO’s regional office in Bangkok, Thailand.
Example of a good watershed is a healthy forest. “This is because forests can help to relegate the flow of water,” says Durst. Unfortunately, the region lost half its forest cover over the last 50 years. “Forests are also one of the best ‘filters’ for water that exists in nature, filtering out pollutants, chemicals and sediments to help deliver clean water below.”
“Dig the well before you get thirsty,” cautions the old Chinese proverb. But even if there’s water below, it may not be safe for drinking. For instance, samples of drinking water from various wells in Thailand have nitrate levels above the World Health Organisation’s safety limit. Despite high rainfall in Japan, contamination of water is a serious issue in many areas.
Over pumping of aquifers has resulted in seawater intrusion. “This is a big problem for countries with falling water tables,” points out Dr Lester Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Cities in the Philippines near coastal areas like Manila, Cavite, Iloilo and Cebu are now facing serious seawater intrusion. In China, seawater intrusion in coastal regions along Laizhou Bay has threatened drinking water safety for more than 400,000 people.
Rivers and lakes fare no better. In Malaysia, 26 million people generate about six million tons of sewage each year, most of which are released into the rivers. In Metro Manila, solid waste generation, now estimated at 5,345 tons per day, is expected to double by 2010. In other parts of Asia, nearly all water that enters the household is discharged as wastewater.
More bad news: Rivers and other bodies of water are also drying rapidly as waters are being tapped for growing crops. “We drink, in one form or another, nearly 4 liters of water per day. But the food we consume each day requires at least 2,000 liters to produce, 500 times as much,” says Dr Brown, who just released his newest book, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. To raise a ton of rice, for instance, you need a thousand tons of water.
There is more to Asia than looming water crisis. The region is also known for its severe water-related disasters like floods, droughts, tsunamis, windstorms, and landslides. Between 1960 and 2006, over 600 thousand casualties were recorded, accounting for over 80 percent of casualties worldwide, in addition to $8 billion worth of economic damage during the same period.
Water shortage spawns a Jekyll-and-Hyde paradox: from life giver, water turns into killer. In the Philippines, human waste contamination in the water supply caused the diarrhea outbreak that claimed the lives of three persons and downed 369 early in 2006 in Bohol. Three years previously, more than 500 residents in Tondo, Manila were rushed to various hospitals due to cholera outbreak; five others died.
Contaminated water causes 90 percent of diarrheal cases among children. As Dr Marinus Gotink, chief of the health and nutrition division of United Nations Children’s Fund in Manila, puts it: “Children, especially those below three years old, are more vulnerable and susceptible to diseases caused by disasters like flooding and water shortage.”
In recent years, outbreaks of dengue fever, a water-related disease, hog the headlines of various newspapers in the region. Most of the upswing cases were recorded in Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh, where industrial growth has not always been accompanied by the development of well-managed water supplies.
Residents must often store water for drinking and washing in open buckets and barrels – good mosquito breeding conditions. “Those dengue-carrying mosquitoes thrive in clean water,” explains Dr Dominic Garcia, an infectious disease specialist in the Philippines. “In areas where areas where there is an accumulation of clean water, these mosquitoes are not far away.”
Problems with water quality and supply have made bottled water very popular in Asia. People traveling in other parts of Asia almost always bring or buy bottled water wherever they go. “Even if we have travel insurance all the time, it would be a disaster if we lost vacation time by failing ill – especially for an avoidable condition such as water contamination and related illnesses,” says Dr Manolette Roque, consultant ophthalmologist at the Asian Hospital and Medical Center in Manila.
In Malaysia, the concern on water quality and safety has caused filter sales to spurt. People are now using multiple filters instead of just one. British journalist John Rowley, who is married to a Malaysian, says, “In general, I avoid drinking water straight from the tap. When I am home in Malaysia, we just boil and cool the tap water and that seems fine. If there is a drought and we suspect of the water quality, we may also filter it.”
Needed: Blue revolution
Is there a solution in sight? “We need a blue revolution,” suggests Don Hinrichsen, an environmental journalist who has done studies on water crisis for Johns Hopkins University and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “The main pillar of this is the actual management of water for society in general, taking into account the needs of nature. We need real water management, not just hydrologists moving water around.”
The blue revolution he has in mind should also look into the watershed management approach, “so that each watershed has its own management plan,” he explains. “At the same time, we need to cut back on wastage and get people to adopt water conservation measures.”
Pererhaps, Asian governments can learn something from Singapore’s significant success. Despite a lack of sufficient internal water resources, it has done exceptionally well in regard to provision of tap quality drinking water to its population. The water supply is continuous and you can drink it straight from the faucet. “Over here, tap water is potable and I’m happy to drink it,” admits Dr Ivor Lim, a plastic surgeon at the Camdem Medical Centre. “The water is soft and actually tastes alright and not as hard as water from other countries.”
But most Asian countries are not as highly-developed as Singapore. So, they must heed the words of John Briscoe, senior water adviser at the World Bank. Unless people learn to use water more efficiently, he says, there won’t be enough fresh water to sustain the Earth’s population. “If nothing happens, the situation is really quite terrifying,” he adds. “Without innovation, you’re dead.”