Written by Vandana Asthana.

Water is essential for all life on this planet and strongly dictates where and how civilisations flourish based on its availability, accessibility and transportation. According to a 2013 report by UN-Water, “Water security is … the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability”. Shifts in the availability and accessibility of this resource impacts on socio-economic and developmental needs; from livelihoods, food security and energy production. Water insecurity has considerable empirical support in a world where water security has become the predominant challenge of the twenty first century.

As early as 2050, water availability in Pakistan and Nepal is projected to be too low for self-sufficiency in food production.

Drivers of Water Insecurity

Few people actively engaged in Asia’s water sector would deny that the region faces serious problems in the sustainable use of water resources for human development. The past two decades have witnessed tremendous growth and development in Asia. Despite these achievements, the region is centre-stage in experiencing water insecurity. Countries in the region are beginning to experience moderate-to-severe water shortages, brought about by the simultaneous effects of population growth, rapid urbanisation and progress in agriculture and industrial development.

Population: Asia accounts for 60 percent of the world’s population with 4.3 billion people; South Asia is home to approximately 25 percent of world’s population (1.75 billion) and hosts nearly half of the world’s poor. Growing population coupled with wasteful consumption has led to a gradual decline in per-capita availability of water in the region by almost eighty percent since the 1950s.

Urbanisation:  Asia is moving into unprecedented urbanisation.  By 2030, more than 55 percent of the population of Asia will be urban, of which India and China will account for 37 percent. The number of megacities is likely to grow from 13 to 22, bringing with them enormous challenges of clean water and sanitation. India’s cities alone will require 94 billion litres of potable water that will not be easily available. Cities in South Asia, such as Chennai, are exploiting the water resources of the rural hinterlands in their vicinity, leading to conflict and competing claims over the right to this resource. Municipal sewage remains a common concern that dominates the region and open defecation is high in South Asia. While East Asian economies have shown remarkable progress in urban water security, South Asia lags in improved water supply and access to sanitation.

Economic Development: India and China will account for 40 percent of the world’s growth in the next few years. Considering the scale at which India and China as economic powerhouses are growing, more demand for water will come from the industrial sector in manufacturing, thermal, electricity and domestic use. In addition to this demand, the challenges of pollution and water quality increase with economic growth. Increasing affluence is associated with a shift in dietary prescriptions to animal/meat products – a pattern that is already visible in China and India.  The water demand for growing food and feed will also rise. Resource constraints are going to be “arguably tighter than what Europe and US experienced in the 19th century”.

Agriculture and Irrigation Development:  Water for agriculture continues to consume 80 percent of the region’s resources. South Asia is highly dependent on irrigation, as water is directly linked to crop yields and therefore to the production of food.  More than 50 percent of the population is employed in this sector. Increased production and food security are key drivers of poverty reduction in the region, which is highly dependent on the availability of freshwater and on the hydrological cycle. Surface and ground water is used for food production in the region. According to the FAO, Asia uses a staggering 70 percent of groundwater for irrigation. India and China are the largest consumers of this resource, followed by Pakistan. The demand for groundwater abstraction is projected to increase by 30 percent, with China, India and Pakistan accounting for 86 percent of the total groundwater abstraction in the region.

Climate Change: Asia has experienced some of the most damaging weather and climate related disasters with alarming consequences for human life and economic development. Over 700 million people have died in the last ten years and over 1.7 billion have been affected by storms, cyclones, floods and heatstrokes. Floods have cost the region $1.4 trillion. In South Asia, the frequency of extreme floods and the scope of flood-prone areas are increasing, particularly in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Warmer climates are already being felt in the region and climate change impacts on the Himalayan and the Hindu Kush glaciers directly affect the people and economies of the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. As early as 2050, water availability in Pakistan and Nepal is projected to be too low for self-sufficiency in food production. Changes in precipitation patterns will affect seasonal water availability and river flows, increasing the potential for interstate and transboundary conflicts. Climate change will confront populations with ongoing and multiple challenges for securing water.

Impacts of driving factors and challenges: Water availability alone does not lead to water security. The access, quality and reliability of the water are also key components when analysing fresh water security versus human consumption.

  • Availability and access to household and urban water security remains a key issue for South Asia with 17-44 percent of water being lost to leakage. Challenges of household water security include the availability of water, often it is available for only a few hours a day, leaking pipes and inefficiency in use. Urban water security is hugely at risk in countries like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Philippines. Of the 2.6 billion who do not have access to improved sanitation, 72 percent live in Asia. While the World Bank Report claims that “the improved water source (percent of population with access) in South Asia was last reported at 90.05 in 2010,” only 36 percent of South Asians have access to sanitation. Disparities and inequalities have risen between the rural and the urban and the rich and the poor due to inequitable distribution.
  • Water quality impacts availability and access. Eighty percent of wastewater in the region is discharged in water bodies without being treated. In Indonesia only 14 percent of wastewater is treated, in the Philippines 10 percent, in India nine percent and in Vietnam four percent. 60 to 70 percent of the rivers are polluted in South Asia and China, with discharge of untreated industrial effluents and municipal sewage. While regulations are in place, there is a lack of river health monitoring in South Asian states both at the country level and at the basin level.
  • As sectoral demands for water increase, Asia, and more specifically South Asia, remains challenged in meeting competing demands. By 2025, sectoral demands in irrigation will rise due to the increasing population of the region. More water storage projects will be needed for increased food grain production and more sustainable practices will be needed to have an integrated land and water management program. As surface water availability declines, countries have begun to exploit groundwater reserves. Seven of the biggest groundwater users are in the Asia Pacific region – India, China, and Pakistan are the largest consumers of groundwater. Such rampant expansion and its unsustainable use leads to declining water tables and salinity. Irrigation has been a powerful tool in providing self-sufficiency in food grain production but has been highly inefficient and energy intensive, leading to depletion of aquifers and groundwater. The shift towards hydropower and biofuels to meet energy demands will put tremendous pressure on land and water resources.
  • With increasing sectoral water demand, there will be little left in rivers for stream flows to maintain the ecosystem services provided to society.
  • Poor water quality leads to severe water borne diseases that not only affect public health but also economic production. Disability adjusted life years (DALYS) scores per 100,000 for incidence of diarrhea are high in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

The situation reveals a very complex picture with overlapping issues of basic access to water and sanitation, deteriorating water quality and increasing exposure to natural disasters and climate vulnerabilities. These conditions fail to meet the standards defined in UN water security.

Are there straightforward solutions?

The challenges are complex and “no one size fits all” solution exist for the management of water resources in a region as diverse as Asia. Therefore, a set of schematic tools may or may not work in every single situation. Options can range from (a) public private partnerships, (b) strong institutional capacity and efficient water governance, (c) an integrated river basin and land management approach, (d) promotion of different management alternatives: recycle, reuse and rain water harvesting, (e) improving water efficiency in agriculture, and (f) building resilience to disasters and climate vulnerabilities.  Policy makers need to calibrate the leverage, experiment and repurpose policy tools toward the end goal of water security. Water touches the lives of billions of people, and issues surrounding its access, availability, and quality are fundamental to the human security process.

Vandana Asthana is a professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Eastern Washington University. She is a board member of the South Asian Studies Association, a California-based non-profit that works to connect South Asian scholars from all parts of the world. Her areas of research are in South Asian security with a focus on non-traditional threats and human security with special reference to water, environment and development. Image credit: CC by Ryan/Flickr.



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