By Neal Peirce
Washington Post Writers Group
There are few grimmer crises than the lack of fresh water and sanitation services that threatens the lives of hundreds of millions in developing nations.
Case in point: Every week, more than 5,000 youngsters under the age of 5 die from diarrhoea and other water- and sanitation-related diseases. Talk about a poignant right to life issue!
Millions of women and children in the developing world are obliged to walk miles to fetch fresh water — spending about 40 billion hours a year at the task in Africa alone.
There is some bright news: International aid is rising. And even more crucial, pioneers with new ideas are rising to fight the water battles for cities from Mumbai to Kampala to Jakarta.
There’s scant time to lose. Already at 6 billion-plus souls, the world is adding close to 1 million new inhabitants a week — and will to 2050. The lion’s share of growth is coming in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America where safe drinking water is a luxury of the few and basic sanitation to treat human wastes is often simply lacking.
One wonders: When, if ever, will the entire world be able to access the safe drinking water supplies and sewage systems that developed societies began to adopt, raising average lifespans by decades, in the late 1800s?
Exploring the possibilities, hundreds of safe water advocates met last week for World Water Week in Stockholm, sponsored by the Stockholm International Water Institute.
Their warning: Bad water kills more people than HIV, malaria and wars together. But they had a true hero to celebrate. He’s Ek Sonn Chan, director of the water supply authority in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. As a young engineering graduate, Chan lost his entire family to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Appointed in 1993, he took over a water system with ancient French-laid pipes so decrepit that disease-laden sewage easily seeped in, especially during the monsoon season. What’s more, his agency was afflicted by nepotism and political ties. Illegal water taps off the system drained about 70 percent of the flow. Rich and well-connected water users snubbed demands they pay up.
Chan got tough. He assembled a competent staff, paid enough to prevent payoffs. He told delinquent users — even the country’s military installations — they’d have to pay their water bills or face cutoff. He landed infrastructure investment loans from the World Bank and other international lenders.
More than 750 kilometers of new pipe have now been added to Phnom Penh’s original 280. Pumping stations have been repaired and water availability expanded to poor areas. Today, clean water through appropriate treatment and filtration of storm water assures 1-million-plus people a 24-hour-a-day fresh water flow, with a dramatic reduction in diarrhea.
Phnom Penh’s model of determined, honest public management is “a template” for what can achieved, even in hard-to-serve areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa, says Per-Arne Malmqvist, scientific director of the Stockholm International Water Institute.
But the issue is not just professional management — it’s smart, look-ahead decision making and newest technology, notes Paul Reiter, executive director of the International Water Association.
He cites Qingdao, China, where German and Chinese engineers teamed up to design a system that actually integrates fresh water with wastewater treatment, reuse and energy production. One secret: avoiding single huge systems (typical of the U.S.), where miles and miles of collection/distribution pipes and sewers actually cost more than the water treatment plants. A more efficient, economical model for the future will more likely be networks of small, efficient water distribution and treatment units serving between 20,000 and 50,000 people each.
A companion, opening frontier: membrane technologies that convert used water — in fact sewage — so efficiently it can be recycled repeatedly for household and industrial use. As global climate change impacts continents and water becomes scarcer in a more crowded world, recycling systems promise not just savings but possibly vital water security for the world’s cities.
Like solar panels, the costs of membrane systems are dropping rapidly. How soon they’ll be competitive for the developing world — as well as a substitute for the big water and mass sewage systems of the U.S. and Europe — is a major question.
One problem is that water engineers are a conservative lot. Publics need to push them to show courage, experiment, break the mold for more efficiency, energy saving and, of course, long-term supplies of clear, well-treated waters.
One short-term possibility Reiter suggests: Cities may gain added water by investing in irrigation efficiency in adjacent farmlands, returning reclaimed water and nutrients to agriculture to expand crop production.
The point is well taken: Water is part of a bigger life cycle that world cities — Northern and Southern hemispheres alike — need to plan and adjust for far more seriously than in the less crowded, less polluted world of past times.
Source: The Denver Post