Empowering Developing Countries to Improve Water Security

March 2022

We might not necessarily think of water’s value beyond what we directly consume in our homes. However, virtually all of the world’s industrial, agricultural, and commercial activities require the use of clean water. In other words, everything we enjoy and require to survive is dependent on water security.

Water security is a concept that goes beyond just ensuring an adequate supply. In a 2007 paper published on Water Policy (“Sink or Swim? Water security for growth and development), the authors David Grey and Claudia Sadoff defined it as “the availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems, and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks to people, environments and economies.”

By this definition, about half of the world’s population may lack water security, even if they are, for now, receiving an adequate supply. In about a decade, our current water infrastructure may face serious challenges. The Philippines itself is already seeing problems with water security due to the overexploitation of groundwater supplies, deforestation, climate change, and pollution.

Water Security as a Global Issue

As with many other issues involving resources, wealthier nations are better positioned to invest in water infrastructure, thus achieving water security. On the other hand, developing nations experiencing high water stress are at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to meeting global livability standards and developing a competitive economy.

The resulting instability has already led to local issues in developing countries, ballooning into very real threats to global peace and security. The ongoing wars in Yemen and Syria were both partly started by issues with water security. Today, these once-local conflicts have taken a decidedly international scope, causing untold suffering and causing the displacement of millions of individuals.

These issues become even more complex in situations where different sovereign countries share a water supply. International conflicts over water are seen to rise in the near future due to the need for different nations to secure finite water supplies for their own development. Of course, poorer nations are likely to be worse off from any such dispute.

The recent crisis in Ukraine is one such event that has had elements of a water conflict. After Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014, the Ukrainian government cut off water supplies to the disputed territory through the North Crimean Canal, which supplied most of the area’s water. The result was an unmitigated disaster for local agriculture and resulted in thousands of people being displaced. Some analysts conclude that the water crisis was one of the reasons that the Russian leadership decided to invade Ukraine in February 2022, causing a worldwide economic crisis.

A Looming Crisis

Thanks to its geography, the Philippines is not in a position where it is likely to directly compete with other countries to secure its water resources.

However, according to the World Health Organization, water-borne diseases such as diarrhea remain a leading cause of death, a clear indicator that the country has not yet secured quality, risk-free water supplies for its population.

Additionally, future shortages are predicted to affect life throughout the country in the very near future, likely within the decade.

In 2019, former Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel “Manny” Piñol warned of an impending water crisis that is set to threaten food security.

For context, agriculture, particularly rice cultivation makes up about 70 percent of the country’s annual freshwater consumption.

In practical terms, the country is facing a crisis in terms of both the quality and quantity of available water.

Left unchecked, this impending water security disaster may very well derail prospects of growth for the Philippines in the near future.

What Can Be Done?

Fortunately, the problems the Philippines and other developing countries have with water security are well understood. Many parts of the world have successfully managed to thrive even in situations of extreme water stress. Some possible strategies developing nations could attempt include the following:

1) Increased Collaboration with the Private Sector

Philippine government LGUs have already had some success with the management of local water supplies by working with local companies.

In one such instance, the Davao City Water District’s (DCWD) Davao City Bulk Water Supply Project (DCBWSP) worked with Aboitiz InfraCapital and J.V. Angeles Construction Corporation to reduce Davao City’s dependence on vulnerable groundwater resources.

The resulting Apo Agua project taps and treats water from the nearby Tamugan River, a more sustainable and far less vulnerable source than the previously used underground water tables.

2) Keep Water a Public Good

Part of achieving water security is to achieve “water justice” for the less fortunate sectors of the population. Maintaining water as a public good may very well be the only way for most countries to achieve this requirement.

Speaking to The Guardian in 2016, Farhana Sultana, an associate professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School explains, “Privatization has been promoted globally for cities, but evidence shows that it often fails and the public sector is left to address the problems…if water is a private commodity, then people are at the mercy of market logic.

Instead, ensuring that the principle of the right to water is adopted will enable more comprehensive thinking that addresses the needs of the urban poor, as well as ecological sustainability.”

3) Promote Water Efficiency

At its core, water security is also food security. In a June 2021 statement, Kristine S. Pascual, a senior science researcher working at the Philippine Rice Research Institute noted that 15 to 20 million hectares of irrigated rice land worldwide will suffer catastrophic water shortages by 2025.

In an official Facebook post, she encouraged the use of water management techniques to save up to 1,400 liters of fresh water for each kilo of rice.

“We need 4,000 liters or 20 drums of water to produce 1 kg. of rice. With proper water use, only 2,600 liters or 13 drums will be needed to produce the same amount of rice,” she said.

4) Use Modern Water-Saving and Monitoring Technology

Today, there are still many blind spots in the tapping and distribution of water resources. This leaves populations vulnerable to unseen water wastage. A conscientious adoption of different technologies may yet prevent water waste without compromising quality of life.

The rise of smart tech has already made its way into water distribution. The decreasing price and increased accessibility of these technologies has now put some of these solutions in the hands of less-developed nations. Eventually, the use of AI for managing water consumption and distribution may also be part of the solution for water security in many parts of the world.

Along with serious public policy changes, the use of affordable smart technologies to optimize water use, quickly detect damaged water infrastructure, and track the consumption of water from reservoirs and other supplies may soon be key in achieving water security and maintaining it for future generations.

While water security problems are likely to face most countries within the decade, developing nations such as the Philippines are still the most vulnerable if and when such a crisis comes to pass. By taking concrete action now, emergent nations may yet ensure both water security and justice in the use of this precious resource.

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