Around 2.5 billion to 3 billion people worldwide don’t have access to clean water. There are at least another 1.5 billion in developed countries who may have access to clean water but don’t trust its quality.
A number of widely publicized events about unreliable water services in some countries have added to this mistrust. Seventeen years ago, Walkerton, Ontario, had Canada’s worst E coli contamination of domestic water supply. It resulted in seven deaths and 2,300 illnesses.
In 2014, Flint, Michigan, changed its source of water supply to the Flint River. This corrosive source dangerously increased lead contamination of domestic water, which severely affected people’s health, especially children.
Many other incidents, in cities ranging from Sydney in Australia to Hong Kong, have made people increasingly skeptical of the quality of water they get at home.
To be on the safe side, consumers all over the world are increasingly taking charge of their own drinking-water supply. Installations of expensive water-treatment systems are exploding in the developed world, as is consumption of bottled water. In such cities as Tokyo, Berlin, London and New York, fewer and fewer people are drinking water from the tap.
The trend in developing countries has taken a different route. Households from Delhi to Dakar have become mini-utilities. Even if water only comes on for a few hours every day, residents have found ways to deliver 24-hour supply by collecting it in underground tanks, pumping it into overhead tanks and then distributing it. Households have also installed their own treatment systems for clean drinking water.
After decades of work on urban water and wastewater management in some 40 countries, the authors of this article have concluded that there is no reason urban centers of 200,000 or more people cannot have access to clean water that can be drunk straight from the tap without any health concerns. The technology and funds to make this possible already exist. So what’s missing?
Very often the view is that technological developments will solve water problems. But policies are just as critical, as are “softer” aspects such as management, governance and institutions. Unless these get adequate attention, neither technology nor additional investment funds are likely to resolve the world’s clean-water problems.
A decade ago we predicted that unless management practices improved very significantly, at least one city in Africa would face an unprecedented water crisis within 20 years. Our prediction was accurate. Unless politicians in African cities improve water management as a priority, our studies indicate there will be at least 15 other cities that will face severe water problems by 2035.
The trend is progressively toward less water use. This reduction has been made possible through different policy approaches. This includes pricing water appropriately as well as incentives for using less water, particularly in times of drought.
But what assumptions should be made about consumption when designing policies? How much water a person needs to survive is tricky, partly because it differs dramatically depending on the country and on whether the person is living in a city or a rural area.
Only one multi-year study has been done on this issue. It was in the 1960s in Singapore. It concluded that a person needs 75 liters a day to lead a healthy and productive life. In Singapore, daily per capita water use in 2017 was 143 liters, nearly double this amount. In contrast, in the US, it varies from 300 to 380 liters. In South Africa, it is around 235 liters.
There is good reason to believe people can lead a healthy and productive life with 75 to 85 liters of water per day. For example, water consumption in the Czech Republic is now 88 liters per capita per day. In several European cities such as Leipzig, Malaga, Tallinn, Barcelona and Zaragoza, average water use is 95 liters per capita per day or less. Denmark now has an average daily water use of 104 liters.
Thanks to water pricing, initiatives for using less water, fines for excessive use and very effective public awareness campaigns, Sao Paulo reduced its per capital daily water use from 145 to 120 liters. Since Sao Paulo Metropolitan Area has around 22 million people, these policies saved 550 million liters of drinking water every day.
Since 80-85% of domestic water used becomes wastewater, this means some 470 million liters of wastewater will not be produced, and thus will not have to be treated.
Technological developments will undoubtedly help to solve the world’s urban water problems. But there is increasing evidence that if the aim is to provide everyone with access to clean water, then increasing focus must be placed on governance, institutional issues and policies.
The world’s urban water problems are solvable. Knowledge, technology and funds to solve them have been around for at least a decade. But lack of sustained political will has been the most important missing link critical factor to improve urban water governance in nearly all cities of the world.
Sadly, there aren’t many signs that this may change any time soon.
Asit K Biswas is a distinguished visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Cecilia Tortajada is a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.