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FOTP 2 Financing Public Private Partnership South Asia Southeast Asia Water and sanitation

Finger on the Pulse: 5 Key Opportunities to Navigate the Challenges of Water Scarcity in Asia

Finger on the Pulse is a content series from Infrastructure Asia that covers key developments and trends across Asia's infrastructure landscape, providing you with key insights from the inside.

Nearly 500 million people in the Asia-Pacific region still lack access to basic water supply today. Compounded by worsening erratic weather patterns due to climate change, Asia continues to grapple with the devastating impacts of extreme weather. Scorching heatwaves have wreaked havoc across the continent in the first half of the year, while record-breaking monsoon rainfall in the past months are inundating communities and disrupting critical services to millions.

The dynamic interplay between climate and water agendas demands a cohesive and collaborative response. By working hand-in-hand, this bi-directional coordination strengthens resilience against extreme weather events and fosters sustainable water management practices.

In the face of such daunting climatic challenges, the importance of innovative solutions that safeguard water resources and ensure equitable access becomes crucial. Here are five key opportunities that can help set Asia’s water security on the road to success.

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Pioneering sustainable water management systems

Water sustains us in countless ways — from drinking and agriculture to household needs and industrial processes. Yet, water resources are not infinite. We need to rethink how we manage water to better sustain this resource over time.

In Singapore, the nation taps on advanced filtration and disinfection processes to produce "NEWater". Reintroducing up to almost 800,000 cubic meters of recycled water into the system daily, Singapore aims for NEWater to meet 55% of its water demand by 2060. While these highly advanced water treatment systems demonstrate valuable solutions for developed countries, they might not always be the most viable for developing countries who are facing immense pressure on their already overloaded water infrastructure due to rapid urbanisation. Countries need to strategically evaluate project feasibility and invest smartly in clean water and sanitation solutions that can effectively help plug the gaps in the most critical areas of need.

For instance, the harsh geographical elements in Rajasthan, India make it incredibly difficult to ensure water security. To combat this issue, the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF) implemented a project to support water-scarce villages across the Pali, Barmer and Jodhpur districts by constructing rainwater harvesting, storage, and purification structures. This initiative created an additional water storage capacity of two million cubic meters — a remarkable achievement in one of India's most parched regions. By galvanising village-level volunteers and a professional resource base, the foundation has empowered locals to take ownership of their water resources, ensuring a sustainable approach to water management in the long run.

The success of sustainable water management initiatives in both Singapore and Rajasthan underscores the transformative potential of community engagement, innovative technology, and treating water as an endlessly reusable resource. These approaches offer hope for responsible water management globally, inspiring a future where cities thrive in harmony with this precious and finite resource.

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Exploring efficient water treatment solutions

The increasing demand for water, coupled with the challenges of climate change, urges us to seek energy-efficient and sustainable solutions to bolster water supply. Traditionally, desalination has served as an effective solution to augment freshwater sources, particularly in regions facing acute water scarcity. However, the conventional desalination process is costly, has a high energy consumption, and requires large land space, posing limitations to its widespread adoption.

Macao, a region in China, highly vulnerable to salt tides due to its location near the Pearl River Estuary, has taken a proactive approach to address its water management challenges. The Seac Pai Van water treatment plant, operated by SUEZ, reduces its energy footprint through the implementation of energy-saving measures and the intelligent reuse of reclaimed water. Innovative technology are employed in coagulation and flocculation to neutralise fine particles and micro-pollutants. This holistic and eco-conscious approach not only meets the city's current water needs but also lays the foundation for a sustainable water future as Macao's population and water demands continue to grow. By combining cutting-edge technologies and intelligent infrastructure, SUEZ sets an inspiring example for creating water and energy-efficient infrastructure that leads the way in sustainable urban development.

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Reducing non-revenue water (NRW) through digitalisation

An estimated 346 million cubic metres of drinking water is lost through NRW daily. NRW refers to the volume of water that is lost or unaccounted for after being pumped into water distribution system due to factors such as pipe leakages. High levels of NRW have a serious impact on the financial viability of water utilities and whole communities due to revenue losses and unnecessarily high operating costs.

Adoption of digital solutions has emerged as a transformative strategy to address this problem. One of the key enablers of such success lies in data analytics and real-time monitoring. By empowering stakeholders with accurate and up-to-date information on water quality, usage patterns, and infrastructure performance, informed decisions can be made to optimise water allocation and proactively reduce NRW.

Digitalisation can also help lower operational costs through optimised chemical and energy usage in water treatment and conveyance. By deploying solutions such as smart metering or blockchain solutions, water utilities can enhance revenue collection, which can be reinvested in building more robust water infrastructure. The reduction in NRW conserves valuable water resources while bolstering the financial capacity to expand and upgrade water infrastructure.

In Indonesia, the challenge of NRW has posed significant obstacles for water utilities, making it difficult to maintain affordable water tariffs and hindering effective cost recovery of water production. The country's average NRW stands at 32 percent, exceeding the initial government target of 20 percent. High leakages in the distribution network further strained Indonesian Water Utilities (PDAMs), impeding their ability to provide uninterrupted access to potable water for the population. Bringing together experts from the relevant domains to help bridge knowledge and implementation gaps, Malang City’s PDAM Tugu Tirta digitalised water production and distribution in the city. Through the adoption of digital control systems and advanced Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning capabilities, authorities gained improved data analytics and processes — equipping them better to plan for performance and efficiency improvements. These efforts have resulted in a remarkable reduction of NRW from 42 percent to 15 percent within ten years, with significant progress achieved within the first four years of digital asset adoption. This highlights the potential for digitalisation to combat NRW and offers valuable insights for other regions in Asia to pursue sustainable water management solutions.

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Mitigating technology adoption risks

As the critical lifeline of society, water supply necessitates reliability and stability. The water industry has traditionally favoured proven and well-established technologies to ensure the continuous and uninterrupted delivery of water to communities. However, the pursuit of innovation and progress is indispensable to address emerging challenges, enhance water efficiency, and find cost-effective solutions. Encouraging the adoption of new and advanced technologies can be facilitated through strategic Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). By fostering these collaborative endeavours, the private sector can efficiently operate and maintain water infrastructure, optimising processes and sustaining profits, while governments benefit from technological advancements and improved services.

While technology holds great promise, it is essential to consider its broader implications on communities, especially in developing countries. The adoption of such technologies may inadvertently exacerbate existing social and economic disparities. Fostering partnerships between industry and technology providers, academia, and entrepreneurs can promote sustainable technology adoption and implementation that caters to the unique needs of each community, ensuring no one is left behind in the pursuit of a more water-secure future.

One such successful PPP implementation observed is the Bulacan Bulk Water Supply Project (BBWSP) in the Philippines. Through funding primarily from BDO, the bank was able to extend the long-term loan facility that was used to finance the first and second construction stages of San Miguel Corporation’s Luzon Clean Water Development Corporation (LCWDC) project; which covered the treatment and delivery of bulk water to 13 local government units in Bulacan.

Designed as a PPP project, the BBWSP consists of a potable water treatment plant and pipeline conveyance facility with the main purpose of meeting the escalating demand for clean water in the Bulacan region. Through this initiative, the LCWDC has successfully provided a consistent and reliable potable water supply to water districts in Bulacan while continuously expanding its service area coverage. Moreover, the project has effectively addressed critical issues such as inadequate potable water supply, low water pressure caused by limited distribution systems, and the intrusion of saline water into groundwater. This serves as a testament to the transformative potential of PPPs in driving effective water management initiatives.

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Enacting robust frameworks through strong governance

As the world increasingly recognises the urgency of sustainable development, robust governance is a fundamental pillar for achieving resilient and sustainable water infrastructure. Governments play a pivotal role in creating a conducive environment that enables circular economy and innovative water management practices. A crucial aspect of this involves implementing appropriate fee and tariff structures to incentivise sustainable water usage and funding vital water-related projects. By establishing favourable financial incentives, governments can drive investment in water infrastructure that promotes resource conservation and equitable distribution; aligning with the core principles of circular economy that aim to reduce waste and maximise resource utilisation by keeping products and materials in circular systems. Furthermore, ensuring the bankability of wastewater projects is essential to facilitate sustainable infrastructure development. By establishing clear policies and risk allocation frameworks, governments can mitigate potential risks and attract private financing to support transformative water projects that benefit communities and the environment alike.

Water is an essential resource and its sustainability is not up for debate. With population growth, urbanisation, and the threat of climate change in the mix, the future of water needs to be resilient, affordable, and sustainably sourced. Collaborative efforts between the public and private sectors, reinforced by strong governance, will be pivotal in unlocking the full potential of these opportunities. Infrastructure Asia can help to bridge partnerships between public and private partners to discuss, invest, and develop projects. Together, we can better mitigate potential drivers of water-related challenges and promote effective water resources management for both people and the environment.

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