April 24, 2014 12:00 am JST

Without action today, Asia's future will be a dry one

BRAHMA CHELLANEY

Asia is the world's largest and most economically dynamic continent. But it is also the driest, and its future may depend on how well it deals with what a U.N. panel on climate change is calling a growing risk of drought-related water and food shortages.

     Unusually dry weather is parching swaths of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Korean Peninsula, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. This trend threatens to further squeeze the availability of drinking water, hamper economic growth and -- together with the drought in the American West and parts of Brazil -- push up international food prices. Palm oil prices, for example, have already surged.

     Even farmers in Australia's eastern states of New South Wales and Queensland are bracing themselves amid warnings that the drought may spread to other parts of Asia this year due to the potential return of the El Nino weather pattern.

     Asia's climatic extremes play a big role in its vulnerability to droughts and heighten the risk of natural disasters and agriculture-related trouble. When it rains, it tends to pour, with monsoon-season flooding endemic in the region. But the seasons are often punctuated by long dry spells, and weak monsoons can trigger serious droughts. This can be disastrous on a continent where the availability of fresh water is not even half the global average of 6,079 cu. meters per person a year.

     Asia is home to some of the world's biggest natural-disaster hot spots, and no other continent is more prone to the cumulative impact of droughts, flooding and large storms. This fragility is compounded by the region's unmatched population size and density, and its concentration of people living in deltas and other low-lying regions. 

Out of balance     

The specter of a hotter, drier future for Asia can be seen in the degradation of watersheds, watercourses and other ecosystems, as well as in the shrinking forests and swamps and over-dammed rivers. Such developments undermine the region's hydrological and climatic stability, fostering a cycle of chronic droughts and flooding. To make matters worse, Asia is likely to bear the brunt -- as the report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns -- of the global effects of extreme weather, rising seas and shortages of drinking water. Water wars may only be a matter of time. 

     Asia's droughts are becoming longer and more severe, and the availability of water per capita is declining at a rate of 1.6% a year. This is a troubling trend for a region where agriculture alone guzzles 82% of the annual water supply. The rapid spread of irrigation since the 1960s has helped turn a continent once plagued by food shortages and famines into a food exporter. But it has also exacted a heavy toll on the environment and resources.

     The spread of intensive irrigation to arid or semiarid regions, such as northern China, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan, has led to desertification in areas from which already-scarce water resources are being diverted. Meanwhile, the land being irrigated retains soluble salts, degrading the soil and the water table.

     Six decades of aggressive irrigation have turned northern China into the country's breadbasket, even though 80% of the nation's water resources are in the south. But the north is drying up, with its lifeblood -- the Yellow River -- dying and most of the wetlands only a memory. The fine dust coating Beijing, carried on the wind from the bone-dry fields creeping ever closer to the capital, is the legacy of state-promoted irrigated farming.

Unquenchable thirst

Excessive use of water for agriculture has exacerbated Asia's susceptibility to drought, leaving other sectors -- industrial and municipal -- struggling to meet demand. With rivers and reservoirs increasingly unable to supply enough water, the hunt for the precious resource has literally gone underground. In India, China and elsewhere, the widespread use of electric and diesel-fuel pumps has been sucking up massive volumes of groundwater, a resource better kept in reserve as insurance against droughts.

     In Asia's heavily populated coastal regions -- home to almost half its population -- the over-pumping of groundwater has caused seawater to seep into the water table, crimping the availability of drinking water in such cities as Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Dhaka and Karachi.

     The upstream construction of giant dams and other water diversions is eating away at the shorelines of Asia's 11 urban megadeltas, all fed and formed by rivers originating on the Tibetan plateau. Most of these megadeltas are also home to booming economic centers, including Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Bangkok and Kolkata.

     Beyond the ecological fallout, the damming of shared rivers is also a big source of political tension. This is especially true for China and its neighbors. China already has more large-scale dams than the rest of the world combined, and it is building more. The focus of its latest construction push has shifted from dams along internal rivers to those straddling waterways that flow into other countries.

     Asian hydropolitics promises to become only murkier as China completes more upstream dams on the Mekong, the Salween, the Brahmaputra and other rivers that flow to South, Southeast and Central Asia and to Russia.

     Recurrent droughts in the downstream Mekong basin have created a public-relations headache for Beijing, which rejects allegations that its multitude of upriver dams has contributed to this phenomenon. But the claims have not stopped China from moving forward with projects to build three additional giant dams on the Mekong River, continental Southeast Asia's lifeline.

     In parts of Asia where access to water is limited, even small declines in its availability or annual variations in rainfall can threaten entire communities by creating droughtlike conditions. The struggle for water in some stricken areas has led villagers to hire security guards to protect their wells and other sources. 

     Other examples of the knock-on effects of droughts include water rationing in parts of Malaysia; the persistent haze caused by the annual forest fires that plague Riau, the second-largest province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra; and the high suicide rate among Indian farmers. Recurrent droughts since the 1990s are widely seen as a key factor in the suicides of more than 200,000 farmers in the country's central and southern regions. And this year's weak "northeast monsoon" could further hit agricultural output in Asia.

     Then there is the problem of environmental refugees. The Yemeni city of Sanaa risks becoming the first capital to run out of water. Where will its citizens go if the water supply dries up? Meanwhile, China's damming of the Brahmaputra could force an exodus of thirsty Bangladeshis living downstream, creating a potentially huge security problem for India.

     Dig deep enough and conflicts over resources can often be found at the heart of civil wars. The internal strife in Yemen and Afghanistan illustrates the degree to which persistent droughts can poison interethnic relations and trigger bloodshed.

Two sides collide     

In water-stressed South Korea, the government is encouraging big companies to move water-intensive production activity overseas, even if the products being made are for the domestic market. But this strategy is creating problems abroad. A business deal that gave the South Korean side the right to lease up to half of all arable land in Madagascar triggered a powerful grass-roots backlash that toppled the country's democratically elected president in 2009.

     In places where water is already hard to come by, plans to construct new factories often spark local protests. This happened when South Korean steelmaker Posco said it was building a plant in the drought-prone eastern Indian state of Odisha. 

     Given that Asia holds 60% of the world's population, the region's increasing vulnerability to droughts carries the potential for humanitarian disasters. That is because the poor are the ones hit hardest when the taps go dry. This vulnerability is a potential source of conflict and refugee crises.

    Averting a water-related disaster requires long-term thinking and action. Governments throughout the region need to shore up the environment by restoring the ecosystem -- including reconverting farmland into forests -- introducing new drought-resistant crops and halting the degradation of freshwater and coastal ecosystems. Combating wild climatic fluctuations, as manifested by chronic droughts and flooding, demands such capital-intensive measures as building surface reservoirs and other infrastructure.

     Asia will also have to adopt agricultural practices that use water more efficiently. That includes overhauling antediluvian irrigation systems. Most farmers in the region still use flood irrigation when drip systems and sprinklers could halve their water use. But as long as growers enjoy access to free or heavily subsidized water, they will have little incentive to change. 

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of "Water: Asia's New Battleground" (Georgetown University Press, 2013), winner of the Bernard Schwartz Book Award.