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New chapter in Asia's water story

With the UN accelerator framework in place, and a greater focus on sustainability, the chances of delivering clean water and sanitation for all are increasing

The United Nations estimates that one in four healthcare facilities globally lacks clean water and soap. One in three people globally does not have access to safe drinking water.

UNITED Nations (UN) goal of providing clean water and sanitation for all by 2030 is proving to be challenging in Asia. What does this mean for the region and what is being done to ensure this most basic of human rights?

The World Health Organization (WHO) offered some simple advice as Covid-19 began to spread: Wash your hands. Hand hygiene was one of the most effective ways to limit the spread of pathogens and prevent infections, it said, including the new virus.

Being able to wash hands is taken for granted by many. For others, it's not so easy. The UN estimates that one in four healthcare facilities globally lacks clean water and soap. One in three people globally does not have access to safe drinking water and more than two billion lack access to basic sanitation such as toilets.


Access to clean water and sanitation is widely seen as a basic human right. It has the power to alleviate poverty and hunger, improve health, reduce inequality of wealth and gender and improve standards of education. It offers people greater dignity in their daily lives: The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that some 673 million people still practice open defecation.

This is harming economic growth, as well as health. The UN estimated in 2016 that that poor sanitation resulted in a five per cent loss of GDP in many countries. At the same time, it reckoned that every dollar invested in water and sanitation led to four dollars of economic returns.


While the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) goals are measured individually, none of them can be achieved in isolation and almost all rely in some part on the delivery of SDG6 (clean water & sanitation).

SDGs 1 to 3 (no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being) are clearly dependent on clean water and sanitation. There are less obvious links with Goals 4 and 5 (quality education and gender equality), but it is impossible to build decent schools without good sanitation and - in many of the world's poorest nations - it is women who take responsibility for providing water for the family, keeping them out of schools and further increasing gender inequalities.


A 2019 UN report on the SDGs presents a bleak picture for Asia, which is not making progress on almost two-thirds of the SDG targets and is not expected to achieve any of the 17 goals by 2030.

For clean water and sanitation, the challenge for Asia stems largely from rapid and unplanned urbanisation. Some 43 per cent of the region's population already live in urban areas and this proportion is expected to continue increasing. While this trend will make SDG6 challenging in Asia, it should not disguise the fact that Asian countries have made good progress in improving access to safe drinking water and sanitation over the past decade.

Only one per cent of the population now use surface water for drinking purposes and around 92 per cent now have access to basic drinking water. There has also been a dramatic decline in open defecation in Asia since 2000, with more than half of the population of Cambodia, nearly half of the population of India and a third of the population of Nepal and Laos stopping this practice.


Recognising the challenges that remain, the UN recently launched a Global Acceleration Framework titled Delivering the promise: Safe water and sanitation for all by 2030. The UN's ''accelerators'' include optimising the use of financial resources; improving the quality of data; improving capacity by increasing job creation in the water sector and the retention of a skilled workforce; developing and implementing new technologies; and improving governance through better cross-sector and international collaboration.

Various countries have also proved that dramatic improvements in the provision of water and sanitation can be achieved in just a few years, and that some solutions are inexpensive, effective and can be deployed quickly.

Unicef has lauded government initiatives including China's Toilet Revolution, Indonesia's Sanitation Campaign, Myanmar's Clean Villages initiatives and the Philippines' Sanitation Master Plan for generating ''huge traction in terms of drawing political attention for accelerating progress in sanitation and ending open defecation''.

New technology is helping, too. In Vietnam, dirty water from a canal in the Mekong River is treated at a plant using a chemical-free process developed by Akvotek, an Australian company. The energy-efficient system provides at least 400 homes and 2,000 people in the southern city of Ben Tre with safe drinking water today, and is expected to do so for many years to come.

Big companies are also looking to SDG goals for guidance in forming their sustainability strategies. Among many others, Dutch brewing company Heineken has made commitments to reduce its use of water. In Indonesia, it has established a cross-sector alliance with UN agencies and partnered with an NGO to replant trees and restore land that is critical to the water supply and flood resilience of 30 million people.

Delivering on SDG6 will not be easy for Asia. But there is hope that, with the UN accelerator framework in place and the region's governments, businesses and communities increasingly focused on sustainability, the chances of delivering clean water and sanitation for all are increasing.

The writer is the CEO Asia Pacific of BNP Paribas Wealth Management

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