Asia’s Growing Water Security Issues

Despite the headlong improvement in Asia’s economies over the past several decades – or possibly because of it – 80 percent of Asia’s rivers are in poor health, according to a comprehensive study of the region’s water problems by the Asian Development Bank and several related organizations.

The 128-page study, the Asia Water Development Outlook, was unveiled today at a conference today in New Delhi that was aimed at developing ways to manage increasingly scarce water resources in a way to ensure the region has not only sufficient water but also enough food and energy to meet its needs, Asian Development Bank President Takehiko Nakao said.

The report grew out of a 2007 inaugural Asia-Pacific Water Summit in Beppu, Japan, during which regional leaders expressed concern on the growing pressure on water resources. It notes that 36 of the 46 Asian ADB member countries including China and India have poor water security, with some nations facing water crises that threaten their food and energy security. Population growth, urbanization, pollution, over-extraction of ground water, water-related disasters and climate change are all sources of a major threat to the region’s water supply.

South Asia remains the poorest and most populous subregion, with relatively low agricultural water productivity, low resilience due to low per capita water storage capacity and is expected to remain particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate variability, increased frequency and severity of drought or flood events. Large irrigation systems are considered to be underperforming in terms of water services provided to farmers and the sustainability of infrastructure.

By contrast, Southeast Asia is using its resources productively, matching the economic water security of the developed economies in the region. However, the report notes, there is scope to further improve agricultural water productivity. The Thai government, shocked by massive floods in 2011 and their economic impact, has put water considerations on the front burner.

Since the first Asian water development conference in 2007,investment in water security has been limited by effect of the global financial crisis on capital markets. Extreme weather events such as Yolanda/Haiyan, which devastated the Philippine islands of Samar and Leyte “have put a strain on employment, social services and infrastructure.”

Some countries have succeeded in moving water up the development agenda, particularly the Philippines, which put in place a climate change act which was called the most comprehensive and integrated pieces of legislation in the region so far. China is also acting, committing RMB4 trillion US$604 billion) to double annual investment in the water sector by 2020.

That in itself has caused strains, with many of the countries of the Mekong subregion, for instance, growing concerned over the construction of dams and the diversion of major rivers, with so-far uncertain environmental consequences.

Beyond that, the report is designed to serve as a policy document in the areas of urban, environmental, economic and household water security and to provide a guideline for resistance to water-related disasters.

Between 1990 and 2010, 18 percent more households in the region gained access to an improved water supply, both piped and not piped – meaning an additional 1.7 billion people gained access to safe water and indicates that Asia in broad terms achieved the Millennium Development Goal water supply target.

However, there are wide variations in water safety and quality across the region. The Pacific Subregion has not been successful in reducing the proportion of people without access to safe water. Sanitation coverage remains a bigger and still unfulfilled challenge. The MDG goals will not be met. Although the percentage of people with access to improved sanitation facilities rose from 36 percent in 1990 to 58 percent in 2010, 1.74 billion people continue to live without access to sanitation facilities. More than 782 million still defecate in the open.

Excessive groundwater has been extracted in some places because subsidized energy allows for unrestricted use of electric power pumps. This in turn threatens water shortages for farmers and a lower power supply to other users. Such distorted pricing must disappear.

Meanwhile, rising energy use is expected to squeeze already-scarce water resources since large quantities of water are needed for extracting energy and refining fuels. As 80 percent of water use is for agriculture, water shortages lead to food shortages. The region must change its mindset to understand that “food wasted is water and energy wasted,” Mr. Nakao said.

He said river basin organizations that gather users, utilities, and government representatives are key to resolving competition between different uses for water. ADB is working with such organizations to encourage collaborative water management, set up new institutions with better data and information, and encourage innovative technologies. These activities are helping improve water security for more than 400 million people in around 30 rivers basins in the region.

The annual Delhi Sustainable Development Summit gathers policymakers, experts, and leaders from business, academia, and civil society to discuss sustainable development. The event is organized by The Energy and Resources Institute, based in New Delhi.