3.4 billion people in water-stressed areas of Asia by 2050, new report shows

People use water from a road side water tap in Dhaka, Bangladesh.(Credit: Abir Abdullah/ADB/Flickr)

As the 2016 World Water Week comes to a close today in Stockholm, a report released at the annual conference this week reveals that the water and sanitation landscape in Asia and the Pacific remains patchy, despite huge strides in economic progress.

The unprecedented growth in Asia and the Pacific over the last two decades has admirably lifted more than a billion people out of extreme poverty from 1990 to 2012, according to the Asian Development Bank, which published the report on Tuesday. And in many ways, that growth has also strengthened water security in the region.

“Water security is more than just providing sufficient water for people and economic activities,” the report noted. “It is also about having healthy aquatic ecosystems and protecting us against water-related disasters.”

The Asian Development Bank’s 2013 data showed 38 out of 49 economies assessed as being water insecure. This year, that number has dropped to 29 out of 48. The trend seems positive and suggests that the Sustainable Development Goal No. 6 – “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” – may be achievable in the region.

Or will it?

“With a predicted population of 5.2 billion by 2050 and hosting 22 megacities by 2030, the region’s finite water resources will be placed under enormous pressure,” the authors wrote. “Recent estimates indicate up to 3.4 billion people could be living in water-stressed areas of Asia by 2050.”

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development recently projected that by 2050, global water demand would increase by 55 percent due to industrialization, energy production and domestic needs. With 60 percent of the world’s population, including half of the world’s poorest, residing in Asia and the Pacific, according to the Asian Development Bank, no doubt much of that demand will come from a rapidly transitioning Asian economy.

In fact, 80 percent of the region’s water resources are already consumed by agriculture. The demand for water to grow crops will only increase in the coming years to support a growing population and economy. All these factors lead the authors to call the region “a global hotspot for water insecurity.”

A central component to the report’s findings is the need to bridge the gap – between the rich and poor, between rural and urban, between East and South and even between water supply and sanitation and hygiene – in provision of water services.

For example, advanced economies, like Australia, New Zealand and Japan consistently scored well in each of the five key dimensions examined by the report, while South Asia showed significant challenges. Those key dimensions are: household water security, economic water security, urban water security, environmental water security and resilience to water-related disasters – which, between 1995 and 2015, killed 332,000 people and affected another 3.7 billion.

The results of investment in water supply have been obvious, with coverage reaching a “startling 92 percent,” as Tatiana Gallego-Lizón, director of the Asian Development Bank’s Urban Development and Water department, put it in a blog post. However, only 65 percent of people in Asia had access to improved sanitation facilities in 2015, leaving 1.7 billion people still without access to basic sanitation, according to the report.

Gallego-Lizón highlighted gaps even within sanitation and hygiene stats: Safe sanitation is practiced by nearly 80 percent of people in most subregions, but less than half of the population in South and South West Asia does the same. And while only 19 percent of the urban residents do not have access to adequate toilets, 50 percent of people in rural areas lack access.

Addressing these gaps is of utmost priority, said Takehiko Nakao, president of the Asian Development Bank, in his foreword to the report. But a complete overhaul of the current water supply system is also necessary for a sustainable future, with freshwater and surface resources already tapped and groundwater overexploited.

“Business as usual is not possible anymore,” the report stated. “While demand is projected to grow by 30 percent to 40 percent, in general, existing water resources in many areas in the region can be considered already fully utilized due to rapid groundwater depletion.”

The effects of the water crisis can be felt in other ways as well. In June, the Guardian reported that Beijing is sinking 11 centimeters a year due to excessive groundwater pumping, and the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development reports that water insecurity costs the global economy about $500 billion annually. Without water security, the economic growth for which the region is so renowned will be summarily cut short.

While there is no easy fix for the water crisis that Asia faces – to which climate change also adds a variable of uncertainty – the authors of the report are hopeful that better data and thoughtful governance will help Asia and the Pacific direct its economic growth not only toward sustaining current positive trends, but also reshaping for itself a water-secure future.

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About Author

Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.