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Water articles are written by ADB staff and external contributors on various water issues, reforms, and good practices.

Drinking Water is Like Food Let us make it available to all and now!
July 2007

By Kallidaikurichi Easwaran Seetharam, Principal Water Supply and Sanitation Specialist When I started to coordinate the preparation of the report in 2005, the big question on my mind was who would finance this huge amount? Governments of developing countries and development organizations are attempting to answer this question. In early 2006, I assisted the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in announcing its Water Financing Program 20062010. The Program, one of the most concrete actions publicly announced so far by an international organization, will double ADBs investments in the water sector to over $2 billion annually for the next five years. But typical development projects take at least three to five years for development and physical implementation. What do we do until then? Do we simply wait? Water is life; and people cannot live without safe drinking water. WATER IS LIKE FOOD The first one or two liters of clean water for drinking is essential for human survival. It also has the maximum benefit for the individual and the economy. This water is like food or medicine. State run utilities that aim to distribute 100 or more liters per capita per day lose up to 70% of the water they produce through leaks and theft. While the water they produce in their treatment plants is reportedly potable, unfortunately, due to intermittent supply, the water that reaches the taps in most countries is not. On the other hand, private bottlers distribute packaged drinking water. Though some think that packaged water is a drink for the rich, it is being consumed by the majority of the population, including the poor, in many developing countries. NO EXTRA COST In its 2002 impact evaluation study, the ADB highlighted that over the past two decades, policy makers have perhaps underestimated the challenge, and have no clear policy for reaching the first two liters of safe drinking water per head of population. The findings of the study, presented at the Third World Water Forum in Japan in 2003, alerted policy makers and development partners, that the small quantities necessary for drinking purposes need not be distributed through taps, and perhaps will not be readily available from taps in many developing countries in the near future. So the next question is, what would it cost to bring the two liters of safe drinking water to each person? The cost of producing water ranges between US 12 to 20 cents per cubic meter, i.e. 1,000 liters. The annual per capita consumption of drinking water would be less than a cubic meter and therefore would not cost more than US 10 cents. That is a very small amountless than 0.1% of the GDP of the poorest of Asian nationsthat any country can afford. When all the capital and operation and maintenance costs of producing and distributing water (source development, production, treatment, packaging, transportation, and distribution) are taken into account at current prices (without including profits of private bottlers), the cost of drinking water per liter would be less than onetenth of a single US cent. Anybody can afford to pay this amount. Compared to the current US 50 cents per liter charged for the most expensive bottled water, the cost of the water produced by the water utilities would be insignificant. BEYOND MDGs TARGETS Skeptics have asked whether the poor can afford to pay for drinking water. In my view, the small quantities of safe drinking water (at one to two liters per capita per day) should be made available as food to all citizens by the water utilities, without having to worry about cost recovery. People will automatically pay for it once it becomes available. In the PRC and the Lao PDR, state-run utilities sell bottled drinking water and compete in the market with other domestic and international private bottlers. The governments regulate the quality of drinking water like milk and soft drinks. It is interesting to note that the utilities that sell packaged drinking water also provide 24x7 piped water supplies. These utilities also recover full costs of operation and maintenance. Furthermore, when water for drinking is unbundled at source, the utilities resulting transmission losses also declinethe nonrevenue water rate reduces by two percentage points. With less than 10 years remaining to reach the MDGs we need to think outside the box, beyond the traditional development projects that take many years to prepare and implement. The MDGs envision reducing to half the population without access to safe drinking water. But what happens to the other half? Can they be left without access to water? How long will they have to wait? Can we not think of ways of providing the small quantities of safe drinking water immediately to all citizens? SIMPLE SPEEDY SOLUTIONS Together, we can make a difference, in the International Water Decade. How can governments make a difference? I offer three suggestions: Immediately, implement regulation to capture the water at the treatment plants, and secure the one to two liters per capita for drinking purposessimply identify water as Food! Promote innovation and technology in the bottling industry following the principles of the three Rs (reducereuse recycle) and manage demand for drinking water and packaging materials. Bring out the best efficiencies in all stages of water services, from source development, production, treatment, packaging and transportation, to distribution, by working together with corporate and civil society groups. To achieve the drinking water requirement of the MDG Target 10 in Asia, about one billion cubic meters of safe drinking water needs to be distributed annually. This would cost only US$100 million annually. According to estimates made in the Asia Water Watch 2015, for every $1 invested in safe drinking water, which is like food or medicine, the annual economic benefits in terms of health and education are more than $15 to $20. Let us envision a day when even the poorest of the poor will drink safe drinking water, without having to worry about paying for it. And let us get it done quickly. Though some think that packaged water is a drink for the rich, it is being consumed by the majority of the population, including the poor, in many developing countries.

_______________________________ *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in July 2007: http://www.adb.org/water/Articles/drinking-water.asp