Kazakhstan is a country rich in oil and natural beauty. But to reach its aspirations under the Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy, it may be missing one vital resource – water.
This is not an obvious limitation, especially in parts of the Almaty or East Kazakhstan oblasts, where water flows abundantly in rivers. But when he outlined the Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy two years ago, President Nursultan Nazarbayev identified water shortages as a key global challenge, with a special salience for landlocked Kazakhstan.
A lack of high-quality drinking water is severe in some regions, especially rural areas. By the end of 2013, according to Kazakhstan’s Statistical Yearbook for 2009-2013, 93 percent of the households in Kazakhstan’s cities were living in premises with running water; however, in rural areas, the figure stood at only 25 percent. Many households in remote areas still have their water delivered in water tanks and kept in special reservoirs.
By 2050, Kazakhstan hopes to have solved once and for all the problem of water supply.
Globally, this is a familiar problem. Today, one billion people lack access to safe drinking water. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will face water stress, and the situation will deteriorate by 2050. Even worse, less than one percent of the world’s water is usable.
But these dire statistics need not apply to Kazakhstan. In this, a small island, as different from Kazakhstan as it is possible to imagine, may offer a useful model.
Singapore is just over 700 square kilometres, whereas Kazakhstan is 2.7 million. Singapore has no natural resources, definitely no oil, and is an island one degree north of the equator.
And yet, as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan Erlan Idrissov has said, Kazakhstan has used Singapore directly as a model of how to achieve success – its state asset management body, Samruk Kazyna, is based on Singapore’s Temasek state investment company.
“Singapore’s expertise is also being used to help improve public services, including education, and to modernise and diversify our economy, particularly in the field of chemical production and information technology,” he wrote in an opinion this year.
Another unglamorous but essential public utility could be added to this list: the provision of water in cities.
Singapore is one of the world’s driest countries: 20th from last in terms of fresh water availability. It used to rely on a larger neighbour, Malaysia, for its water. Despite its poor endowment in water, Singapore has a stable water supply and management system today.
Under the Asian Development Bank’s IDWA (Index of Drinking Water Adequacy), Singapore scores full marks in four out of five indices: access, capacity, use and quality. There is universal provision of water to households and the cleanliness of its supply meets World Health Organisation standards. Water in Singapore is safe to drink straight from the tap.
How did Singapore provide water for both economic growth and for drinking? How did it wean itself off heavy dependence on its neighbour for its supply of water?
Here are three ideas that could be useful for Kazakhstan.
Every Drop is Precious
One of the secrets to Singapore’s success is an unglamorous engineering task – fixing the pipes.
In most developed countries now, non-revenue water – leakage from source to end user – is about 20 percent. In some countries, such as Mexico, it is as high as 40 percent. In Kazakhstan, it is 22 percent. In Singapore, it is 4 percent. In other words, if Kazakhstan reduces its leakage to Singapore’s level, it will immediately increase its water supply by nearly 20 percent.
At the moment, Kazakhstan’s water supply network is in poor condition – some of its sections have exceeded the standard operating term of 25 years. In 2009, only 36 percent of the water supply network was in working condition and 64 percent needed complete replacement or major renovation, according to the Ak Bulak programme approved by the government in May 2011. The government is already putting efforts toward rebuilding its water infrastructure. State programmes for water supply, like the Drinking Water Programme from 2002 – 2010 and the current Ak Bulak programme, acknowledge the need for better policies for accurately metering water use and ensuring supplies for end users.
Such efforts need to be strengthened, not just because Kazakhstan’s population is increasing, but because goals under the Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy aimed at economic growth will require efficient water use and the recognition that each drop is precious.
Price and Compassion
The pricing of water is a politically salient activity. In Singapore, everyone who uses water is charged from the first drop. The Singapore government has targeted support that provides utilities subsidies for the poor. Even the very poor have constant water connections and the same level of service as any other Singaporean.
Today, state programmes in Kazakhstan emphasise the efficient use of water via tariff differentiation, cost-efficient operation of enterprises and covering investments for the implementation of medium- and long-term programmes. But both drinking and irrigation water is still subsidised.
Kazakhstan will have to find its own formulation for pricing water. But it must recognise that water has an economic cost and its price must reflect its value.
Nudging, in behavioural economics and social psychology, is a light-touch approach to behaviour modification – using the power of social norms or all-too-human emotions.
Some successful examples of nudging have been the use of data on electricity bills to lower consumption.
In terms of regulating demand, Singapore has public education programmes. But it also has several nudges among its water management programmes, including smaller flush cisterns, automatic push pipes and the publication of average consumption data in bills to nudge high water users.
Such nudges decrease (or eliminate) efforts needed to save water, or, in the case of bills, harness the power of social norms to change behaviour.
Appreciating every drop, price recognition and nudging are all measures that Kazakhstan can implement easily and at relatively low cost, especially in its cities.
Kazakhstan has big dreams, economically and politically, as befitting a big country. It has both the wealth and the political will to make regulatory and policy changes that will make the revolutionary transformations required.
We argue that these changes ought to take place in water first. It will lay the foundation for the incredible developmental growth that will likely follow.
Leong Ching is a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Karlygash Karamanova is a teaching assistant at the Graduate School of Public Policy at Nazarbayev University.