Asia, Water

One of the biggest crises in the modern world is our inability to provide each population with accessibility to clean water, with only 1 percent of our planet’s total water supply readily available to us. The United Nations (UN) July 2021 report says that approximately 2 billion people – almost 26% of the world’s population – have problems accessing and maintaining a clean and safe water supply [1]. Asian countries are most affected by this crisis due to increasing population and limited freshwater resources. Because of this, these countries have started to experience moderate to severe water limitations caused by the synergistic effects of agricultural growth, industrialization and urbanization.

Investing in collaborative, innovative efforts that work towards achieving water security for all is the best way to address this dangerous crisis head-on as for many, it is now a matter of survival. In aiming to future-proof and ensure the sustainability of water sources across all nations, a global dialog is needed, where leaders and industry experts can exchange best practices on technology-driven solutions and effective governance.

Events like the Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) help facilitate these discussions. This year’s SIWW was a fully virtual event that took place over two weeks, from June 21 to July 2. AECOM had a strong presence at this year’s event, which saw thousands of participants from around the world coming together to share and co-create innovative solutions to meet the world’s most pressing water challenges.

While leaders and experts from our Water business line engaged in events throughout the week, two of these events were led by AECOM team members – “Riding the Wave: Ensuring Security Against Climate Uncertainties,” an engaging panel discussion in which I moderated that focused on insights and strategic responses to safeguarding urban water systems; and “Rising Above: Integrated Adaptive Pathways for Urban Environments,” an informative, all-women session on innovation in practice held by executive director Dr. Kuang Ping Chiu.

Below are some key discussion points from these two sessions.

Key actions toward ending water shortage

Three primary ways to address water shortage were highlighted during these discussions:

• Instating persistent demand reduction, which calls for the need to track the trend of water usage.
• Strengthening resilient water technologies by analyzing where areas of high population stand in terms of existing resources, and by building new means with industries as technology-enabled structure requires industry collaboration and by recycling.
• Decarbonizing water by reducing energy use in water treatment and conveyance.

By keeping a conscious focus on these three areas, we can radically restructure all forms of water consumption and prevent the current scarcity from worsening.

Our personal lifestyle choices make an impact on water security.

An action that can be taken to alleviate and deescalate the water crisis is to conserve water on an operational level. This requires society as a whole to examine how water is used and create strategies that focus on reducing wastage, preventing damage to water quality, and improving overall water management. For example, the water footprint of a standard smartphone is around 13,000 liters, or approximately 130 bathtubs [2,3]. This is the amount of water it takes to produce all the parts of the phone, including the microchip, glass, plastic, and metal, and much of that water is drinkable. Reexamining how we operate in creating and producing products could have a substantial impact on maintaining a secure water supply.

Increasing population, urbanization and high living standards.

By 2050, 68% of the world population is projected to live in urban areas [4]. This increase in urbanization is not a negative thing, but it will make significant impacts on the ecological environment that can lead to the lack of access to safe water and sanitation, and an increase water-related disasters such as floods and droughts. The challenge is how to undertake sustainable development without causing damage to the natural environment, e.g., avoiding crucial issues leading to the rapid deterioration and degradation of the water quality in the water supply intake points. Reuse and recycle should be a part of this focus in dealing with the water scarcity issues as well as investing in key technology and infrastructure. This comes with enacting the right policies and regulations to keep up with future needs. The layout of a plan should cover 100 years or more to ensure water sustainability for future generations.

Innovating for sustainability

When it comes to innovation, the willingness to embrace change and collaboration for a sustainable future must be present. Change requires more than just the technical innovation – it also includes evolving business models, governance structures, triggers and integrating general change management practices. During “Rising Above: Integrated Adaptive Pathways for Urban Environments,” Dr. Kuang Ping Chiu discussed how public sector agencies such as the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Sydney Water responded to climate challenges and adopted innovative solutions to solve serious water challenges. While these two major metropolitan areas experience different effects of climate change, both have proactive policies to deal with the immediate impact to citizens, the urban fabric, and natural systems.

Sustainability believes in the proper use of resources without exhausting them for future generations. The changing climate conditions and limited resources available to us demand more efficient water systems than what we currently have. Efficient water management requires a holistic approach in which different stakeholders – policy makers, scientists, industry leaders, engineers, academicians and water management professionals – come together to engage in conversations and deliberations on how to leverage innovation to safeguard urban water systems against the effects of climate uncertainties; and how future infrastructure systems can build resilience to extreme weather events while enhancing resource efficiency.

These conversations exemplify the role of resilient water infrastructure as a critical building block for worldwide sustainable development, including the fast-urbanizing Asia region. Developing efficient and inclusive water supplies and future-proofing coastal infrastructure that lasts generations is not a one-time effort, but a continuing endeavor we must address through dialog and collaboration that will lead to effective action.


Scott Dunn

Originally published Aug 2, 2021

Author: Scott Dunn

Scott Dunn, head of strategy & growth for the Asia Region, is an urban planner and city integrator who leads cross-functional inter-disciplinary teams in providing integrated services and sustainable solutions for large, complex and multidisciplinary projects across the region. Scott also drives the River Restoration and Integrated Coastal Management Practice Initiative, delivering integrated watershed solutions across our water infrastructure business.