Singapore and Iraq - Contrasts in Water Management

STOCKHOLM - As the world faces new threats of water scarcity, triggered by phenomena like global warming and bioenergy demands, Singapore and Iraq have been singled out as two political extremes in water management.

Singapore, the tiny city-state of 4.5 million people, has been touted as a phenomenal success story despite the absence of any natural resources. Iraq has been dismissed as an abject failure, despite its access to two major rivers within its borders. Singapore's widely-acknowledged achievement in water management earned the South-east Asian nation the Stockholm Industry Water Award at an international water conference which concluded here Friday.

"We have ensured that our water supply is sustainable for the next 100 years, or more," says Khoo Teng Chye, chief executive of Singapore's national water agency.

This would have been unimaginable in the 1960s and 1970s, he said, when Singapore faced all the problems of rapid urbanisation: water shortage, polluted rivers and widespread floods.

"The rivers were cleaned up in 10 years. The Singapore River became pollution-free and is teeming with fishes," he said at the award ceremony at the week-long conference sponsored by the Stockholm International Water Institute.

A country that once depended primarily on neighbouring Malaysia for its water, Singapore now has three additional sources: collection of water from local catchments known as the Four National Taps, as well as water recycling and desalination.

Singapore's four recycling plants alone produce 15 percent of the city-state's water needs, with a fifth in the pipeline, which together will account for 30 percent of its requirements, within the next three years.

Professor Asit Biswas of the Mexico-based Third World Centre for Water Management says: "All developed countries can learn from Singapore on how best to manage urban water supply and wastewater management systems efficiently and equitably."

After signing a new partnership agreement with Singapore to jointly promote the safe management of drinking water globally, the World Health Organisation's (WHO) assistant director general Susanne Weber-Mosdorf stated that "Singapore is an exemplary model of integrated water management and WHO hopes to work closely with Singapore to share such expertise in water management with its member states."

In contrast to Singapore, Iraq has been gifted with an abundance of water from two major rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates.

But the country, rich in natural resources and with vast reserves of petroleum, has been bedevilled by years of conflict, including a war with neighbouring Iran in the 1980s, the U.S.-led invasion five years ago and subsequent ongoing occupation, as well as sectarian violence.

As a result, says the United Nations, Iraq's water sector has "faced a major deterioration in recent years."

The factors contributing to the decline include: a serious lack of coordination between various public administration bodies, weak capacity to implement a national water resources plan, increasingly depleted resources and environmental degradation.

"A striking demonstration of its mismanagement," says the UN Development Programme (UNDP), "is the fact that 90 percent of Iraq's water resources are currently used for agriculture while it still imports the overwhelming majority of its agricultural products."

A three-day donor conference in Jordan last May spotlighted the major challenges in Iraq and proposed a long-term plan of action to mitigate the water crisis in the war-ravaged country.

"In order to reverse this trend, it is essential to enhance the capacity of the government to coordinate and develop an integrated water resource management strategy," says Paolo Lembo, UNDP Iraq director.

"It is true that Iraq currently faces major humanitarian challenges, but our duty is not only to rise to the dreadful actualities of the present, but also to set the foundations for sustainable development in the future," he added.

In a study released here, the Public Services International Research Unit, based in France, points out that South Africa, like Singapore, is another country on the right track for effective water management.

In 1994, as the apartheid era ended, about 15.2 million (38 percent) of South Africa's population of 40 million lacked access to basic water supply.

The post-apartheid governments have built an infrastructure that meets the needs of nearly 10 million of the rural population. And by 2009, South Africa is expected to meet the basic water supply needs of the entire country.

The study says that any realistic attempt to develop water services in middle- and low-income countries must focus on public sector water services.

"Despite all the attention that has been given to water privatisation in the last 15 years, the water services of the world remain overwhelmingly provided by the public sector."

In middle- and low-income countries, 90 percent of the largest cities -- those with a population of more than one million people -- were served by a public sector operator in mid-2006.

"This dominance of the public sector is growing, as private companies retreat from many of the concessions and leases in developing countries," the study notes.

And in rural areas, where there is little profitable business for private companies, the percentage of water services provided by the public sector is closer to 100 percent.

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.

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