NEW DELHI – Nothing better illustrates the emergence of fresh water as a key determinant of Asia’s future than the current record drought that has parched lands from Southeast Asia to the Indian subcontinent, withering vast swaths of rice paddies and other crops and affecting economic activity, including electricity generation at a time when power demand has peaked. Millions of people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar and more than a quarter of India’s population are reeling from the searing drought, precipitated by El Nino, the extra-heat-yielding climate pattern.
Asia’s water challenges are underscored by the fact that it has less fresh water per person than any other continent and some of the world’s worst water pollution.
A recent MIT study has warned that Asia’s water crisis could worsen by 2050 to water scarcity across a wide swath of the continent. And an earlier global study commissioned by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found that drought risks are the highest in Asia in terms of the number of people exposed.
Asia’s monsoon-centered hydrologic regime means that annual rain is mainly concentrated in a three- to four-month period, with the rest of the year largely dry. A weak monsoon can compound the long dry period by triggering drought.
Asia’s water crisis highlights an urgent need for better management of this life-sustaining resource. Rapid development, breakneck urbanization, large-scale irrigated farming, lifestyle changes and other human actions have resulted in degraded watersheds, watercourses and other ecosystems, as well as shrinking forests and swamps and over-dammed rivers. The diversion of sand from riverbeds for the construction boom has damaged rivers and slowed the natural recharge of underground aquifers.
Make no mistake: The human-induced impact on the environment and natural resources is undermining Asian hydrological and climatic stability.
The current parched conditions in South and Southeast Asia are a reminder that droughts are becoming recurrent, even as per capita availability of fresh water in Asia is declining at the rate of 1.6 percent a year. In areas already water-stressed, such declines in water availability or variation in annual rainfall can exacerbate parched conditions.
The current drought illustrates some of the key water-related challenges Asian nations confront.
One challenge is for Asia to grow more food with less water, less land and less energy. Yet increases in crop yields have slowed or flattened and the overall food production in Asia is now lagging demand growth for the first time, after the impressive strides Asia made between the 1970s and 1990s when in one generation it went from being a food-scarce continent dependent on imports to becoming a major food exporter.
This success, built by channeling four-fifths of the yearly water supply to agriculture alone, has exacted high environmental and resource costs. With its vast irrigation systems, Asia now boasts the bulk of the world’s land under irrigation — 72 percent of the global irrigated acreage.
With so much water diverted for agriculture, water literally is food in Asia. Yet, from a longer-term perspective, the extent of water use by the Asian agricultural sector is simply not sustainable. One reminder is the current drought, which — by curtailing rice output in the world’s top two rice-exporting states, Thailand and Vietnam, and by affecting farm production in India — is roiling the world food markets.
The plain fact is that excessive water withdrawals for agriculture have compounded Asia’s vulnerability to drought and highlighted more fundamental challenges.
With resources in rivers and reservoirs not adequate to meet demand, users have turned to pumping water from underground. Because groundwater is often a source of supply for rivers, springs, lakes and wetlands, the overexploitation of this strategic resource has helped to spread parched conditions. Indeed, the reckless exploitation of groundwater — a strategic resource that should be conserved as a sort of drought insurance — has been facilitated by the widespread use of electric and diesel-fuel pumps.
In Asia’s heavily populated coastal regions, the overpumping of groundwater has invited seawater to intrude and replace the lost fresh water, thereby affecting water supplies to cities as diverse as Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok and Dhaka.
A drier future for Asia is likely to slow economic growth, raise international food prices, and sharpen disputes between and within countries over shared water resources. Moreover, a drought-laden future will increase risks of water-related conflict.
In Asia, intrastate water disputes have become more common than inter-country wrangles. This is largely because competition for scarce water is increasingly a source of dispute and instability. At the same time, the potential for inter-county conflict is being underlined by sharpening geopolitics over shared water resources.
In the coming years, water scarcity threatens to act as a conflict-risk multiplier, including by fueling competition over an essential resource and by spurring migration from water-stressed areas to places, such as cities, where water availability is better.
Yet most Asian states are not making serious, sustained efforts to build a water-secure future, including by combating droughts. Droughts are deceptive disasters because they knock down no buildings yet wreak high socioeconomic costs.
Asian states must seek to reduce drought risks and water shortages by placing freshwater at the center of their strategic planning. If they don’t, the linkages between water stress, sharing disputes, falling water quality, and environmental degradation could trap Asia in an interminable vicious cycle.
Among the steps Asian states need to take are restoring vegetation (including reconverting some farmland to forest), reversing the degradation of freshwater and coastal ecosystems, improving water quality to offset decrease in water quantity, channeling excess monsoon water to artificially recharge aquifers, incentivizing water-use efficiency, overhauling antediluvian irrigation systems, introducing drought-resistant crop varieties, limiting heavily subsidized water to the very poor, and utilizing alternative cooling technologies for power generation.
Policymakers must appreciate that drought risks cannot be lowered without improved groundwater governance, to help prevent over-extraction.
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 overreliance on groundwater supplies.
Improved planning for water-resource allocation demands an integrated, holistic approach. Water, food and energy, for example, must be managed by policymakers jointly so as to promote synergistic approaches. If Asia is to avert a parched future, it must think and act long term.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”
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