Bringing Clean Water to Millions

Feature | 28 May 2014

An ADB-supported project worked with private companies to provide clean water to cities in the People's Republic of China.

Liu Lanxiu and her family used to have difficulty getting clean water to the building where they live in Mushan village in the southeastern People's Republic of China (PRC) province of Jiangxi.

Water pressure was low. Only the first few floors of the building had water, making the top floors less fit for occupancy.

"Now, everything has changed," says Lanxiu, with a steady supply of water now available throughout the building. "Our family is able to run a guest house with more than 10 rooms. We offer meals and lodging to our guests."

"We could not imagine having this kind of family business a couple of years ago without a stable water supply."

Their business, like many others, has benefited from an overhaul of their town's water system by the [People's Republic of] China Water Affairs (CWA) Group, under a private sector operation funded by ADB. The project upgraded water treatment plants and water piping systems to bring clean, affordable water to millions of people in the PRC.

Rising demand in urban areas

Throughout the PRC, people are moving from the countryside to cities looking for a better life. Since the country began its reforms in 1978, nearly 500 million people have migrated to cities. Another 200 million people are expected to make the move by 2020.

As a result, urban areas throughout the country need massive investments to ensure basic services are delivered to hundreds of millions of new residents. The most basic of all services - the provision of clean water - has been particularly challenging. An estimated 100 million people in urban areas do not have water piped into their homes.

According to a recent study, one in four water utilities in the country is unable to efficiently distribute water to more than 40% of the area it services. A significant amount of treated water is lost and contaminated during distribution due to old and decrepit pipes. When water is contaminated, it impacts the poor most because they struggle to pay for bottled water and medical care.

Upgrading the distribution network

In response to the problem, the ADB project upgraded local government-owned water distribution pipeline networks across the country with new investments, technology, and management expertise.

To reach more cities, ADB partnered with 12 international banks to provide the CWA with $200 million in loans.

The CWA worked with local regulators to conduct cost-of-living surveys, and engaged consumer advocacy groups to keep water prices affordable. Subsidies helped the poorest customers pay their bills for basic water consumption.

In Ji'an City, the CWA upgraded two local water plants and helped train staff to improve water distribution by reducing leakage and installing meters. It also helped improve consumer services, by providing 24-hour hotlines and flexible bill payment schemes.

"Before the CWA started operating the water supply service in Ji'an, we used other supply plants, but the water quality was not good and the capacity could not meet the citizen's water demand," says Du Xiangming, deputy bureau chief of the city's Urban Planning and Development Bureau.

"We believe, with the cooperation of [the CWA], we can reach our goal of providing water for more than 1 million people in Ji'an's urban and rural areas by 2030," he says.

Tapping the private sector

"Water distribution is a new frontier for private participation. ADB has been instrumental in increasing access to safe water and improving water distribution efficiency in small cities across the country," says Hisaka Kimura, a principal investment specialist in ADB's Private Sector Operations Department.

The result of this dynamic partnership has been reliable, convenient access to safe drinking water for millions of people. The project is expected to benefit at least 5 million people in the target small and medium-sized cities. Already, people in areas served by improved water systems are getting sick less often and are saving money, because they no longer have to buy bottled water.

Eliminating water outages and having steady water pressure improved the delivery of public services by hospitals and schools as well as commercial services. The project is also helping conserve water, one of the most precious resources in the PRC's booming economy.

By 2015, the project is expected to deliver at least 2 million cubic meters of water per day and cut wastage by about 40%.

This article is an excerpt from a longer piece originally published in Together We Deliver, a publication highlighting successful ADB projects across Asia and the Pacific that demonstrated development impacts, best practice, and innovation.