Asia’s Water Crisis Needs Urgent Fixing

Brahma Chellaney

The Straits Times | September 17, 2012

Asia’s water crisis is at the heart of the world’s water challenges, with  the degradation of surface and subterranean water resources threatening the natural ecosystems. Asia has the world’s lowest per capita access to freshwater. The continent’s ever-deeper search for water is sucking groundwater reserves dry with millions of pump-operated wells even as it confronts river depletion.

Groundwater is recklessly exploited because it is not visible to the human eye. What is out of sight tends to be out of mind, as people drill  deeper into the receding water table.

At least seven factors have contributed to the rising economic and security risks linked with the Asian water crisis.

One is Asia’s dramatic economic rise. With economic activity such as industry and food production consuming 92 percent of the world’s annual water use, Asia’s rapid economic growth has been the key driver of its growing water stress.

Asia already has the world’s largest number of people without basic or adequate access to water. Asian states are experiencing very high water-distribution losses, a lack of 24/7 supply in many cities, and drinking water contamination due to unregulated industrial and agricultural practices.

A second factor is consumption growth from rising prosperity. While Asia’s population growth has slowed, its consumption growth has taken off as Asians consume more resources like water, food and energy. A growing Asian middle class, for example, uses water-guzzling, energy-hogging comforts such as washing machines and dishwashers. What were once luxuries have become necessities today. In China, daily household water use increased two-and-a-half times between 1980 and 2000 alone.

The broader consumption growth is best illustrated by changing Asian diets, especially the greater intake of meat, which is notoriously water-intensive to produce. Asia actually accounts for the world’s fastest growth in meat consumption. China, Vietnam and Thailand almost doubled their production of pigs and poultry during the 1990s alone.

Growing biomass to feed animals takes far more water, energy and land than growing biomass for direct human consumption. Much of the world’s corn and soya bean production and a growing share of wheat now go to feed cattle, pigs and chickens.

Third is the role of irrigation. Irrigation has proven both a boon and a curse in Asia. Once a continent of serious food shortages and recurrent famines, Asia’s dramatic economic rise as a net food exporter came on the back of an unparalleled irrigation expansion. Between 1961 and 2003, Asia doubled its total irrigated acreage.

Extending agriculture to semi-arid and arid areas that stretch from northern China to Uzbekistan and beyond has required intensive irrigation. But this has created serious water-logging and soil salinity problems, and undercut crop-yield growth.

Even in Asia’s fertile valleys drained by major rivers, irrigation is often necessary in the dry season because the rains are usually restricted to the three- or four-month monsoon season. This is in stark contrast to Europe’s rain-fed crops producing most of its food.

With its vast irrigation systems, Asia now boasts much of the world’s land under irrigation. It has 70.2 percent of the world’s 301 million hectares of irrigated acreage.

Asia’s channelling of 82 percent of its water for food production is not the only startling statistic. Consider another astonishing figure: almost 74 per cent of the total global freshwater used for agriculture is in Asia alone. With so much water diverted to agriculture, water literally is food in Asia. Yet in the long term, such water use by Asia’s agricultural sector is simply unsustainable.

A fourth factor is the fast-rising water demand from Asian industry and urban households, as this continent becomes the world’s fastest industrialization and urbanization region.

With the international shift of manufacturing to Asia continuing, this continent’s industrial water usage is merely 9 percent of the total, with another 9 percent used for municipal supply. However, in East Asia — where Asia’s heavy manufacturing is concentrated — industrial water use already accounts for 22 percent of total supply, with municipal supply making up another 14 percent.

Greater water shortages are looming as industrial activities rapidly expand. The fast pace of urbanization has left many cities struggling to meet the household water demands.

A fifth factor behind Asia’s water crisis is the large-scale sequestration of river resources through dams, barrages, reservoirs and other human-made structures. This has been done without factoring in long-term environmental considerations and, in a number of cases, even the interests of countries located downstream.

Projects designed to offer structural solutions in the form of dams, reservoirs, irrigation canals and levees are often at the root of intrastate and interstate water disputes.

Asia is the world’s most dam-dotted continent, yet such over-damming has only compounded its water challenges. China alone boasts slightly more than half of the approximately 50,000 large dams on the planet.

Yet another factor is the environmental impact of Asia’s economic-growth story, including on watersheds, riparian ecology and water quality. Rising prosperity in Asia, by aggravating the environmental impacts of human activities, is deepening the water crisis.

State policies have unwittingly contributed to environmental degradation. State subsidies, for example, have helped weaken price signals, encouraging farmers to over-pump groundwater. Provision of subsidized electricity and diesel fuel to farmers in several Asian countries has promoted the uncontrolled exploitation of groundwater.

Water abstraction in excess of the natural hydrological cycle’s renewable capacity is affecting ecosystems and degrading water quality in large parts of Asia. The over-exploitation of groundwater, for example, results not only in the depletion of a vital resource, but also leads to the drying up of wetlands, lakes and streams that depend on the same source. The human alteration of ecosystems is an invitation to accelerated global warming.

A final factor is the lack of institutionalized cooperation over most of Asia’s transnational river basins. This reality has to be seen in the context of strained relations between states sharing river basins and the broader absence of an Asian security architecture.

Asia is the only continent other than Africa where regional integration has yet to take hold, largely because Asian political and cultural diversity has hindered institution building. As a result, managing the water competition in Asia has become increasingly challenging.

The writer is the author of “Water: Asia’s New Battlegroud.”

(c) The Straits Times, 2012.

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