It is also too easy for authorities in Asian countries to offer the same simple and flawed responses: centralized dams and desalination plants, or unilaterally imposed rations, restrictions and rate hikes. Command-and-control approaches to dynamic water and people not only harm local ecosystems and economies, they also punish the poor, reward waste, undermine long-term reforms, and delay technological adoption.
But if the urban water monopoly is so broken, is there a better route to resilience?
Absolutely. Yet to find it Asia must rediscover from its own past the unlimited potential of what I call “decentralized water”.
What does this concept mean? Well, much as democracy decentralizes political decision-making, as the internet decentralizes information flows, and as blockchain technology decentralizes valued assets, so can these same innovations now decentralize water in ways that ensure equitable access and efficient use for all.
In practice, decentralized water is just a modern version of an ancient and robust Asian system. In arid regions this system dates back thousands of years and is found throughout the continent, known for example in Persia as qanat, among the Uyghurs as karez, in Bali as subak, or aflaj in the Arab world. All these diverse names described the same self-organizing form of local water governance, where no one person is in charge.
As such, decentralized water does not break with the past so much as revive and embrace a proven yet forgotten solution. Indeed, recent generations of Asia’s modern families and firms have endured top-down, centralized water institutions – federal ministries, state agencies, district utilities – for so long that few can recall, know or can even imagine any other option. But older alternatives both exist and offer us potent lessons about how to thrive in a future of water scarcity.
Unlike modern cities, ancient water systems had no hierarchy, no management HQ, no single point of authority – no one to dictate who gets how much water for which uses at what price. Instead, diverse stakeholders from multiple sectors (families, shops, temples, schools, producers of food and goods) gathered around a common water resource. They invested time, money and effort into building and maintaining the water supply and distribution infrastructure shared by all. They kept track of and recorded respective efforts to capture and transport this water. In return, each accountably earned a share of that water for exclusive use. Secure access was matched in proportion to defined usage. As supply varied by season or year, stakeholders could adapt their demand by negotiating and trading shares of the water with each other. Human uses and decisions were as fluid and efficient as the resource itself.