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Brahma Chellaney: Policymakers must come to grips with Asia's looming water crisis

The record drought that is ravaging large parts of Asia will end when the annual monsoon rains come in June. This will bring much-needed relief to those suffering in parched lands -- from the millions who live in Vietnam's Mekong Delta to more than a quarter of India's 1.25 billion people. The searing heat and drought have already claimed several hundred lives and destroyed vast areas of rice paddies and other farms.


But make no mistake: The latest in a string of droughts to hit Asia this century offers a telling preview of the hotter, drier future that awaits much of the region. This likelihood arises largely from the strains placed on natural resources, the environment and the climate by rapid development, breakneck urbanization, large-scale irrigated farming and lifestyle changes in the world's largest and most populous continent.

     Recurrent drought will exacerbate Asia's already serious water challenges and thus potentially affect economic growth, social peace and relations between countries or regions that share rivers or aquifers.

     Yet little policy attention has been paid to combating droughts because of their episodic character. Scientists are still unable to reliably predict the arrival, extent or duration of rainfall shortages. Unlike other natural and human-made disasters, from earthquakes and hurricanes to flooding and industrial accidents, drought is a silently creeping calamity. However, without resource conservation, ecological restoration and more sustainable development, droughts in Asia are likely to become more frequent and severe.

     A little known fact is that Asia, not Africa, is the world's most water-stressed continent. Water stress is internationally defined as the availability of less than 1,700 cu. meters per person, per year. Asia already has less freshwater per person than any other continent, and some of the world's worst water pollution.

     Water is not just the most undervalued and underappreciated resource; in the coming years, it is likely to be the most contested resource in Asia. This is due both to its increasing scarcity and Asia's distinctive water map.

     Asia's most important rivers traverse national boundaries and are thus international systems. Indeed, most Asian nations with land frontiers -- with the prominent exception of China, which controls Asia's riverheads on the Tibetan Plateau -- are highly dependent on cross-border water inflows. Such dependency is greatest in countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam that are located far downstream along international rivers.

Take me to the river

Against this background, interstate and intrastate water disputes have become common. Asia starkly demonstrates how transboundary water resources, instead of linking countries or provinces in a system of hydrological interdependence, are sharpening competition for relative gain. This competition extends to moves by countries to appropriate the resources of shared rivers by building dams, reservoirs and other diversions, thus roiling interriparian relations.

     Asia is already the world's most dam-dotted continent: It has more dams than the rest of the world combined. But this statistic does not tell the real story: Most of Asia's dams are in China, which alone has slightly more than half of the world's approximately 50,000 large dams. With its massive infrastructure of dams and other storage facilities, China has built an impressive capacity to stockpile water for the dry season.

     But China's overdamming of rivers has contributed to river fragmentation -- that is, the interruption of natural flows -- and depletion, causing downstream basins to dry up or rivers to discharge only small amounts of water and nutrient-rich silt into the oceans. China's dying Yellow River exemplifies this problem. And its cascade of six giant dams on the Mekong, just before it leaves Chinese territory, is being blamed for accentuating the current drought in Southeast Asia, with river depletion extending to the delta region.

     Adding to Asia's vulnerability to droughts and other effects of environmental and climate change are factors including groundwater depletion and deforestation, especially in the upstream catchment areas. Deforestation is most notable in the Himalayan-Tibetan region, source of the great rivers of Asia. But it also extends to other regions, including rain forests.

     Through its environmentally destabilizing impact, deforestation amplifies the frequency and severity of extreme events such as droughts and floods. The depletion of many Asian swamps -- which serve as nature's water storage and absorption cover -- also contributes to a cycle of chronic flooding and drought, besides allowing deserts to advance and swallow up grasslands.

     For its part, the extraction of groundwater at rates surpassing nature's recharge capacity has resulted in a rapidly falling water table across much of Asia. Because groundwater is often a source of supply for streams, springs, lakes and wetlands, the overexploitation of this strategic resource, which traditionally has served as a sort of drought insurance, creates parched conditions and thus fosters recurrent droughts.

High and dry

The entire belt stretching from the Korean Peninsula to the Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan region is becoming increasingly prone to the ravages of drought. But even before the current drought hit South and Southeast Asia, scientific studies on global drought hot spots showed that risks are highest in these two regions, at least in terms of the number of people exposed.

     It is past time for Asian policymakers to start addressing drought risks, the core of which is the nexus between water, energy and food. For example, the current drought is roiling world food markets through its destructive impact on crops. And by reducing cooling-water availability, it is decreasing generation by some power plants, just when electricity demand has peaked.

     Drought risks can be reduced by ensuring the protection and ecological restoration of watercourses, securing water-efficiency gains through agricultural productivity measures, developing drought-resistant crop varieties, improving water quality to offset decreases in quantity and utilizing alternative cooling technologies for power generation. Increasing water storage by channeling excess water during the monsoons to artificial recharge aquifers, especially in Asia's densely populated and economically booming coastal regions, holds promise for coping with droughts.

     Policymakers must appreciate that drought risks cannot be lowered without tackling the serious problem of groundwater depletion. Groundwater in Asia is being pumped and consumed by human activities at such a rate that, for example, NASA scientists in the U.S. observed several years ago that the subterranean reserves in northwest India are vanishing.

     Groundwater resources are recklessly exploited because there are few controls on their extraction. Contributing to this practice is the fact that, 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.

     The specter of permanent water losses is just one reason why Asia's drought-related challenges demand an integrated, holistic approach. Water, food and energy, for example, must be managed jointly by policymakers to promote synergistic approaches. Also, ecological restoration programs, by aiding the recovery of damaged ecosystems, can help bring wider benefits in slowing soil and water degradation, stemming coastal erosion, augmenting freshwater storage and supply, and controlling droughts.

     Nature is indivisible: Communities and states cannot continue to prosper by bending nature to the extent that it undercuts environmental sustainability.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of the award-winning book "Water: Asia's New Battleground," published by Georgetown University Press.

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