Crisis. The word is clichéd. Overused. But how else could you describe 360 million urban dwellers in India with a daily average 2.9 hours of indifferent quality water? Or 780 million South Asians forced to defecate in the open? Or how Asia’s urban utilities leak and lose most of the water they first paid to clean? Or nine out of 10 litres of untreated sewage and wastewater that leaches into our rivers, streams, lakes and aquifers?

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If the water is cloudy, the trends are clear: a dangerous spiral of less water and more pollution for more and sicker people.

Daily dilemma: A file photo of women and children collecting water in a New Delhi locality. Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The implications of this doomsday scenario go beyond the non-attainment of Millennium Development Goals and the unlikely imagery of ‘stimulus packages’ bankrolling the water sector. With towns and cities going further afield to secure water, and with public irrigation systems becoming increasingly unreliable, Asia will see massive monetary shifts in capital. Just as energy and transport infrastructure determine today’s investment decisions in industry and agriculture, soon those investments will follow the availability of assured water supplies. Before that can happen, assured water supplies will require significant investments. If that doesn’t happen soon, Asia’s economy will slam into limits imposed by lack of water.

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Water is not distributed equitably. Yet people rarely just “learn to accept" what they lack. To the contrary, empowerment and education breeds restless agitation and a hunger for more. An assertive lower income group will demand redress, as is now happening in India and China.

When you lack water, you have little to lose and everything to gain. Entrenched poverty will provide a ready spark for this disruption in cities and irrigated farms.

Urban public-private partnerships are a sign of hope, exemplified in Manila and Jakarta. The Phnom Penh state-owned enterprise model performs as well and, perhaps, better in some respects. Water companies in Laos and Vietnam are rapidly adopting a business outlook, where full cost recovery is more the rule than the exception.

Numerous small-scale providers admirably fill the gaps caused by stretched large providers.

Sanitation is increasingly addressed in differentiated ways. Some 54 million people in India already use a twin-pit, pour flush toilet, developed by Bindeshwar Pathak. In Vietnam, towns and cities are adopting common sanitation standards and local governments are helping residents and businesses meet them.

At the other end of the scale, the concessionaries in Manila are preparing to invest large sums in collecting and treating the megacity’s wastewater in a bid to promote a healthier environment, attract investment and revive sick and dying water bodies.

There’s no shortage of bright ideas. Investments in the recently launched water operators’ partnership are yielding early payback.

Expert utilities are partnering with weaker ones in India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia, and helping improve utility performance in critical operational areas.

If performance improvement contracts follow and financial performance improves, local governments are more likely to be persuaded to permit badly needed structural reform.

And that will lead to better resource utilization, a postponing of investments in developing new water sources and consumer satisfaction. It can, potentially, alter the politics of urban water in positive and enduring ways.

The quality of Asia’s growth over the next 25 years will be determined by the quality of water and sanitation in the continent’s cities. It will take all the skill of our politicians and enterprises to meet the challenge.

Arjun Thapan is special senior adviser in infrastructure and water, Asian Development Bank, and chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Water Security, 2010-2011