Singapore and Israel show the world how to tackle dangerous water shortages

A toxic algae outbreak is invading the Ohio River.
A toxic algae outbreak is invading the Ohio River.
Image: AP Photo/John Minchillo
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Access to clean and abundant water is a problem in developed and developing nations around the globe. It’s time for world leaders to address these issues before they become full-blown crises.

Take Pakistan, which is headed for severe water shortages over the next decade. Global climate change is one culprit, as is a dearth of water storage facilities.

In Botswana, residents of the capital will lack reliable access to water until 2017 because the main dam has dried up and the pipeline that carries water from the north has failed. Drought continues to wither the economy in Brazil. In developing countries overall, 90% of wastewater flows untreated into rivers and lakes, damaging the environment and spreading disease.

In the US, pollution feeds toxic algal blooms in the heartland even as California battles drought. And D-rated aging infrastructure has led to leaky, inefficient pipes and water main breaks in Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago, and L.A., not to mention the cities and towns in between. These challenges will only intensify as the world’s population grows and climate change continues to alter weather patterns.

The good news is that rapid improvement is possible. Just decades ago, Singapore and Israel faced profound water challenges. Yet both countries have driven sustainable growth in part by putting sound water management at the center of national policy.

Singapore once faced severe floods and drought, polluted waterways, and water dependence on neighboring Malaysia. To address these problems, Singapore invested in desalination, stormwater capture, and wastewater reuse technology. Now a third of the nation is served by wastewater reclamation plants, and Singapore is water-secure.

Israel established a centralized water authority and developed integrated policies to manage water as a national resource. These included cutting agricultural water subsidies, investing in desalination, recycling wastewater, and encouraging the development of new irrigation technologies. It’s now water independent, despite being one of the world’s driest countries. In both cases, leaders recognized that water management was central to development and made it a national priority.

While every country faces unique circumstances, Israel and Singapore offer lessons that can help policymakers around the world strengthen water management. We should start with policies that price water and sanitation services at their true cost. We need to promote investment in efficient infrastructure and water management technologies, including intelligent irrigation, smart metering, and leak detection.

Political leaders around the world are working feverishly to make 2015 the year we make sustainable development a real priority. In September, the United Nations announced plans to work toward ending global hunger, poverty and violence. Next month, leaders will meet in Paris to tackle climate change.

Water management is central to achieving all of these objectives. But with hundreds of sustainability targets and national climate plans, this crucial area risks getting lost in the shuffle. We need political leaders around the world to prioritize water management—not for its own sake, but as a vital foundation for sustainable growth.