Asia is Running Out of Water

When the annual monsoon season arrived some two months later than usual in parts of India this year, the delay exacerbated drought, hardship and fears of famine.

It also underlined a looming crisis of shrinking water supplies in Asia. A recent study by the Asian Development Bank found that water resources in the region are under severe stress from widespread overuse and pollution caused by poverty and bad management.

"With a burgeoning population, the pressures on Asia's water resources are rapidly becoming acute," the report said. "For the first time, water security is a live issue in the region."

Fresh water supplies in Asia are very unevenly distributed within and between countries - a factor that officials and analysts say heightens the risk of conflict over control and access to water. Overall, potable water supplies in Asia are among the scarcest in the world. South Asia, where more than one sixth of the world's population lives, has the lowest level of water resources per person, and availability per capita has dropped by almost 70 percent since 1950.

The bank estimated that in the past 50 years per capita availability of potable water has declined by 60 percent in North Asia and by 55 percent in Southeast Asia, mainly because of rapid population growth and the spread of cities, industries, irrigation and intensive farming.

By 2025, it said, half of Asia's projected population of 4.2 billion is expected to be crowded into urban centers, putting available water supplies under even greater pressure. Already, about 750 million Asians in rural areas and an additional 100 million in cities and towns have no access to safe drinking water, a situation that impairs their health, productivity and capacity to earn a living.

"Asia faces unprecedented water shortages and pollution unless countries take strong and concerted action," said Wouter Lincklaen Arriens, the bank's lead water resources specialist. "One in three Asians lacks easy access to safe drinking water and this situation is getting worse, not better."

In India, the monsoon is crucial to farm production. About 80 percent of the country's rainfall occurs between June and September. Two-thirds of India's one billion people depend directly on agriculture for their livelihood, and farming contributes about 25 percent of the nation's economic output.

In Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation, the need to manage and share water resources more carefully is becoming increasingly important, especially on the crowded central island of Java where the largest cities, including Jakarta and Surabaja, and many industries are concentrated.

Java has 60 percent of the country's 210 million population. Water depletion and pollution on the island are becoming more acute, especially in and around cities and towns. Meanwhile, widespread deforestation in other parts of Indonesia is having a major impact on watersheds as rainwater runoff and soil erosion intensify, causing worsening floods.

"Unless effectively addressed, this will increasingly constrain Indonesia's economic development and food security," said Erna Witoelar, a former Indonesian minister of settlements.

Chinese experts have warned that by 2030, when China's population reaches 1.6 billion, per capita water resources will drop to 1,760 cubic meters (62,150 cubic feet), perilously close to the figure of 1,700 cubic meters - the internationally recognized benchmark for water shortage.

Water is very unevenly distributed in China. The regions south of the Yangtze River, China's longest river, account for little more than one third of the country's total territory but have almost 81 percent of its total water resources. The areas north of the Yangtze, nearly two thirds of China, have 19 percent of its water resources.

China is due to start work this year on an ambitious plan to divert water from the south to the north using canals, tunnels and pumping stations. It will take water from the Yangtze to three rivers in the north whose basins are running dry. Construction costs are estimated at more than $22 billion, with large parts of the project expected to be in operation by 2010.

But the plan has been criticized by some foreign specialists. They say it is uneconomic and will damage the environment as well as displace large numbers of people.

In announcing the decision to proceed with the long-debated project, Chinese officials said it would be accompanied by moves to clean up water pollution and impose stringent water conservation measures in the north, including stiff increases in the price of water.

Zhang Jiyao, China's deputy minister of water resources, said at least 370,000 people would have to be resettled as a result of the river diversion. He played down the dislocation issue. However, the experience of another huge water project, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, suggests that the task will be daunting. The continuing relocation of more than one million people to make way for the dam has been plagued by corruption, social conflict and the shortage of alternative usable land.

Worldwide, there are 261 major rivers that are shared by more than one country. Between them, they drain 45 percent of the Earth's surface, account for 80 percent of global river flow by volume and are home to 40 percent of the world's population.

Several of these large, transboundary river basins are in Asia. To head off potential conflicts between states, agreements have been negotiated to share supplies. Such agreements operate between India and Bangladesh and India and Pakistan.

The most extensive river management project in Asia covers the Mekong River, which flows for 4,400 kilometers (2,750 miles) from the Tibetan plateau through and between six countries - China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam - to the South China Sea.

The intergovernmental Mekong River Commission, which has its headquarters in Phnom Penh, was established in 1995 by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. It aims to achieve sustainable development in the region and preserve the natural resources of the Mekong basin, where the population of 60 million is expected to reach 100 million by 2025.

But the four lower Mekong countries in the commission remain wary of surrendering national controls over their portions of the river. Moreover, the two upper Mekong states - China and Burma - have so far declined to join the commission, although Beijing in April signed an agreement to provide information on river flow and water levels to the four downstream states.

China is building a series of increasingly large dams on its portion of the Mekong. It says that they will help control flooding in the downstream countries. But the latter fear that they will suffer shortages in the annual dry season because of China's growing demand for water.

"Unless we have a mechanism to regulate water use, and support and develop it, we are bound to witness conflicts among countries that share the river," said Joern Kristensen, the commission's chief executive officer.


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