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Opinion

Coronavirus advice highlights Asia's terrible water scarcity

Hand-washing to prevent catching COVID-19 is impossible for billions

| India
A student demonstrates how to wash hands during an awareness campaign about COVID-19 at a school in Chennai on Mar. 14: this simple instruction is impracticable for most of the 2.4 billion people who live in water-scarce areas.   © Reuters

Natalie Kyriacou is a social entrepreneur, management consultant and the CEO of My Green World, a Melbourne-based social enterprise dedicated to addressing global wildlife and environmental challenges through innovative, youth-focused education.

"Wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds." This is the advice that has echoed around the world since the outbreak of COVID-19. This seemingly simple instruction, however, is impracticable for most of the 2.4 billion people who live in water-scarce areas. For much of the world, clean water is a privilege, not a right, and World Environment Day today is a good time to remember that.

In 2010, the U.N. General Assembly recognized the human right to water and sanitation, acknowledging that they were essential to the realization of all human rights. But in Asia, 29 of 49 countries are water insecure, meaning they do not have access to safe, reliable, available water to meet their health and economic needs.

While water scarcity is a complicated and nuanced issue, touching on geopolitics and the environment, one of the main barriers to achieving water equality is the lack of effective water management. Profligate and exploitative use; uneven distribution; and unchecked contamination are symptoms of poorly managed water. Without bringing together all affected parties, different sectors of industry and governments, there is little hope that the world's water needs can be met.

As Professor Asit Biswas, water expert and president of the Third World Center for Water Management, says: "Lack of money, scarcity and so on -- they're all excuses. The problem everywhere is bad management."

There is, in fact, enough freshwater available to meet the demands of current and future populations, but inefficient, unequal and uncoordinated consumption, distribution and management of water mean that universal access to safe water will not be a reality in Asia without drastic and systemic change.

Very few countries across Asia will be able to sustain their growing populations into the future, especially as climate change, demographic and consumer patterns and urbanization continue to strain water supplies.

The relationship between water scarcity, safe water management and poverty is mutually reinforcing. Despite lifting 1.1 billion people out of extreme poverty since 1990, an estimated 326 million people were living in extreme poverty in Asia, below the threshold of $1.90 a day, in 2013, the most recent comprehensive figure.

Absent, inadequate and inappropriately managed water and sanitation services continue to expose individuals and communities to preventable health risks. According to the World Health Organization, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with feces.

In South Asia alone, the majority of water sources are contaminated and 558 million people practice open defecation due to insufficient water and sanitation solutions.

In low-income countries, children are 100 times more likely to die from infectious diseases than those in high-income countries. Their education and development will also suffer: collectively, more than 443 million school days are lost to water-related illness each year and girls menstruating are particularly vulnerable.

In India, the world's biggest user of groundwater, political mismanagement of water has caused widespread suffering. Groundwater extraction in the country is poorly regulated and unmonitored, meaning that water resources are heavily exploited. Compounding the problem is severe water contamination from agriculture, which makes up more than 90% of India's freshwater use. Public health and economic prosperity will not be fully realized in India as long as water reserves dwindle and become more contaminated.

Indian women fetch water from a public tap on the outskirts of Ahmadabad, pictured in April 2016: for much of the world, clean water is a privilege, not a right.   © AP

If we are to achieve "universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030," as specified in Sustainable Development Goal 6, we need a radical improvement in the management, pace and collaboration of water action.

This also means more inclusive management of water resources that reflects the voice of local communities, particularly those that have been traditionally excluded and disproportionately affected, such as women and rural and indigenous peoples.

New global models for water management will also need to be developed, with greater sustained commitment from government, institutions and industry. Entrepreneurial innovation programs, crowdsourced technology competitions and data collection coalitions all promise innovative water solutions.

However, the challenge that inhibits these efforts from being truly successful lies in management. Integrating the wide ranging but disparate initiatives and voices into a coordinated response to address water insecurity could be a strong step in the right direction.

The system needs mechanisms to ensure greater cooperation and accountability, such as tighter regulation, transparent reporting and environmental and innovation incentives. This is particularly true for the agriculture industry, which accounts for over 70% of global freshwater use and plays a major role in pollution and the degradation of water quality.

In Asia, Singapore provides a beacon of hope and opportunity for achieving water security across the rest of Asia. The country, which has achieved universal access to affordable and high quality potable water, has prioritized integrated water management and is now a global leader in new water technologies and best practices in water management.

Adopting a "closed loop" approach, Singapore's national water authority manages the water cycle from rainwater collection to purification and supply of drinking water to the treatment of used water.

The coronavirus pandemic is a stark reminder of the urgent need to address water security.

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