Some two billion Asians – roughly 66 percent of the population in Asia – lack access to adequate sanitation, such as toilets, pit latrines, septic tanks, and sewerage systems. This accounts for nearly three-quarters of all those in the world without such facilities.
'Failure to act on sanitation and wastewater eventually comes home to roost when the problem results in a smelly, foul, turgid river that despoils a city and surrounding areas,' said Amy Leung, principal urban development specialist with the Asian Development Bank, ADB.
'But the real horror is the outbreak of typhoid and cholera caused by inadequate sanitation,' she said.
Leung says the bank has about $1.6 billion in the pipeline for investments in sanitation between now and 2010 and is looking for ways to double or triple that figure.
The ADB is seeking more investment in sanitation ahead of the World Water Week, a global conference on sanitation and other water issues that opens in Stockholm August 12.
World Water Week is the global meeting place for capacity and partnership building and following up on the implementation of international water and development programs.
ADB experts will present the challenges facing Asia at the meeting and they will be looking to team up with other organizations to combat the problem.
'Sanitation must get top priority from the political leadership everywhere,' said Arjun Thapan, chair of ADB's Water Committee. 'They need to see sanitation as paying its way and not as being either unaffordable or a luxury.'
The financial cost of cleaning a river once it is already polluted with industrial waste or sewage is far higher than the cost of building the infrastructure needed to dispose of the pollutants properly, bank officials say.
'Politicians must also understand that postponing action is not an option,' said Thapan. 'To do so, will cost a great deal more. This is the key message that ADB wants to convey at the Stockholm World Water Week.'
In Shanghai, for example, Chinese authorities had to spend $1 billion to clean Suzhou Creek, which runs through the metropolis and used to be a health risk to residents. Officials acknowledge cleanup costs were many times what would have been needed to prevent the pollution in the first place.
China last year announced plans to invest $125 billion in sanitation and wastewater treatment, a major step forward but still not enough to meet its people's needs, say bank officials.
This indicates the magnitude of investment needed in Asia for sanitation and wastewater infrastructure between now and 2015, the target date for accomplishing the UN's Millenium Development Goals.
Four of the eight goals rely on clean water and adequate sanitation - reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; and ensuring environmental sustainability.
If China sustains its sanitation investments, it could substantially accelerate achievement of Millennium Development Goal targets across the region, according to the bank.
Leung says the bank has dedicated an extra $20 million as grant money to help governments and utilities improve their sanitation programs.
World Water Week will devote many of its panels and publications to sanitation concerns this year.
One advance paper from the World Health Organization and the Stockholm Water Institute gives five reasons why investments in water and sanitation can be the engine for accelerated economic growth, sustainable development, improved health and reduced poverty.
- Improved water supply and sanitation and water resources management boosts countries' economic growth and contributes greatly to poverty eradication.
- The economic benefits of improved water supply and 'in particular, sanitation' far outweigh the investment costs.
- National economies are more resilient to rainfall variability and economic growth is boosted when water storage capacity is improved.
- Investing in water is good business. Proper water supply, sanitation and water resources management is increasingly becoming a competitive advantage for attracting business investment.
It is estimated that 322 million working days per year, and an annual global value of US$750 million from working days gained as a result of improved health, could come from meeting the Millenium Development Goals water supply and sanitation targets.
- The overall public and private investment needs for improved water supply and sanitation and water resources management are considerable, the World Health Organization and the Stockholm Water Institute agree. But they say that at the country level, 'meeting such investment challenges is highly feasible and within the reach of most nations.'