At a webinar on ‘Decreased Access to Safe Water in Asia: Challenges to Human Security’ organised by the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) in conjunction with World Water Day–2021 on 22 March 2021, a panel of experts affirmed, “Community engagement and awareness is the need of the hour to defend the right to water for all people. Churches together with other faith-based organisations and civil society movements can play a major role in raising awareness on the global water crisis. We need to share stories and best practices to improve what we are doing, join information networks, and work to change individual and corporate behaviours with respect to water conservation and pollution.”
The panel, comprising of representatives from United Nations (UN) agencies such as UNICEF, UNDP, and inter-governmental and development agencies such as Mekong River Commission, WorldWide Fund for Nature, Amity Foundation, Ecumenical Water Network, and Water for People Network further observed, “Community-based initiatives must reflect the life experiences and aspirations of the people, while pushing for genuine reform and democratic governance. In ensuring every drop counts, we must involve all stakeholders and empower those most disadvantaged to participate decisively.”
In Asia, water-related problems have become increasingly acute with worrying implications. The threats of climate change, rampant urbanisation, and unplanned development have placed great stress upon the regions water resources. In recent times, water scarcity has triggered reduced food production, supply chain blockages, loss of land and livelihoods, large-scale migrations, and even exacerbated economic and geopolitical tensions.
Dr Mathews George Chunakara, the General Secretary of the CCA, who moderated the session, said in his opening remarks, “Water is the essence of life and safe water is indispensable to sustain life and health. The right to water cannot be interpreted in an abstract perspective but must be grounded in the framework of human security. Human security fundamentally is freedom from fear and freedom from want; and its interrelatedness with right to water is significant and obvious.”
“The right of access to water, which entails sufficient, safe, accessible, affordable water for personal and domestic use, is a matter of increasing concern in the Asia region today,” added Dr Chunakara.
Evariste Kouassi-Komlan, Regional Advisor of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) at the UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office, spoke of the specific challenges of rapid growth, urbanisation, and climate change in Asia and its impact on water, sanitation, and hygiene.
Mr Kouassi-Komlan specifically mentioned the urban-rural gap in water access and explained, “Waste water management is a bottleneck in the sustainable development of the region, and this has huge impacts in terms of health. It is also a major challenge to ensuring higher quantity and quality of water in rural areas, as there are scant waste water systems available in remote areas.”
The UNICEF officer further share four specific perspectives to address water scarcity in the region. This included water governance as a revolutionary and interregional management system, innovation and financing to improve the efficiency of water use and reusability of water, capacity-building of the water sector, and increased data information availability and resource sharing with reliance on artificial intelligence for modelling and predictions.
Dr Ansye Sopacua, Technical Adviser of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for UNDP Indonesia, highlighted the specific issues hindering access to safe, sufficient, and affordable water in Asia. She broke down the right to water in three components and shared the regional challenges in attaining each. These three were that the individual need of water averaged 50–100 litres per day, that water sources needed to be within 1000 metres of one’s residence, and that the expenditure of a household on water should not be more than three percent of income.
Dr Sopacua noted that in many areas, water scarcity prevailed due to a lack of physical access to water especially in dry seasons or where water was brackish and non-potable. Lack of reliable infrastructure, lack of funding and finance, and issues of mismanagement contributed to decreased access to safe water. At times, water was available but either not safe (due to chemical run-offs or high salinity) or not affordable (especially as the poor had to purchase water every day given limited access to municipality water systems and associated subsidies).
Dr Kongmeng Ly, Water Quality Officer from the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental agency in the Mekong sub-region of South East Asia, provided examples of trans-boundary cooperation over shared water resources. He said that the member countries of the lower Mekong basin jointly established many procedures on the use of water and the protection and conservation of the river’s resources, which included joint cooperation in the management and monitoring of water quality. Although the onus was on states to enforce the protocols, the MRC provided monthly assessments of water quality and quantity, which helped in assessing development projects across the basin.
Dr Ly advocated for joint partnerships of shared resources, monitoring of water quality and quantity, and relying on scientific knowledge and information sharing.
Dr Theresa Carino, Senior Adviser and Research Consultant to Amity Foundation in the People’s Republic of China, spoke about the specific issues of water access caused by uneven economic development in the country. “In villages, competition for water undermines social cohesion,” she said, while explaining the impact of poor water quality on the health of rural residents.
Dr Carino further added that the lack of water in rural areas was a threat to the dignity of women and the fight for equality, as many women were kept from schooling and were forced to fetch water which took between two and four hours a day. She also elaborated the wide range of health problems, including cancer and arsenic poisoning, caused by the consumption of polluted and unsafe drinking water.
Dr Carino emphasised the necessity of water committees that were locally elected and were represented in the design, planning, and operation of water systems. She insisted on having women equally represented on such water committees and suggested measures to ensure accountability and transparency.
Prof. Reginald Vallejos, spokesperson for Water for the People Network (WPN) in the Philippines, observed that eight regions in the country faced acute water stress. As there was no access to water and sanitation measures, many still practiced open defecation. Several preventable diseases that were related to limited water access were responsible for the high infant mortality rate.
Prof. Vallejos further affirmed the necessity of strengthening partnerships at the grassroots, building solidarity, and expanding knowledge through education and discussion on natural resources and their management. He pushed for a democratic sustainable water agenda and affirmed his solidarity with water resource defenders in the region.
Farah Nadeem, Coordinator of the Freshwater Programme at World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Pakistan, shared the current challenges to water availability for all in her country. “Are we managing our resources in an equitable manner?” she asked, highlighting gaps in infrastructure and participation of all stakeholders. She proposed integrated water resource management as a potential and viable solution to mitigate unequal access to water.
“If we want to change perspectives on water management, users need to be aware and sensitised to the fact that water is a scarce resource,” said Ms Nadeem, sharing community initiatives to circulate information among consumers, corporates, agricultural workers, and religious groups to the issues of water scarcity.
Rev. David Das, Asia representative to the International Reference Group of the Ecumenical Water Network hosted by the World Council of Churches, explained the factors that complicated access to safe drinking water in Bangladesh. Although the country had many rivers, they were often contaminated due to weather-related events, such as floods, landslides, river bank erosion, cyclones, and typhoons. “Such events have turned people into internal refugees with no access to drinking water,” shared Rev. Das.
“Water has now become a complex trading commodity like gold and oil. Churches must prioritise urgent, relevant, and affordable programmes and be in partnership with various groups for a multi-pronged solution to the water crisis. It is up to faith groups to answer several pressing questions regarding the sustainability of our current lifestyles for the future,” concluded Rev. Das.
The panellists collectively proposed suggestions for actions of churches on the issue of equitable water access. This included speaking about decreased access to water from the pulpit, developing specific Sunday School modules and curriculum on water and the care of creation, releasing publications on biblical-theological perspectives on the importance of water conservation, implementing efficient and affordable rain-water harvesting systems, promoting water-consciousness, and implementing ‘Green Church’ policies. Given that churches had large grassroots networks, such networks could be leveraged to spread information on the importance of water and its links to human dignity.
In his concluding remarks, Dr Mathews George Chunakara said, “The numerous challenges posed to human security in Asia today are exacerbated by lack of access to safe water in Asia. The CCA has been educating, encouraging, and empowering its constituencies to work for the wellbeing and prosperity of all God’s creation in this world and to be engaged in a prophetic mission, loudly and boldly advocating for right to water; as well as respond to the increasing challenges to human security in the region.”
The CCA hopes that the deliberations of the webinar on World Water Day will continue to inform the prophetic witness of Asian churches in the ongoing struggle for equality and justice, especially as the world begins to rebuild and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reports and videos of the CCA’s previous webinars on COVID-19 issues can be found below: