The Big Squeeze

As climate change and rapid development take their toll, new ways must be found to manage Asia’s water resources

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review


The record drought ravaging large parts of Asia will end when the annual summer monsoon rains come in June. This will bring much-needed relief to the suffering people in the parched lands — from the millions of residents in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to more than a quarter of India’s 1.25 billion people. The searing drought has already claimed several hundred lives and destroyed vast swaths of rice paddies and other farms.

But make no mistake: The latest in a string of droughts to hit Asia this century offers a telling preview of the hotter, drier future that awaits much of the continent. This likelihood largely arises from the costs that rapid development, breakneck urbanization, large-scale irrigated farming and lifestyle changes are imposing on natural resources, the environment and climate in the world’s largest and most-populous continent.

Recurrent drought promises to exacerbate Asia’s already-serious water challenges and thus potentially affect economic growth, social peace, and relations between countries or provinces that share rivers or aquifers. In a drought-laden future, thirsty communities, provinces or nations will increase risks of water-related conflict.

Yet little policy attention has been paid to combating droughts because of their episodic character, with scientists still unable to reliably predict the arrival, extent or duration of any drought. Unlike other natural and human-made disasters, from earthquakes and hurricanes to flooding and industrial accidents, a drought is a silently creeping calamity. However, without resource conservation, ecological restoration and more sustainable development, droughts in Asia are likely to become more frequent and severe.

Asia is the world’s most resource-poor continent. Rapid economic growth has brought its limited natural-capital base under increasing pressure. Overexploitation of natural resources, for its part, has created an environmental crisis that is contributing to regional climate change. For example, the Tibetan Plateau, the world’s largest repository of freshwater other than the two poles, is warming at a rate that is more than twice the global average — with potentially serious consequences for Asia’s climate, monsoons and freshwater reserves.

A little-known fact is that Asia, not Africa, is the world’s most water-stressed continent. Water stress is internationally defined as the per capita availability of less than 1,700 cubic meters per year. Asia already has less freshwater per person than any other continent, and some of the world’s worst water pollution.

Water is not just the most undervalued and underappreciated resource; in the coming years, it is likely to be the most contested resource in Asia. This has largely to do with the growing paucity of this life-sustaining resource and Asia’s distinctive water map.

Most important rivers in Asia traverse national boundaries and are thus international systems. Indeed, most Asian nations with land frontiers — with the prominent exception of China, which controls Asia’s riverheads by controlling the Tibetan Plateau — are highly dependent on cross-border water inflows. Such dependency is the greatest in countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam that are located farthest downstream on international rivers.

Against this background, inter-country and intra-country water disputes have become common. Indeed, Asia illustrates that transboundary water resources, instead of linking countries or provinces in a system of hydrological interdependence, are fostering sharpening competition for relative gain. The competition extends to appropriating resources of shared rivers by building dams, reservoirs and other diversions, thus roiling inter-riparian relations. Averting water wars demands rules-based cooperation, water-sharing accords, uninterrupted flow of hydrological data, and dispute-settlement mechanisms.

Asia is already the world’s most dam-dotted continent: It has more dams than the rest of the world combined. But this statistic doesn’t tell the real story: Most of Asia’s dams are in China, which alone has slightly more than half of the world’s approximately 50,000 large dams. With its massive infrastructure of dams and other storage facilities, China has built an impressive capacity to stockpile water for the dry season.

But China’s over-damming of rivers has contributed to river fragmentation (the interruption of natural flows) and depletion, leading to downstream basins drying up or rivers discharging only small amounts of water and nutrient-rich silt into the oceans. China’s dying Yellow River exemplifies this problem. And its cascade of six giant dams on the Mekong, just before it leaves Chinese territory, is being blamed for accentuating the current Southeast Asian drought, with river depletion extending to the delta region, which is a rice bowl of Asia.

Asia’s vulnerability to droughts and other effects of environmental and climate change is being increased by other factors as well, including groundwater depletion and deforestation, especially in the upstream catchment areas. Deforestation is most notable in the Himalayan-Tibetan region, where the great rivers of Asia originate. But it also extends to other regions, including rainforest areas.

Through its environmentally destabilizing impacts, deforestation amplifies the frequency and severity of extreme events such as droughts and floods. The depletion of many Asian swamps — which serve as nature’s water storage and absorption cover — also contributes to a cycle of chronic flooding and drought, besides allowing deserts to advance and swallow up grasslands.

For its part, the extraction of groundwater at rates surpassing nature’s recharge capacity has resulted in a rapidly falling water table across much of Asia. Because groundwater is often a source of supply for streams, springs, lakes and wetlands, the over-exploitation of this strategic resource, which traditionally has served as a sort of drought insurance, creates parched conditions and thus fosters recurrent droughts.

Meanwhile, intensive irrigation in semi-arid regions, including northern China, Central Asia and Pakistan, has helped to create a boom in agricultural exports but exacted heavy transboundary environmental costs. It has caused soil salinity and waterlogging and fostered atmospheric humidity, with climate stability becoming a casualty and dry areas becoming drier.

The entire Asian belt stretching from the Korean Peninsula to the Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan region is becoming increasingly prone to the ravages of drought. But even before the current drought hit South and Southeast Asia, scientific studies on global drought risk hotspots showed that drought risks were the highest in these two regions, at least in terms of the number of people exposed.

It is past time for Asian policymakers to start addressing drought risks, the core of which is the nexus between water, energy and food. For example, the current drought is roiling world food markets through its destructive impacts on crops. And by reducing cooling-water availability, it is decreasing generation by some power plants, just when electricity demand has peaked.

The drought risks can be reduced by ensuring the protection and ecological restoration of watercourses, securing water-efficiency gains through agricultural-productivity measures, developing drought-resistant crop varieties, improving water quality to offset decrease in water quantity, and utilizing alternative cooling technologies for power generation. Increasing water storage by channeling excess water during the monsoons to artificially recharge aquifers, especially in Asia’s densely populated, economically booming coastal regions, holds promise for coping with droughts.

Policymakers must appreciate that drought risks cannot be lowered without tackling the serious problem of groundwater depletion. Groundwater in Asia is being pumped and consumed by human activities at such a rate that, for example, NASA scientists in the United States observed several years ago that the subterranean reserves in northwest India were vanishing.

Groundwater resources are recklessly exploited because there are few controls in Asia on their extraction. Also contributing to this practice is the fact that, unlike surface water, degradation of groundwater is not visible to the human eye. Surface water and groundwater, however, are linked hydrologically and should be managed as a single resource. A one-water approach is also essential to cut the overreliance of many communities on groundwater supplies.

The specter of permanent water losses is just one reason why Asia’s drought-related challenges demand an integrated, holistic approach. Water, food and energy, for example, must be managed by policymakers not separately but jointly so as to promote synergistic approaches. Also, ecological restoration programs, by aiding the recovery of damaged ecosystems, can help bring wider benefits in slowing soil and water degradation, stemming coastal erosion, augmenting freshwater storage and supply, and controlling droughts.

Without such efforts, the linkages between water stress, sharing disputes, falling water quality and environmental degradation could trap Asia in a vicious cycle. Nature is indivisible: Communities and states cannot thrive for long by bending nature and undercutting environmental sustainability.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, among others, of the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2016.