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“Our latest quantitative assessment in 2020 shows a generally positive trend in water security”

Neeta Pokhrel, Chief of the Water Sector Group

Many countries in Asia and the Pacific are in a water crisis: as their populations expand and the demand for water increases, water resources are threatened by misuse, pollution, and climate change. The Water Sector Group of the Asian Development Bank supports its developing member countries (DMCs) to become water secure and resilient.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) works to secure investments that improve water services in cities and rural communities and ensure sustainable management of water resources. Neeta Pokhrel has worked towards water security and environmental sustainability for over 25 years. Currently the Chief of the Water Sector Group, she puts her knowledge and expertise to work in support of ADB’s vision of a resilient and water secure Asia and the Pacific. In this interview, she discusses the role and current approaches of ADB as they work to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all and reduce the risks from water-related disasters.

Can you tell us briefly about your career path and your current role in the Asian Development Bank?

I am an engineer by training. My bachelor’s degree is from RMIT University Australia and my master’s degree is from Imperial College London. Starting with my first job at an engineering consulting firm in Melbourne in 1995, I have worked with the private sector, international consulting firms, non-governmental organizations, water utilities, and have now been with ADB for the last 18 years. I enjoy being in the field and have lived and worked in more than 10 countries, leading and managing diverse teams, designing and implementing very small community-based to large infrastructure projects, policies, and programs. Ensuring water security and environmental sustainability – through managing resources upstream, downstream, across regions, and within urban or rural centers– has been the drive and focus of my professional career. As the Chief of Water Sector Group of ADB, I currently lead the strategic development of ADB’s water sector and provide knowledge management and implementation support to the operational departments to meet ADB’s goals of resilient and water secure Asia and the Pacific.

Asia has experienced a boom in development in recent years. How has water security evolved as socioeconomic development increased?

Despite a boom in development in recent years in Asia and the Pacific region, more than 2 billion people in our region still lack adequate water supply and sanitation. It is also the most disaster-affected region in the world and home to more than 40% of the globe’s calamities and 84% of the people they affect.

Asia-Pacific is the most disaster-affected world region, home to more than 40% of the globe’s calamities and 84% of affected people

We have been tracking water security status of our 49 member countries from Asia and the Pacific region since 2013 through the Asian Water Development Outlook report. We define water security as the availability of adequate water to support sustainable and resilient living, by ensuring safe and affordable water supply, sanitation for all, improved livelihoods, and healthy ecosystems, with reduced water-related risks.

Our latest quantitative assessment in 2020 shows a generally positive trend in water security, including the key dimensions of rural household water security, economic water security and water-related disaster security. Progress in urban water security and environmental water security has been less evident. Although the general trend is of improved water security, particularly in East Asia and Southeast Asia, 22 countries out of the 49 surveyed remain in the lower two ‘insecure’ categories of the five-band national water security index. This represents 2.05 billion people or about 50% of the regions’ population.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the critical role of water security to prevent and respond to future health crises

Governments and partners need to rethink their messaging, keeping water as one of the drivers of both urban and rural development

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the critical role of water security to prevent and respond to future health crises, which could undo decades of financial and socioeconomic gains in the region.

Therefore, much more still needs to be done to make our region water secure and able to achieve the socioeconomic status that it aims for.

The positive socioeconomic impacts of improved access to water and sanitation are known. How can we increase the level of attention to water and sanitation issues and make investments in water and sanitation more attractive?

Though socioeconomic impacts of improved water security are generally acknowledged by policymakers, the critical links to sustaining life, environment, biodiversity, climate, food, energy, among others, may not be fully understood. Otherwise, we would see this transferred in actions in the form of much-needed budget allocated by the public sector, and funds mobilized by the private sector. We would therefore not see a colossal financing gap to meet the global SDG6 targets, estimated at more than $114 billion annually in capital expenditure alone. And this is just a predicted scenario when we hope there are no extreme climate related disasters, or worse still, no more pandemics such as the one we are currently facing with COVID-19. Factoring just a few of these disruptors will add trillions more to this estimated financing gap for water and sanitation.

Sustainable water and sanitation financing is not just about money; capacity building and awareness will make or break it

Governments and their partners need to radically rethink their messaging, keeping water as one of the drivers and centerpiece of both urban and rural development, and reframe their fiscal and non-fiscal incentives and governance frameworks.

Ensuring the right environment for private investments to flow into the water and sanitation sector, strengthening and decentralizing governance, and regulating to optimize resource conservation, are at the heart of increasing and attracting financing both from the public and private sector in water and sanitation.  These actions can only be done by the governments and local-level policymakers. Development partners and financiers, such as ADB, play a part in supporting our government clients in sensitizing and implementing these actions.

We believe that effectively managed non-sewered and on-site sanitation solutions will be the game-changer for Asia and the Pacific

Local-level providers of water and sanitation services have a key role in ensuring that ongoing assets continue to function and deliver substantial benefits for communities, the economy, and the environment, by improving efficiency, so the financial need for their replacement is minimized. Communities themselves play the most important role in ensuring more judicious use of the scarce water resources.

Last, sustainable water and sanitation financing is not just about money. Capacity building and awareness of all stakeholders will make or break it. Increased climate change impacts and COVID-19 have also been reminders that water financing must be focused on infrastructure and systems that are resilient to climate and other shocks.

Can you comment on the potential role of decentralized non-sewered sanitation solutions in Asia?

We believe that effectively managed non-sewered and on-site sanitation solutions will be the game-changer for Asia and the Pacific.

With growing urbanization and high population densities in our region, managing a vast amount of human waste is becoming ever more challenging.  Lack of sanitation can have significant impacts on city and national economies, affecting public health, productivity, competitiveness, real estate values, and the overall quality of life.

Non-sewered and on-site sanitation offer huge benefits to low-income and sparely dense areas in cities: coverage can increase faster 

Non-sewered and on-site sanitation offer huge benefits to low-income and sparely dense areas in cities. Governments can increase sanitation service coverage faster over a shorter period of time. As more people use septic tanks to manage their waste, approaches such as fecal sludge management programs can help more communities easily access sanitation services. It also ensures that human waste is safely managed along the entire sanitation service chain.

ADB’s current water sector portfolio is about $19.4 billion. We plan to add around $10 billion to this over the next three years

Non-sewered systems are also more inclusive and sustainable. They promote long-term planning, community engagement, technical innovation, institutional reforms, and help in financial mobilization at the local level.

Effectively managed non-sewered and on-site sanitation solutions will have a significant impact on public health and overall quality of life. They will also have long-term effects on productivity, competitiveness, and real estate values.

Since 2011, ADB has invested $308.07 million in non-sewered sanitation/fecal sludge management (FSM) projects. Newly approved sanitation projects which focus on FSM also increased to 32% in 2021, compared to 17% in 2020.

Water resource management comprises institutional issues as well as technical issues. What approaches does the ADB support in order to drive change and achieve SDG-6?

Although SDG-6 is generally simplified as clean water and sanitation for all and water resources management is specifically targeted through SDG6.5 (“By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate”), SDG 6 refers to water resources management at the goal level through its official wording: “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”

Cognizant of this integrated character of water resources management, ADB has been promoting integrated water resources management (IWRM) in all its developing member countries. IWRM is firmly vested in its water policy of 2001 and further contextualized in its water operational plan 2011-2020 and its forthcoming water sector framework (2021-2030).

ADB’s current water sector portfolio is about $19.4 billion. We plan to add around $10 billion to this over the next three years. We approach all our water projects, whether it is for municipal or rural water supply, sanitation, irrigation, basin management, or improved resilience and flood control from an IWRM perspective. We support our member countries to develop water policies, strategies, and institutional reforms, which form the conditions and lay the foundations for integrated water resources management. Such institutional reforms may include the establishment of basin organizations at the apex level, such as the Network of Asian River Basin Organizations (NARBO). However, having apex bodies is not a prerequisite, integration can also be achieved through other mechanisms.

We support member countries to develop national and basin water resources information and data centers that use the latest technologies

In order to effectively carry out integrated water resources management, the availability of reliable data is an absolute necessity. In many of our projects, we support member countries to develop national and basin water resources information and data centers that use the latest technologies to collect and process objectively verifiable data such as high-resolution remote sensing and robust hydrometeorological telemetry. On the basis of such objective information and extensive stakeholder involvement, sound and balanced investment plans can be developed for sustainable use of water resources. Such plans are also required for effective transboundary cooperation and ADB supports this through participation in international fora and conferences on transboundary cooperation as well as specific projects and regional cooperation on water for example recently launched as part of the water pillar of the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC).

I have already mentioned in my response to question three some of the measures we are supporting in our member countries to increase awareness and drive change toward meeting and financing SDG 6.

Can you tell us about ADB's initiatives on e-Marketplace on water management, first one in March 2021, and second just completed in October 2021? What outcomes do you envisage from them?

We realised that the water sector in our region is one of the least digitalized sectors. The COVID-19 pandemic also showed the need for water managers to be digitalized. While many innovative technologies are available that can improve efficiency and resilience of water services and communities, a lack of awareness and apprehension toward technology exists among water and sanitation practitioners.

The water sector in our region is one of the least digitalized ones; there is lack of awareness and apprehension toward technology

Therefore, in March 2021, ADB organized its first e-Marketplace for water management, to help demystify the technologies and connect the market with our clients and staff. The first eMarketplace brought together 58 ICT, digital and remote sensing technology providers and connected them with ADB’s water sector developing member country clients and its own water sector staff. The 2nd e-Marketplace in October 2021 showcased solutions from another 58 companies and institutions.

The e-Marketplaces are intended to cross-connect digitalization solution providers to ADB’s DMCs’ water sector stakeholders and staff, and to share learnings from the experiences of water service providers and water resource management organizations.

We plan to continue such events and synthesize internal and global best practices, via an interactive virtual learning hub for staff and member country stakeholders. Outcomes are expected to be demystifying digitization for water management, showcasing what is available and can be sourced from where and at what cost, creating demand from our clients, and linking demand to supply sources.