Region: Urban Water Challenges for Small and Medium Sized Cities


Karen Fisher

More than 1 billion people worldwide currently lack access to safe water supplies. Water challenges will likely intensify in the future as a consequence of population growth, changes in consumption patterns, increases in demand and competition with other allocated uses, in particular agriculture - the largest user of water in Asia and worldwide.

Although water withdrawals for human use in urban environments is relatively low compared to agriculture, urban delivery systems in countries across Asia are frequently unable to meet demand, particularly in the face of increasing urban growth and urbanisation. The ADB reports that in some cases, urban water quality and services are in decline. Under-investment in infrastructure, failure to recover costs, losses through leakage and illegal connections, deteriorating water quality and depletion of water stocks are factors that constrain waterworks utilities' ability to continue to satisfy the needs of consumers.

The United Nations has forecast that urban areas will be the sites of virtually all population growth during 2000-2030, mostly in developing regions. Natural increase, rural-urban migration and transformation of rural settlements into cities are important determinants of the high population growth expected in urban areas. In the past, urban planning has often been ad hoc and piecemeal and unable to accommodate the rapid expansion of urban areas. Squatter settlements and unplanned urban sprawl, particularly on the periphery of large metropolitan areas proliferated; cities such as Manila, Bangkok, and Jakarta are examples of rapid growth. Although mega-cities and large urban agglomerations such as these will continue to grow, the rate of growth in large cities has contracted somewhat. Instead, most of the urban growth over the next 30 years will not occur in mega-cities but in smaller cities and towns. As a consequence, the number of cities with populations below 500,000 will increase.

Infrastructure and public utilities in these small and medium sized cities are often inadequate and unable to cope with increasing population pressure with the result that large numbers of inhabitants are excluded from piped water networks and are forced to rely on small scale private water vendors for water supplies at prices many times higher than municipal consumers with access to water networks.

In addition to the demand created by an increased number of people on water stocks are the negative externalities that arise as a consequence of human settlements. Improper disposal of household sewerage and solid waste threaten the quality of sources, while the expansion of paved areas and soil compaction affect hydrological processes and can increase the risk of flooding of surface runoff water particularly in locations with poor drainage systems.

In the Philippines, the city of Tagbilaran, in the Province of Bohol, is just one of the country's provincial capitals undergoing rapid growth and transformation and positioning itself as a stepping stone to larger cities in the Philippines such as Cebu, Davao, and Manila. Although a small city at around 87,000, Tagbilaran has experienced urban water problems such as those identified above. Improvements in municipal water supply began to be felt in 1997 through increased government spending on infrastructure rehabilitation and improvement. Since 2000, water in Tagbilaran has been provided by both a public utility and a public/private joint venture company. Service and operational inefficiencies for both utilities has improved significantly and water services have become more stable for consumers. In addition, the network has expanded to cover a greater area and therefore provide more of the population with access to safe water for drinking and other basic needs.

The key factors for overcoming problems of water quality, supply, services, operations and coverage were proactive local government units, a collaborative and engaged civil society, and strategic environmental management. In addition, the injection of private capital into network rehabilitation and expansion was also significant although the process of engaging the private sector has given rise to some controversy within the city, reflecting the debate concerning privatisation and the role of the private sector in water supply more broadly.

Another key factor in Tagbilaran's success may well be its relatively small size. Unlike neighbouring Cebu, Tagbilaran's, problems associated with rapid population growth and urban expansion have been less severe because of a smaller base population and also different environmental conditions that allowed for lower population densities in settlement areas. Therefore, Tagbilaran was able to look to Cebu and other cities in the Philippines and learn from their experiences. Similarly, the prevalence of transnational networks for environmental governance in the Philippines, the rest of Asia and the rest of the world, along with the trend towards sustainable cities (eg, Local Agenda 21 initiatives) provide opportunities for cities to learn and share their experiences concerning, among other things, urban water supply.

Although small and medium sized cities face significant challenges in terms of urban water supply in the face of urban growth and transformation, they need not be insurmountable.

WATCHPOINT: Urban water scarcity will not be limited to large cities and mega-cities given the patterns of urban growth and urbanisation in Asia. Therefore it is important for small and medium sized cities to be forward thinking and innovative in terms of infrastructure and environmental management.


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AFG Venture Group is an Asia and Australia based corporate advisory and consulting firm with over 20 years experience in creating alliances, relationships and transactions in Australia, South East Asia and India; including a 15 year history of corporate and equities advisory in Australia, undertaking merger, acquisition, divestment, fund raising and consulting for private and public companies.

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