Insights and Analysis

Throughout Asia: A Shrinking Water World

September 19, 2007

By Christopher Plante

This week, ahead of two global summits on climate change ” one called for by President Bush, the other by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon — the World Affairs Council of Northern California held a conference on Climate Change and Global Politics in San Francisco. While discussing climate change among experts and political leaders is valuable, for the tens of millions of citizens in Asia already impacted by its effects, the question for the policymakers and experts is: When will strategies on how to adapt to climate change be posed and what will they say?

Asia is the fastest growing region in the world and faces unprecedented environmental challenges due to overwhelming forces of urban expansion. Climate change is compounding these problems as Asia’s diverse and life-giving weather patterns have become less predictable. Monsoons and rainy seasons are no longer consistent, while droughts and heat waves are increasing. Furthermore, by studying the interconnected dynamics of weather, transportation, and economic systems, we understand that these examples often accelerate changes in local water cycles. And access to water is one of the biggest problems in Asia.

Life comes down to water. Humans, with an average water content of about 60% (70% for infants), can survive about three days without it. This is the blue planet after all, a water-based world. Water plays several crucial roles in the body. It helps regulate temperature, carries nutrients and oxygen, and removes waste. It also cushions joints and organs. On earth, water plays similarly vital roles: it regulates land and air, carries nutrients and oxygen, and filters and removes waste. It also affects food production: less rain leads to drier soils, drier soils leads to warmer temperatures, warmer temperatures lead to even drier soils, which leads to less water in the plants and surrounding air. This cycle illustrates how climate changes ” such as monsoons, droughts, and heat waves — contribute to severe water insecurities for both urban and rural populations.

63% of Asia’s population does not have access to clean water, and 71% are without access to sanitation. One place in Asia where we see these problems illuminated most dramatically is China, where rapid industrialization has contributed to some of the highest rates of water pollution in the world, severe land degradation, and a range of emerging natural resource challenges. Of great concern are China’s polluted rivers and groundwater, which are rapidly becoming depleted and unfit for any purpose.

The Chinese say that “water is that which soaks and descends.” Any strategy to adapt to both climate change and the effects of rapid industrialization will be to design water projects that soak into a community’s long-term capacity to build and support their water resources. This requires three elements, all of which depend on collaboration by the public, NGOs and governments: improved efforts to protect and restore water resources, increase the size and quantity of watersheds and water reserves, and the design of frameworks for communities to better communicate and effectively share those water reserves. We must all, as individuals and institutions, create and support efforts to conserve water resources and support this precious resource. By doing so, we will be better able to adapt, both globally and locally, to the coming changes to our water world.

One example of an adaptive strategy The Asia Foundation is undertaking in China aims not just to treat the pollution of China’s rivers– but to prevent it. Through partnerships with Chinese research institutions, regulatory agencies, industry associations, and community organizations, the strategy aims to keep all parties focused on how to optimize water resource use for hundreds of communities by strengthening their long-term collaborative approach.

Chris Plante is the Director of the Environment Program at The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: China
Related programs: Environment and Climate Action


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