Insights and Analysis

Asia: The World’s Most Water-Stressed Continent

March 21, 2012

By John J. Brandon

Tomorrow is World Water Day. Tragically, by the end of the day, 4,300 children somewhere in the world will have died because of contaminated water and poor sanitation. That’s one child every 20 seconds. This is an appalling statistic, but still represents a marked improvement from 12 years ago when a child died every eight seconds. The United Nations (UN) announced earlier this month that the world had reached the Millennium Development Goal target of halving the number of people without access to clean drinking water, five years ahead of the 2015 deadline. That’s good news, but it’s not the whole story.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 783 million people, about one for every 10 on the planet, have no access to safe drinking water, and 2.5 billion people – more than a third of humanity – still lack proper sanitation. The problem is particularly acute in Asia, where more than half of the 2.5 billion people without improved sanitation live. On the positive side, of the almost 2 billion people who have gained access to safe drinking water in the past decade, 47 percent live in China and India; testament to both nations’ economic growth and improved standard of living.

Agriculture consumes a massive 71 percent of global freshwater use. Many Asian farmers are accustomed to free or cheap water. This has led to a system of wasteful consumption throughout the region. However, Asian governments are reluctant to raise water prices because they either are wary of angering people who have grown used to having cheap access to this precious resource, or want to continue to provide access to the poorest of the poor who otherwise could not afford it. In many cases, governments are not able to effectively regulate water. Many farmers in India and Pakistan, for example, can readily tap into groundwater, often illegally, further depleting groundwater resources and access to water for others.

It takes about 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of rice, Asia’s main food staple. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), farmers will need an additional 19 percent of water by 2050 to meet the demands for food, much of it in regions already experiencing water scarcity. The FAO estimates that food output must rise 70 percent by 2050 to feed a world population expected to grow from 7 to 9.3 billion. This demand is foreboding in light of the projected decrease in water availability in the region due to climate change.

Moreover, increasing urbanization is also causing city dwellers and factories to compete with farmers for increasingly scarce water. Many Asian cities, where 56 percent of the continent’s population is expected to live by 2025, will be challenged to provide ever larger number of residents with the sanitation and safe water they will need. The UN and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have called for the more efficient use of waste water, 80 percent of which is currently not collected or treated.

Over time, water will have increasingly important national security implications. Nearly half of the world’s land surface consists of river basins shared by more than one country. But the situation is particularly acute in Asia, the world’s most water-stressed continent. Asia has 47 percent of the global average of fresh water per person, but also has 65 percent of the world’s population. Although China ranks fourth in global fresh water reserves, it possesses the second lowest per-capita water supply of any nation in the world.

As we mark World Water Day, it is important to underscore that greater public awareness is needed to create policies, strategies, and incentives in improving management of water resources. Local non-government and community-based organizations can play a crucial role by supporting farmers, urban dwellers, and factories to recognize the value of water and encourage more efficient usage. Given the threat of water scarcity, governments should implement fair and equitable water pricing policies that also encourage water resource conservation. Governments that share waterways should negotiate agreements with neighboring countries to share water fairly, and not waste it. Clearly, this is easier said than done.

This will require nations – both developing and developed – to look at water both as a national security issue, and as a natural resource and conservation issue. Unlike oil, where there is the potential to develop alternative energy resources, we cannot live without water.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C. He is a member of a water management security in Asia study group, organized by the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, which has convened meetings over the past year in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Japan. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.


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