Asia needs to make wiser use of its water

by Michael Richardson

SINGAPORE — Photographed from satellites in space, Asia and the other great continents are a spectacular sight. One of the most unique features of the panoramic view is water, in both liquid and frozen forms, which covers about 75 percent of Earth’s surface.

It’s the abundance of water that sets Earth apart from the rest of the planets in our solar system because water is a vital ingredient for life and human civilization. Yet recently, there have been new warnings about an imminent water crisis.

Britain’s chief scientist, John Beddington, predicted that water shortages would be the world’s most pressing problem in the next decade, compounded by population growth; rapid urbanization; rising demand for food, energy and other water-intensive goods and services; and climate change. The world’s population of 6.6 billion is forecast to increase by 2.5 billion by 2050, with much of that growth in Asia. With the addition of another 1.5 billion people to feed, Asia’s population will reach 5 billion by mid-century.

By 2025, 52 countries containing two-thirds of the global population are expected to be short of water. According the Asian Development Bank (ADB), China and India alone are forecast to have a combined supply shortfall of 1 trillion cubic meters in 2030. Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam are other countries near water stress conditions.

In Manila, a conference this month of over 600 water experts and policymakers was told that Asia faced “unprecedented stress” in water supply. The meeting, organized by the ADB, was also told that Asia needed to spend around $8 billion each year to improve water efficiency and security in both rural and urban areas.

Otherwise, the region could face a 40 percent gap between water demand and supply in 2030 — a shortage that could sharply reduce economic growth, cut the supply of food and energy, and cause serious instability. Governments would then be faced with the politically unpopular choice of having to allocate inadequate amounts of water between competing sectors: burgeoning cities, the main food-producing centers in the countryside, and industry and electricity generation. The latter needs large amounts of water for cooling.

On a global average, 69 percent of fresh water withdrawals are for agriculture. Industry (including power generation) accounts for 23 percent. Municipal use (water for drinking, bathing, cleaning and water plants) amounts to just 8 percent. However, in Asia about 80 percent of available fresh water goes to agriculture. The rest is drawn by industry, the energy sector and for domestic use. In Asia energy and industrial demand for water are growing far faster than in any other region.

While the satellite view of Earth shows extensive water coverage, an estimated 96.5 percent of it is salt water in oceans and seas. Nearly 69 percent of the fresh water is locked away as ice and snow, mainly in the polar ice caps and remote mountain glaciers. Most of the rest, just over 30 percent, is under ground, where it has to be brought to the surface by drilling wells and installing pumps. Barely 1 percent of the global fresh water supply is readily accessible on the surface of the land in lakes, rivers and streams.

It is difficult to measure groundwater accurately. A worldwide survey by Dutch scientists has found that the shrinkage rate of underground reserves had more than doubled between 1960 and 2000, increasing the amount of water lost from 126 to 283 cubic kilometers per year.

Asia has 70 percent of the world’s irrigated land for growing rice and other food crops. It already draws 80 percent of its available fresh water resources, mainly from below ground.

A study presented to the ADB conference said that Asia’s aging irrigation systems must be revitalized with better management and technology to produce more crops with less water to meet regional demand for food, expected to nearly double by 2030.

Still, there is great scope for well-planned reform, especially in conserving water and using it more efficiently. However, consumers will have to pay substantially more for a sustainable water supply. Water losses in Asia from leakage, inefficient collection, theft and other causes are conservatively estimated at between 30 percent and 60 percent of the water processed and distributed by utilities. These losses amount to 29 billion cubic meters of water annually, worth an estimate $9 billion.

Singapore’s Public Utilities Board has shown how large-scale water reuse can meet up to 30 percent of a city’s entire water needs. With better management and political backing, Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority has cut its nonrevenue water distribution from about 73 percent in 1993 to just 6 percent today, while Vietnam’s Hai Phong Water Supply Company has sharply curtailed waste while boosting connections almost eight-fold between 1993 and 2008.

According to the ADB, Australia has shown it can sustain solid economic growth with only about one-third of the water it had a decade ago.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.