water problems

South-East Asia’s Water Problems

Although Asian countries have been growing dynamically in recent years, there is substantial risk that their growth may decelerate due to many factors, including water shortages.

I recently read the book „Water: Asia’s New Battleground” by Brahm Chellaney, where he states, that Asia’s future largely depends on water. The author observes that a direct link between national security and water cannot be overlooked. Indeed, when I lived in South-East Asia the market price of water (not its subsidised price) seemed to me quite high compared with income. This isn’t an accident – insufficient water supply raises its cost in the region. Regardless of whether we look at Indonesia, Cambodia, India or China, seasonal droughts are commonplace. Droughts in Asia are long and severe, and the availability of water per capita is falling by 1.6% annually.

This is a worrying trend in a region, where agriculture alone consumes 82 % of annual water supply. This problem is aggravated by the current expansion of irrigation in arid and semi-desert regions in northern China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. This leads to further changes in the soil and desertification in the regions from which water has been taken. In some parts of Asia, where water availability is especially constrained, even small declines in its supply or abnormal fluctuations of annual rainfall can endanger the entire population. The fight for water in some afflicted areas leads to employing guards who ensure the security of wells and other water sources. In the macro scale this can be seen in the Amu Daria River, which is shared by Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and which is nearly completely dry, so much so that it has ceased to reach the Aral Sea/Lake, which itself is drying up. The fact that Turkmenistan uses the water before it can enter the territory of Uzbekistan is just one example of the larger problem.

The risk of drought in South-East Asia

water problems

In the densely-populated coastal regions of South-East Asia, which are home to nearly half of all Asians, seawater is added to the extracted groundwater, which leads to limited availability of drinking water in cities such as Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Dhaka and Karachi. This is why giant dams can be seen protecting the coast of many Asian cities. According to UNWWDR data for 2014 the situation is increasingly worrisome for Asia.

Usable water per person

water problems

An interesting data source is the graph of total water consumption per capita (here ) and the graph of total renewable water resources per capita (here ). Apart from Turkmenistan, which uses more water than it has (total consumption exceeds total renewable resources); we can see that Asian countries can do little to improve the efficiency of their water use. Similar problems could be even faced by European countries, such as Poland (which has very low levels of water resources), but fortunately droughts in Poland are rather rare. For further information I recommend reading the interesting and well-written report “WATER VS ENERGY” (available here). Its findings include the fact, that in Singapore its inhabitants drink their own urine, which has undergone a special purification process (see here). Thanks to this technology Singapore doesn’t struggle with water shortages.

Practices such as those used by Singapore, together with statistical data, show that in the future Asian countries will have to adopt new practices aimed at a more efficient use of water. 

Most farmers in the Asia-Pacific region still use natural „flooding” irrigation systems. Meanwhile, using newer technology can bring down water consumption by half. Some examples include interesting Chinese projects, focused on constructing or expanding coastal desalination plants, which will be placed to the east of Beijing, in the Tangshan (Caofeidian) district. According to the project plans, the plant should achieve its desired size before 2019, which in consequence should deliver a million tonnes of fresh water each day (this is approximately a third of total water consumption in Beijing). As of now the plant produced 50,000 tonnes of water per day. Other countries struggle with government policy. Unfortunately, for as long as the population has access to free or subsidised water, there will be no incentives to change consumption.

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