As economies in Asia and the Pacific get better at managing the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on their societies and economies, they are turning their attention to building resilience to future pandemics. Safe water, sanitation, and waste management are essential for protecting human health and enabling economic growth and development. Enhancing access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) in homes, schools, hospitals, and public facilities is key to ensuring the wellbeing of communities and equips them to better handle similar health crises.
A recent World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF report shows that, in 2020, about 1 in 4 people lacked access to safe drinking water in their homes and nearly half the world’s population lacked access to safely managed sanitation. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 3 in 10 people worldwide could not wash their hands with soap and water at home.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 aims to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” by 2030. While the world has seen significant progress towards SDG 6 targets in the past 20 years, the Asia and the Pacific region needs to work very hard to meet any of the targets for safe water and sanitation.
WASH data highlights
New data from the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB’s) Basic Statistics 2022 highlights the enormity of the task. In 2020, at least seven developing economies in the region had populations with access to safely managed drinking water services at or below 30%, including Cambodia, Mongolia, and Tonga (Figure 1). In Lao PDR and Nepal, only 18% of the population enjoy a potable water supply on their premises. For Kiribati, that figure is 15%.
Where available, Basic Statistics 2022 data is disaggregated by region and gender, which is very useful for monitoring progress towards the SDGs. For access to safe water, the rural–urban divide in many economies in developing Asia is stark. In 2020, at least seven economies in Asia and the Pacific had an access percentage in rural areas of half or less, compared to those living in towns and cities (Figure 2). Such data point to the need to focus on rural areas when policymakers and development professionals plan WASH projects.
Basic Statistics 2022, for the first time, includes information on access to handwashing facilities, which is identified by WHO as critical to improving health outcomes and reducing the spread of COVID-19. The data show that the proportion of the population with access to sustainable handwashing facilities in developing economies in Asia and the Pacific only increased slightly from 2019 to 2020, with growth stronger in rural areas (Figure 3).
Together, the data assembled in Basic Statistics 2022 show the immensity of our region’s challenges at the start of the pandemic, which could have contributed to the human toll in the last 2 years.
Limited water resources
Moreover, the Asia and the Pacific region is home to only 36% of the world's water resources, with the lowest per capita water availability globally, according to a UNESCAP policy brief highlighting the urgency of action, like safeguarding quality and better managing limited freshwater resources. In addition, wastewater management in developing Asia is very poor, with more than 80% of the wastewater discharged into the environment without treatment.
The squeeze on limited resources is also more intense as Asia’s urban population, expected to reach 3.5 billion by 2050, creates enormous demand for water and wastewater treatment systems. This population expansion will create additional pressure on the region’s agriculture and energy sectors that are heavily dependent upon a reliable supply of fresh water.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of these trends and compounded them by increasing vulnerability of poor and marginalized populations, and by threatening the sustainability of water infrastructure and services in many economies. For example, ADB research published in July 2021 shows the impact that the pandemic had on water service providers across the region. Based on an ADB survey, two-thirds of water providers saw a decrease in commercial and industrial revenues in the region. The International Benchmarking Network for Water and Sanitation Utilities also found that, as of June 2020, collection rates had fallen by 40% among utilities in its index, while a report by the Global Water Intelligence show steep losses in South and Southeast Asia.
To address these constraints and accelerate progress towards SDG 6, the first step is to identify gaps in WASH provisions within our region. By introducing disaggregated statistics on WASH, Basic Statistics 2022 aims to disseminate such information more broadly to researchers and policymakers.
ADB support for improving water and sanitation services
ADB research also suggests that boosting recovery in the region’s water sector following the pandemic means supporting the financial recovery of water service providers. The report calls for a balance between the need to support low income and vulnerable customers while prioritizing critical capital investment in the sector. Other measures needed to build a sustainable and resilient water sector include accelerating universal access to water and sanitation; adopting appropriate digital technologies; and improving irrigation systems to deliver long-term water and food security.
Better water governance of the water sector and increased and innovative financing are also important in helping the region get back on track to SDG 6. Based on ADB's Asian Water Development Outlook 2020, it is estimated that an average investment of $53 billion per year up to 2030 is needed for water and sanitation, about one-third of which will be needed from the private sector. ADB annual sanitation investments have risen steadily from $218 million in 2011 to $717 million in 2020, amounting to a total of $4.9 billion for 2011–2020, or 21% of ADB’s water portfolio for the period.