California's drought is Asia's nightmare

Story highlights

  • Mark Clifford: If the technology capital of America cannot manage its water, what hope is there for Asia?
  • He says Asia is an increasingly water-stressed region; fortunately, smart solutions have been put in place

Mark L. Clifford, author of "The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia's Environmental Emergency," is the executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Business Council. During his prize-winning 25-year career in journalism, he served as editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and held senior editorial roles at BusinessWeek and the Far Eastern Economic Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)California's drought is big news in Asia. It's partly because, from Hollywood movies to Silicon Valley high-tech, Asians are interested in all things Californian. And their diets include grocery bags full of California products, from walnuts to wine to cheese and cashew nuts.

Just as well, California's drought has become Asia's nightmare. Asia is an increasingly water-stressed region. If the technology and cultural capital of America cannot manage its water, what hope is there for Asia?
Mark L. Clifford
Climate change isn't a matter of political point-scoring for Asians. There's broad consensus that climate patterns are changing and that global warming is caused by human activity. China has pledged to see carbon emissions peak around 2030, but that's not soon enough to stop the effects of greater droughts in some places and heavy rains in others. Asia is also home to some of the world's most vulnerable places that are under threat from rising sea levels, from tiny Maldives to giant Bangladesh.
    Water is a matter of national prosperity and, in some cases, national survival. Increasingly, governments, working with private companies, are embarking on a variety of measures to ensure access to water.
    Singapore is a good example of how countries can prosper when governments, companies and society at large work together to solve problems. Even before Singapore won its independence, founding father Lee Kuan Yew recognized that water was perhaps its most important strategic vulnerability, given the country's dependence on imports from neighboring Malaysia. Singapore attached water treaties with Malaysia to its declaration of independence, lodged at the United Nations. This must be the only country in the world with a water treaty stapled to its declaration of independence.
    Lee saw at the beginning of World War II in 1941 how Japanese destruction of the country's water supplies in neighboring Malaysia made it easier to take control of a city thought to be impregnable. Later, Lee set up the Singaporean armed forces to ensure that he would have the muscle to ensure that the water kept coming from Malaysia.
    A policy of treating every drop of water as precious, along with aggressive investment in infrastructure, has made Singapore largely self-sufficient in water today. Its NEWater treatment plant takes sewage water and cleans it so thoroughly that it is too clean for drinking -- it is used in industrial manufacturing or dumped into the island's reservoirs to re-mineralize. Multibillion-dollar investment in underground tunnels collect runoff from streets for recycling -- a globally unparalleled effort. Two-thirds of the island serves as a water catchment, feeding the city's reservoirs.
    Singapore spurs government-industry partnerships, with the government chipping in hundreds of millions of dollars to seed water-related innovations as part of its ambition to be a 'Hydro-hub." Many of the world's water and environmental services companies have set up shop in the city-state of 5 million people, producing green jobs and ensuring water security.
    The Philippines' capital of Manila is another water success story. In the 1990s the financially struggling government got out of the Manila water business. At that time, only about one out of six households had access to 24-hours-a-day running tap water. Now 99% do. Water bills have fallen dramatically -- and people don't have to lug water back from water tankers. Shareholders have done well, too -- too well, for some critics who don't like the idea of private interests profiting from a public good. Meanwhile, Manila Water is working with the government to clean up the Pasig River, which runs through the capital, to run wastewater facilities and even to help manage the watershed around key reservoirs and to implement the national climate change plan.
    Issues like droughts and climate change aren't abstract realities in Asia. They are serious threats. If necessity is the mother of invention, we're likely to see many more innovations coming out of Asia in the years ahead.
    For all of Asians' fascination with Silicon Valley, the green tech business is mostly dominated by big companies. Manila Water is controlled by the Ayala Corporation, a 180-plus-year-old company that is one of the Philippines' largest.
    One of Asia's richest businessman, Li Ka-shing, (Forbes estimates his net worth at about $33 billion), has also made big bets on water technology. Li's Hutchison Whampoa Water runs one of the world's largest desalination plants, the Sorek plant, which provides one-fifth of Israel's municipal water.
    Li isn't just building big projects. He bought into a water-tech incubator a couple of years back, now known as Hutchison Kinrot. One the unit's portfolio companies, Aquarius Spectrum, uses sensors and algorithms to provide high-accuracy acoustic water leak detection. Aquarius' technology allows utilities to detect leaks as small as 1 millimeter (about the width of 10 human hairs), reducing water loss and making repairs more efficient. Another portfolio company, Hydrospin, uses a micro-generator to produce energy from the water flow inside distribution pipes. This energy powers measuring devices measuring water toxicity, pH, chlorine and pressure.
    For Asia, water is a matter of poverty and prosperity, and sometimes of life and death. Asian countries are recognizing that there are solutions, but they are rarely easy and require often novel partnerships between government, business and society.
    Perhaps California can learn a few things from Asia.