By Nurhidayahti Mohammad Miharja
The seminar on “Water Management in the Middle East and Southeast Asia: Trends, Challenges, and Opportunities” organized by MEI last month brought together leading experts on water issues. In examining the various water governance policies across both regions, Yemen and Singapore were the focus of discussions by panelists Abdulrahman al-Eryani, former Yemeni Minister of Water and Environment; Dr. Cecilia Tortajada, President of the Third World Center for Water Management in Mexico; and Professor Asit K. Biswas, founder and former President of the Third World Center for Water Management in Mexico.
Sharing his experience as Minister of Water and Environment from 2006 to 2011, Mr. Abdulrahman al-Eryani sees the advent of integrated rural development projects in the 1970s as a cause of deteriorating water conditions in Yemen. With new technologies, flood irrigation using groundwater pumped from wells dominated the agricultural scene. Instead of keeping groundwater as a “community-managed resource,” through this system groundwater became an open access resource. Unmitigated groundwater pumping led to a “misuse of resources” with only 30-35 percent efficiency. He cautioned that unsustainable withdrawal rates threaten not only the agricultural sector but also the nation. Sixty percent of all conflicts in Yemen are water-related, and “almost all cities in Yemen are facing a chronic shortage of drinking water.” A possible solution that al-Eryani proposed is the “cooperative management approach,” in which stakeholders such as water user associations become responsible for water resources with appropriate support for self-management and self-regulation at the local level.
Singapore similarly strives to meet ever-increasing per capita water consumption, which has increased from 751/liters per person/day in 1965 to 1531/liters per person/day in 2011. Dr. Cecilia Tortajada highlighted that careful management of water resources has always been a priority for the Singapore government. Such management has produced policies that have consistently aimed to increase supply and encourage conservation so as to reduce dependency on foreign water sources. The four national taps in Singapore include water from 1) Johor via the Long-term Water Agreement with Malaysia signed in 1961 and 1962 that enables Singapore to transfer water from Johor at a “price of less than one cent per 1,000 gallons until the years 2011 and 2061, respectively; 2) water catchment areas that have increased from 11 percent of the land in 1965 to 67 percent of the land in 2011; 3) NEWater plants whose capacity amounts to 117 million gallons/day; and 4) a desalination plant that supplies 30 million gallons/day. The “think ahead, think again, and think across philosophy,” according to Tortajada, can be seen in the plans of Singapore’s Public Utilities Board, such as the ABC (Active, Beautiful, Clean) program, which recently developed a network of waterways comprising 17 reservoirs, 32 major rivers, and 7,000 km of canals and drains.
Professor Asit K. Biswas attributed the success of Singapore’s water governance to the state’s effective demand regulation via the water pricing structure. Both the tariff and the water-conservation tax for domestic users increase after the first 40 cubic meters used in a month. Noting that water is an important component of sustainable development, Biswas listed three important factors to consider regarding water sustainability: 1) population numbers; 2) time period; and 3) type and level of governance—which he feels is the most important factor. Biswas believes that the water crisis is “not a scarcity problem,” as water is “not like matter [that] disappears [or] disintegrates.” Despite being polluted, water can be treated and reused. With better management practices, Biswas said that he sees no reason why water can’t be increased in terms of its reuse. According to current studies, every drop of water has already been reused seven times.