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World Water Crises Cry Out For Ingenious Solutions

Neal Peirce / Sep 09 2010

For Release Sunday, September 12, 2010
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceThere are few grimmer crises than the lack of fresh water and sanitation services that threaten the lives of hundreds of millions in developing nations.

Case in point: every week some 5,000 youngsters under the age of five die from diarrhea 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 some 40 billion hours a year at the task in Africa alone.

There is some bright news: international aid is rising. And even more critical, 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 off some 70 percent of the flow. Rich and well-connected water users snubbed demands they pay up.

Ek Sonn 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 like Sub-Saharan Africa, says Per-Arne Malmqvist, scientific director of the Stockholm International Water Institute.

But the issue’s not just professional management — it’s smart, look-ahead decision making and newest technology, notes Paul Reiter, executive director of the Netherlands-based International Water Association.

He cites Xing Dao, 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: use of highly-efficient membrane technologies to 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’s well taken: Water is part of a bigger life cycle that world cities — Northern and Southern hemisphere alike — need to plan and adjust for far more seriously than in the less crowded, less polluted world of past times.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com.

3 Comments

  1. Robert G. Justice
    Posted September 9, 2010 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    Dear Neal:
    This may be cruel, but who is talking to the POPE?

  2. Vaibhav
    Posted September 13, 2010 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    The problem of lack fresh water and sanitation services can only be solved if all the water supply authorities in various countries across the globe follow the example of Ek Sonn Chan and come up with an appropriate plan and strict measures for the water supply to every citizen. The local authorities across the globe should take up an initiative and generate awareness about efficient and concious use of water. The developed countries should raise a fund to help the affected African and Saharan countries to make the water and sanitation facilities available for them.

    I think it is high time we started taking nature and our planet earth seriously and do our bit about environment, sustainability, climate change, biodiversity, clean energy, green living and so on. One great place to start would be http://www.elpis.com. Elpis is an online community focused on responsible living and sustainable growth. You can measure, reduce and offset your carbon footprint; set up petitions, volunteering and fundraising projects for your favourite causes; help create action plans for sustainable communities; buy a range of eco friendly products and services; and network with other people who share a common interest in a low carbon, responsible lifestyle.

  3. Posted September 19, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    I know the sky is not falling but, I suggest chasing down some of the “catastrophic resolution” discussion and sum that up as a kind of ‘state of the sky is falling art’ speak. In the mean time I’m tracking desalination investments and trying to find someonne that knows how to track changes in title around water sheds.