Asia may have achieved a key global target of halving the number of people without access to safe drinking water, but experts say there is no cause for celebration.
The region has met the objective in advance of the 2015 target but with extremely uneven results among countries, and with a further widening of the divide between rich and poor and between urban and rural populations.
The target, set under the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goal (MDG), also makes no distinction between secure piped access to households and other forms of improved water supply.
The bottom line is that more than 65 percent of Asians still do not have a safe, secure water supply piped to their house, new studies show.
In addition, Asia is off track to meet another MDG goal of slicing by half the number of people without access to basic sanitation, a health factor that is closely linked to clean water supply.
"While the Asia-Pacific region has become an economic powerhouse, it is alarming that no developing country in the region can be considered ‘water-secure,’” said Bindu Lohani, the vice-president for sustainable development at the Asian Development Bank.
Water security is an issue of concern for Asia because industries driving economic growth require reliable supplies of freshwater and its expanding populations need more water for drinking, for personal hygiene, and for food and fiber production, which are the largest consumer of water, he said.
Expanding industrializing economies and urbanized populations also demand increased energy supplies, which in turn rely on access to water, Lohani said.
First report card for Asia
The ADB emerged last month with the region's first comprehensive report card on water security covering 49 countries in the region.
The results were striking and the bank called for "major changes in water governance" in nearly all the Asian developing countries.
Thirty-seven of the 49 countries assessed are so water insecure that it should be of concern to everyone in the region, warned the Asian Water Development Outlook 2013, a groundbreaking report compiled by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank and the Asia-Pacific Water Forum, a group set up by water ministers in the region to coordinate efforts on water resources management.
These 37 countries have a national water security index of below 3—assessed on a scale of one (water situation is hazardous) to five (model for water resource management). No country in the region attained level 5—not even wealthy Japan or squeaky clean Singapore, which only managed a 3.
Among the worst of the lot were Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. They have some legislation and policy on water and environment but inadequate levels of public investment, regulations, and enforcement.
China, Laos, Burma, Vietnam, Thailand, Bhutan, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka were on the level 2 list with "inadequate" rates of achievement.
The level 3 list includes Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea, and Taiwan while Australia and New Zealand emerged near the top on level 4.
The national water security index was based on a study of all dimensions of water security from the household level to water-related disasters.
The report highlighted "two realities" that need urgent attention across the region—there is an alarming inequality in access to improved water services for households of the rich and poor in urban and rural areas, and 80 percent of Asia’s rivers are in poor health, said Tommy Koh, chairman of the Asia-Pacific Water Forum Governing Council.
"Water security, together with food security and energy security, is ultimately about human security. Unless we increase water security, we may jeopardize the region’s development gains and our currently improving living conditions," he said.
Based on the study's findings, Asia needs U.S. $59 billion in investments for water supply and U.S. $71 billion for improved sanitation, officials said.
The amounts seem phenomenal, but ADB says that "every dollar invested in water and sanitation is likely to return U.S. $5 to U.S. $46 in reduced health care costs and increased economic productivity."
The study also warns that "the economic advances of Asia and the Pacific are, or will be, in jeopardy in about 75 percent of countries due to poor water security—a poor enough statistic," said Ian Makin, ADB's principal water resources specialist.
"More frighteningly, this means that about 93 percent of the region’s population lives in countries that must urgently find ways to increase and accelerate investments to improve water security," he said.
The U.N. statistics that Asia has met the drinking water target ahead of the 2015 schedule and that countries in the region have been successful in reducing the proportion of people without access to safe water also mask various concerns.
"Using the more stringent target of access to safe piped water supply, the data show a significantly different story," according to the new study.
Although more than 900 million people in Asia gained access to piped water supply between 1990 and 2010, this still means that more than 65 percent of the region’s population does not have what would be considered a secure household water supply, according to the study.
Throughout Asia, the number of people with a tap in the house "lags significantly" behind the overall MDG figures for improved water supply, it said.
Sanitation coverage in Asia remains a bigger and still unfulfilled challenge.
It has been announced that the U.N. goal to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to improved sanitation will not be met in the region by 2015.
Nearly 800 million people in Asia still suffer the indignity of practicing open defecation.
"We are concerned with the gap between access to piped and non-piped water and improved sanitation in urban and rural areas and the gap between the richest and the poorest," said Amy Leung, the director of the urban development and water division of ADB's Southeast Asia department.
"There is still a lot for us to do."