Three Paradoxes on World Water Day

By Asit K. Biswas & Leong Ching

Today is World Water Day. This year's theme is the current challenges facing urban water management. We are often told the world is running out of clean water. One billion people lack access to safe drinking water. By 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will face water stress, and the situation will become worse by 2050. Even worse, less than 1 per cent of the world's water is usable.

But these are red herrings.

• First, the world, as an elementary physical fact, cannot run out of water. Water, unlike coal, wood or fossil fuels such as oil, is a renewable resource. With good management practices, water can be used, treated and reused, and this cycle can continue many, many times.
• Second, while it is true that there are many who face hardship in getting water, the notion of water stress has no scientific basis. Some international institutions have decided arbitrarily that a region becomes water stressed when per capita water availability falls below 1,700 cubic meters (cu m) per year. Others use 1,000 cu m per year. The two figures differ by 70 per cent. Yet there are countries that have half this amount, and feel no water stress because of good management practices.
• Third, which follows from the first two points, there has to be a fresh approach to water management that divorces itself completely from conventional thinking, voodoo science, universal panaceas and false paradigms. Instead, each situation should be analyzed with common sense and "can do" attitudes.
     The Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority is a fine example of this fresh approach. The PPWSA is in the capital city of Cambodia, a relatively poor country that still relies on foreign aid for more than half of its government spending.
     Yet because of the work of the water authority, people can drink straight from the tap in Phnom Penh. Its water meets World Health Organization drinking water standards.
     There is universal access and, more astonishingly, not more than six drops are lost out of every 100 through the pipes. In contrast, a private sector organization such as Thames Water in the UK loses up to 25 per cent of its water because of losses and leaks through pipes.
     PPWSA has been able to do this because it has successfully tackled the three paradoxes dogging most urban water reforms.
     The first paradox is: Do we price water as an economic good to provide the necessary incentives to use water well, as well as give water for free as a matter of equity to the poor? From the start, PPWSA decided it needed to price water to reflect its value and to control its use. So PPWSA bit the bullet and charged a volumetric price for water. The very poor were not exempt - they received a bill but if they could not pay, their supply was not cut off.
     The second paradox, which applies especially to countries that rely on loans from outside agencies, is this: Do we put in place a system of rigid rules and regulations to ensure accountability or do we allow personal discretion? The PPWSA shows that the two are not always in conflict. Water collectors for PPWSA are paid much higher than others in the public sector. A large part of their pay is tied to collection rate bonuses, especially for 100 per cent collections. But it was nearly impossible for the collectors to get 100 per cent of the bills.
     What the collectors did was to pay the last few bills themselves as the bonus they would get would be higher than the bills. PPWSA knew this, but it did not hold the water meter readers to a strict accounting, especially since the outstanding bills were often from the very poor.
     The third paradox is this: Do we work with a strong charismatic leader, or do we have a system to turn out leaders of a certain sort? PPWSA has become almost synonymous with the name of Ek Sonn Chan, 61, who has led the authority since 1993. He has been credited with eradicating corruption, improving governance and providing transparent and generous compensation.
     But within the organization, Ek has already found two or three people ready to succeed him. The lesson is not that of victory in the face of despair, nor overcoming of insurmountable odds - although both are true. The learning lies in the fresh-eyed and practical approach taken to solve an urgent problem. Phnom Penh is a pocket of success and good governance in a country like Cambodia, which in 2009 ranked No. 158 in the world corruption perception index of Transparency International.
     The world's urban water problems can be solved within a decade, with good governance, with the knowledge, technology and investment resources that we now have. The fact that we will likely not do so is a damning indictment of the way utilities are run, the lack of political will to consider water as an important public policy issue and the apathy of the public, which has become used to third-grade service.
     If Phnom Penh, with its serious constraints, can supply all its residents, both rich and poor, with clean and drinkable water 24 hours a day, there is no reason other major urban centers in the developing world cannot do the same.