Lessons from Asia’s drought

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION -

NOTH­ING bet­ter il­lus­trates the emer­gence of fresh water as a key de­ter­mi­nant of Asia’s fu­ture than the cur­rent record drought that has parched lands from South­east Asia to the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent, with­er­ing vast swaths of rice pad­dies and other crops and af­fect­ing eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity, in­clud­ing elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion at a time when power de­mand has peaked. Mil­lions of peo­ple in Viet­nam, Cam­bo­dia, Thai­land and Myan­mar and more than a quar­ter of In­dia’s pop­u­la­tion are reel­ing from the sear­ing drought, pre­cip­i­tated by El Nino, the ex­tra-heat-yield­ing cli­mate pat­tern.

Asia’s water chal­lenges are un­der­scored by the fact that it has less fresh water per per­son than any other con­ti­nent and some of the world’s worst water pol­lu­tion. A re­cent MIT study has warned that Asia’s water cri­sis could worsen by 2050 to water scarcity across a wide swath of the con­ti­nent. And an ear­lier global study com­mis­sioned by the UN Of­fice for the Co­or­di­na­tion of Hu­man­i­tar­ian Af­fairs found that drought risks are the high­est in Asia in terms of the num­ber of peo­ple ex­posed. Asia’s mon­soon­cen­tred hy­dro­logic regime means that an­nual rain is mainly con­cen­trated in a three- to four-month pe­riod, with the rest of the year largely dry.

A weak mon­soon can com­pound the long dry pe­riod by trig­ger­ing drought. Asia’s water cri­sis high­lights an ur­gent need for bet­ter man­age­ment of this life-sus­tain­ing re­source. Rapid devel­op­ment, break­neck ur­ban­i­sa­tion, large-scale ir­ri­gated farm­ing, life­style changes and other hu­man ac­tions have re­sulted in de­graded wa­ter­sheds, wa­ter­courses and other ecosys­tems, as well as shrink­ing forests and swamps and over-dammed rivers. The di­ver­sion of sand from riverbeds for the con­struc­tion boom has dam­aged rivers and slowed the nat­u­ral recharge of un­der­ground aquifers.

Make no mis­take: The hu­man-in­duced im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment and nat­u­ral re­sources is un­der­min­ing Asian hy­dro­log­i­cal and cli­matic sta­bil­ity. The cur­rent parched con­di­tions in South and South­east Asia are a re­minder that droughts are be­com­ing re­cur­rent, even as per capita avail­abil­ity of fresh water in Asia is de­clin­ing at the rate of 1.6 per­cent a year. In ar­eas al­ready water-stressed, such declines in water avail­abil­ity or vari­a­tion in an­nual rain­fall can ex­ac­er­bate parched con­di­tions.

With so much water di­verted for agri­cul­ture, water lit­er­ally is food in Asia. Yet, from a longer-term per­spec­tive, the ex­tent of water use by the Asian agri­cul­tural sec­tor is sim­ply not sus­tain­able. One re­minder is the cur­rent drought, which — by cur­tail­ing rice out­put in the world’s top two rice­ex­port­ing states, Thai­land and Viet­nam, and by af­fect­ing farm pro­duc­tion in In­dia — is roil­ing the world food mar­kets. The plain fact is that ex­ces­sive water with­drawals for agri­cul­ture have com­pounded Asia’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity to drought and high­lighted more fun­da­men­tal chal­lenges.

With re­sources in rivers and reser­voirs not ad­e­quate to meet de­mand, users have turned to pump­ing water from un­der­ground. Be­cause ground­wa­ter is of­ten a source of sup­ply for rivers, springs, lakes and wet­lands, the over­ex­ploita­tion of this strate­gic re­source has helped to spread parched con­di­tions. In­deed, the reck­less ex­ploita­tion of ground­wa­ter — a strate­gic re­source that should be con­served as a sort of drought in­sur­ance — has been fa­cil­i­tated by the wide­spread use of elec­tric and diesel-fuel pumps.

Asian states must seek to re­duce drought risks and water short­ages by plac­ing fresh­wa­ter at the cen­tre of their strate­gic plan­ning. If they don’t, the link­ages be­tween water stress, shar­ing dis­putes, fall­ing water qual­ity, and en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion could trap Asia in an in­ter­minable vi­cious cy­cle.

Among the steps Asian states need to take are restor­ing veg­e­ta­tion (in­clud­ing re­con­vert­ing some farm­land to for­est), re­vers­ing the degra­da­tion of fresh­wa­ter and coastal ecosys­tems, im­prov­ing water qual­ity to off­set de­crease in water quan­tity, chan­nel­ing ex­cess mon­soon water to ar­ti­fi­cially recharge aquifers, in­cen­tiviz­ing water-use ef­fi­ciency, over­haul­ing an­te­dilu­vian ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems, in­tro­duc­ing drought-re­sis­tant crop va­ri­eties, lim­it­ing heav­ily sub­sidised water to the very poor, and util­is­ing al­ter­na­tive cool­ing tech­nolo­gies for power gen­er­a­tion.

Im­proved plan­ning for water-re­source al­lo­ca­tion de­mands an in­te­grated, holis­tic ap­proach. Water, food and en­ergy, for ex­am­ple, must be man­aged by pol­i­cy­mak­ers jointly so as to pro­mote syn­er­gis­tic ap­proaches. If Asia is to avert a parched fu­ture, it must think and act long term. The writer is a geo-strate­gist and au­thor of the award-win­ning “Water: Asia’s New Bat­tle­ground.” — Cour­tesy: The Ja­pan Times

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