How many people in the world’s towns and cities can drink the water from their taps without risking their health?
The answer is probably impossible to determine. Indeed, the United Nations uses the term “improved sources of water” to describe what is supplied in many urban areas around the world.
Unfortunately, “improved” doesn’t always mean “clean” or “safe”.
The 2012 update of the World Health Organisation’s report Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation estimates that at least 96 per cent of urban dwellers in emerging economies such as China, India, Thailand and Mexico have access to “improved” sources of water.
A study carried out by the Asian Institute of Technology, however, found that fewer than three per cent of Bangkok’s eight million residents drink water directly from the tap – simply because they don’t trust its quality.
Visit any major city in an emerging economy, from Mexico City to Mumbai, and you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes that the water piped into their homes is fit to drink.
Estimates by the Third World Centre for Water Management indicate that more than two billion people don’t trust the quality of the water to which they have access.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
In the Cambodian capital, one official has shown that good management of this precious resource can make a difference.
When Ek Sonn Chan became the director-general of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority nearly 20 years ago, the city had a dismal water supply, with nearly 83 per cent lost through leakages and unauthorised connections.
With a low-key but firm management style, Ek Sonn Chan began to turn things around.
He built up the authority’s capacity by training and rewarding his most effective staff and refusing to tolerate corruption.
Within a year of Ek Sonn Chan taking the job, the authority’s technical and performance indicators had begun to improve.
Fifteen years after he took over, annual water production had increased by more than 400 per cent, the water-distribution network had grown by more than 450 per cent and the customer base had increased by more than 650 per cent.
Today, the authority says there are no unauthorised connections in Phnom Penh.
Losses from the water system are just over five per cent – similar to the level one would find in Singapore or Tokyo, which have two of the best water-supply systems in the world.
Thames Water, a utility in Britain, reported losses in 2010 that were five times that rate.
By most performance indicators, Phnom Penh now has a better water-supply system than London or Washington, DC.
Perhaps more remarkable is that Phnom Penh’s water-supply business model works. All consumers are metered, and both rich and poor pay for the water they consume.
And that water costs between 60 and 80 per cent less than it did when people bought untreated water from private street vendors – an unreliable source in more ways than one.
Today, even Phnom Penh’s poorest households receive drinkable piped water around the clock.
The authority recovers all of its operating costs from tariffs, and must depreciate its assets with time.
More than 94 per cent of supplied water is billed, and the collection rate has been close to 100 per cent for more than a decade.
The authority shows that good management of urban water resources is not only financially viable in emerging economies, but also benefits the whole population.
All people have a right to the water they need for drinking, cooking and cleaning.
Despite this, political and business leaders around the world still make excuses for the lack of clean, safe water in their towns and cities.
The arguments are well-rehearsed: water scarcity; lack of investment funds; the inability of the poor to pay for water; inadequate access to technology.
But in our view, these claims are merely attempts to hide the fundamental problems.
Poor governance is no excuse. Neither is the absence of political will to charge people for the water they consume, even if doing so would ensure a more reliable supply.
Cambodia has shown the world that a great deal can be achieved within a decade.
If Phnom Penh – with all its financial, technical and institutional challenges – can do it, why not other urban centres in emerging markets elsewhere in the world?