91% of Asia with better access to water; Singapore most prepared for disasters

MANILA (AP) - Ninety-one per cent of Asians now have improved access to clean water. But the economic and regional divide means the richer you are, the better water supply you will likely get, and the more prepared your government is for natural disasters.

The study, published on Wednesday by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), says countries could be disproportionally affected by the potential impact of climate change such as storms and floods if they did not rethink how they manage water. That includes Asia's rivers, nearly 80 per cent of which are in poor health. Urban populations are growing and so is pollution.

Australia, Singapore and New Zealand top the list of nations best-prepared to cope with floods, droughts and hurricanes. Nepal, Laos and Cambodia are the least prepared. No country is considered "water secure."

No country in the Asia-Pacific region is a model for its management of water services and resources, according to the Manila-based lending and development institution, whose aim is cutting poverty. Thirty-eight developing countries have low levels of water security or have barely begun to improve, and only 11 have set up infrastructure and management systems.

"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 ADB vice-president Bindu Lohani.

Nearly 80 per cent of Asia's rivers are in poor health. Urban populations are on the rise and so is pollution, while food and energy needs are putting more pressure on the water resources.

Unless these competing needs are balanced, "water security will remain elusive, undermining development gains and the quality of life for billions of people in the region, especially the poor," said Mr Ravi Narayanan, vice-chair of the Asia-Pacific Water Forum governing council.

The good news is that the proportion of the region's population with access to drinking water has increased from 74 per cent to 91 per cent between 1990 and 2010. Progress has been made in all subregions, expect the Pacific, where access remains low at 54 per cent.

However, access to reliable tap water supply paints a different picture. Although more than 900 million people gained access to piped water, more than 65 per cent of the region's population does not have what should be considered a secure household supply.

Most cities in Asia, which accounts for half of the world's 20 megacities, have extensive infrastructure for domestic water treatment and supply, although piped systems often stop short of individual households, and potable water services are not maintained full-time at the point of delivery, the ADB said.

For instance, some cities in China and South Korea provide round-the-clock water service, but in many other cities tap water is only available for limited hours. In Jakarta, water is available in most areas for about 18 hours each day, and in Chennai, India, water is available for an average of only about four hours each day.

Then, there is the question of health. About 88 per cent of all diarrhoea cases are attributed to lack of adequate access to water and sanitation.

Although the percentage of people with access to improved sanitation rose from 36 per cent in 1990 to 58 per cent in 2010, 1.74 billion people in Asia and the Pacific continue to live without access to improved sanitation. More than 792 million people still suffer the indignity of practising open defecation, and more than 631 million of these people live in rural South Asia.

There are bright spots, with South-east Asia making rapid progress, expanding coverage by 23 per cent between 1990 and 2010, and East Asia by 35 per cent.

The gap between rich and poor is a big factor when it comes to water access and management, the report said. In South Asia, led by Bangladesh, it is estimated that up to 96 per cent of the rural rich have access to sanitation, compared to only 2 per cent to 4 per cent of the rural poor. There has been little progress on improving access to sanitation in the Pacific islands, the ADB said.

"In Asia and the Pacific, the correlation between income and access is unequivocal -the wealthy have better access than the poor to water supply and sanitation. In addition, the disparity is growing, especially in the burgeoning smaller cities across the region," the ADB said. Differences between richer and poorer communities amount to 96 per cent in Nepal and 92 per cent in Cambodia, India, and Pakistan, it said.

In India and the Philippines, another study by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific found that public utilities responsible for providing water and sanitation services "lack capacity in all aspects of sustainability, including effective functioning, financing, and demand responsiveness".