Ravi Narayanan: Water Security in Asia

The Asian Water Development Outlook (AWDO) 2013 was launched in May 2013, presenting a broad picture of water security issues across the region. Ravi Narayanan, Chair of the Asia-Pacific Water Forum Governing Council, provides insights on the region’s progress on water security and some of the pressure points for action.

The AWDO, which you co-authored, concluded that on the whole, Asia is water insecure. What are the critical issues of concern that necessitate immediate action?

AWDO is a very comprehensive document. From the onset, it was not designed to be an alarm mechanism; rather the report tries to present a broad picture across the region relative to the five aspects of water security. The report issued 12 key messages to leaders, but if I were to choose the most important of them all, without necessarily reducing the importance of the others, it would be about leadership, because everything starts and ends with leadership.

"There are competing demands for water, both in terms of products and processes. And a lot depends on political and other kinds of pressures. So it is a question of ensuring that the balance is maintained." - Ravi Narayanan

Yet, areas of "concern" are also the various indices of the different aspects of water security developed in the report, which are self-explanatory. The telling thing is that no one country has got a perfect score, although several have scored pretty highly. A 3.8 (out of 5) seems to be the highest composite score. So that just goes to show that there is always room for improvement, even among the so-called developed economies.

How can less developed economies hope to ever reach water security or even leapfrog development? Is that something you foresee as being possible?

I think that when you say "leapfrog", one has to take a balanced approach. There are competing demands for water, both in terms of products and processes. And a lot depends on political and other kinds of pressures. So it is a question of ensuring that the balance is maintained.

I would say the most important step is the issues of governance and institutional recognition. And if I were to say that there were three pillars upon which all these actions were to depend, they would be: systems, capacities and technologies. Systems mean things like enactment of a water law, or crafting of a water policy. By capacity, I am referring to capacity of developing economies, capacities of people in terms of their individual skills, and capacity of institutions to be able to cope with issues. So these areas need attention, but this is not a magic wand, it requires consistent effort; which is why the stamina of leadership is as important as the impetus that it provides.

These three pillars can also be conceived of as levers to accelerate progress towards water security. Is that how you perceive things?

Yes, and it's all interconnected: it doesn't mean that systems aren't connected to capacities, or technologies to capacities; they are connected. And we can already see how technologies, such as reuse, recycling and treatment of water, are advancing at a rapid pace; technologies like geographic information systems and other kinds of IT-related technologies have made management easier, and so on. But they go in parallel with capacity.

Would you have an example where water is already constraining, either health or growth, at an alarming level in the region, and at the opposite end, where water circumstances have been brought under repair?

The report itself contains a lot of examples. If you look at the United Nations reports and others, you will find that drinking water has made big strides. Now, that is one aspect of household water security. Sanitation, unfortunately, has not made big headway, although if you look closer, you will find that there are distinctions in the report. South Asia generally tends to score low, and there are a number of reasons for that: historical, political and so on. But as an aggregate, where would the advance of Asia as a group register most impact? It would be in some of its most vulnerable places, and hence, particularly in South Asia. An increase of access to sanitation of say 1% or 2% in South Asia would change the whole regional picture substantially. So those are areas where one needs to pay particular attention.

The other point that might be of interest is the growing work of different organizations and countries on the integrated approach to water resources management. Integrated water resources management is not a slogan. People are indeed trying to understand the implications of it in planning and institutional development, and so on.

There is also a tendency for more cooperation and exchange of information, be it bilateral agreements or a general willingness to share information. I think that is also quite positive.

The Water Champions series was developed to showcase individual leadership and initiative in implementing water sector reforms and good practices in Asia and the Pacific. The champions, representing ADB’s developing member countries, are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries or communities. The series is regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.


About the Champion

Ravi Narayanan is currently Chair of the Asia Pacific Water Forum Governing Council, International Mentor to the Japan Water Forum and Chair of the International Steering Committee of the Water Integrity Network. He was a member of the World Panel on Financing Water Infrastructure (the Camdessus Panel) and the UN Millennium Task Force on Water and Sanitation. He is an associate of the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore, India. An engineer by training, Ravi's career has been almost equally divided between the corporate and not-for-profit sectors and in the latter he was formerly Asia Director for AcionAid and Chief Executive of WaterAid. He was awarded an honorary CBE by the UK Government in 2009 for water and sanitation services to poor communities in Asia and Africa.

This interview stemmed from an article written by Marisha Wojciechowska-Shibuya, an international consultant at ADB, during the launch of ADB’s Asian Water Development Outlook (AWDO) 2013 that informed the 2nd Asia-Pacific Water Summit on 19-20 May in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was first published in longer form on the MaximsNewsNetwork website.

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