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Too much water lost to urban leaks

A young boy fills a plastic water container in Dhaka. Millions face difficulty accessing water in the capital Mushfique Wadud/IRIN
South and Southeast Asia are home to 60 percent of the world’s population but have only 36 percent of its water resources - a situation likely to be exacerbated by population growth, rapid urbanization, industrialization, environmental degradation, groundwater overuse and climate change unless urgent remedial action is taken, say experts.

Governments and aid organizations could have a significant impact by tackling the issue of water wasted due to leakages.

“One of the major challenges facing Asia, particularly in most urban centres, is the large proportion of water loss in distribution networks,” Amy Leung, the Asian Development Bank’s (ABD) director of the urban development and water division, told IRIN. “By cutting physical losses to half the present level, 150 million people could be supplied with already treated water.” 

Asia loses around 29 billion cubic metres of urban treated water every year, valued at nine billion dollars annually, the bank estimates.

“A key source of water wastage in cities of developing countries in South and Southeast Asia is the high levels of water loss from leaking water pipes and in other parts of the water distribution system,” said Tan Cheon Kheong, a research associate at the Institute of Water Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “By fixing water leakages and addressing water pilferage, it is possible for water utilities in the region to cut the amount of water lost to less than 20 percent of their water supply.”

In Bangladesh, up to 50 percent of Dhaka’s water is lost due to substandard connections and leaking pipes, resulting in supply interruptions during peak demand hours, according to ADB. 

New Delhi in India, a city of some 12 million, faces similar water shortages with long water cuts during summer when demand is high. Data from the Delhi Jal Board, which is responsible for water supply and treatment in the region, indicate that more than half of Delhi’s water is wasted because of leakages in the distribution pipeline, theft and poor revenue collection.

In Pakistan, data from Karachi Water and Sewage Board show that the city loses more than one-third of its water to pipe leakages and pilferage. 

In Indonesia, the Jakarta Water Supply Regulation Body estimates that 39 percent of the capital city’s water is wasted as a result of pipe leaks in the distribution network and theft, while 40 percent of the 10 million residents have no piped water.

Rising demand

A 2012 paper on urban water issues, predicts that the future energy demands in urban water in the Greater Mekong area - which includes Cambodia, the southern provinces of China, Lao, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam - will triple by 2030 forcing some countries to double the available water for urban usage.

A young man bathing at the Notre Dame Dulawan (NDD) evacuation centre in Data Piang, Mindanao. Most IDPs do not have adequate access for personal or domestic use, or access to proper sanitation
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Water wastage remains a key challenge
This in turn will place additional pressure on an already weak urban infrastructure, resulting in further water shortages and sanitation breakdowns, experts warn.

According to the 2012 UN World Water Development Report (WWDR4), 480 million people in Asia lack access to improved water resources, while around two billion do not have access to improved sanitation. “In many Asian cities the poor have inadequate access to water supplies. Leaks reduce the prospect of extending services as they increase the costs of water supply compared to revenue from water user fees,” Jamie Pittock, a leading expert on water governance at the Australia National University, explained.

An undervalued resource?

Urban water is also lost as a result of a lack of appreciation of its economic and environmental value.

“Parts of South Asia are extremely water scarce, in part due to poor policies that encourage misuse - for example, electricity subsidies that contribute to excessive pumping of groundwater that is dramatically depleting aquifers,” says Pittock .

More waste water should be recycled, say some experts.

“Wastewater should be properly treated and then recycled. This will not only curb water pollution but will enable cities to alleviate water scarcity through the practice of water reuse,” notes Tan. “In other words, wastewater need not be wasted. It should be regarded as a resource that can be utilized.”

Since 2003 Singapore has managed to turn its waste water into high-grade reclaimed water by using advanced and ultraviolet technologies. “Today this water can meet 30 percent of Singapore’s water needs,” said Tan.

“Unless water is governed better some parts of Asia face a grim future,” Pittock warned.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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