Asia-Pacific tagged as ‘hot spot for water insecurity’

A new report released by the Asian Development Bank identifies six countries in Asia, including Singapore, to have the lowest water availability per person by 2050.

drinking fresh water from tap
Children drinking water from a tap in Davao del Sur, Mindanao, Philippines. Access to potable water is a challenge in the country, which is part of the Asia Pacific region now identified as hotspot for water insecurity. Image: Asian Development Bank, CC BY-NC 2.0

Economies in the Asia-Pacific region cannot sustain their present dynamic growth “unless water is brought into the equation” as the region faces a “crisis” in securing and managing the prime resource.

A comprehensive report on water development in Asia-Pacific just released by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) says that it is now “the global hot spot for water insecurity”.

Up to 3.4 billion people could be living in water-stressed areas of Asia by 2050, says the report, citing data from a study conducted by the Austria-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). Several countries in the region — Afghanistan, China, India, Pakistan and Singapore — are projected to have the lowest per capita water availability by 2050.

Increasing demands from water users, says ADB president Takehiko Nakao, place finite water resources into an even more precarious situation.

“I believe the most daunting challenge is to double food production by 2050 for an increasingly prosperous and growing population, while also providing water for more domestic users and meeting industrial and energy demands,” Nakao says in introducing the ADB report.

The impacts of climate change, increasing climate variability and water-related disasters “culminate in a more challenging horizon than we have experienced in the past” he adds.

Where water goes

The Asia-Pacific region remains home to 60 per cent of the world’s population and half of the world’s poorest people. Water for agriculture continues to consume 80 per cent of the region’s resources.

A staggering 1.7 billion people, the ADB report points out, lack access to basic sanitation, and 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.

I believe the most daunting challenge is to double food production by 2050 for an increasingly prosperous and growing population, while also providing water for more domestic users and meeting industrial and energy demands.

Takehiko Nakao, president, ADB

Stressing that water quality-related health risks are immense, the ADB report says almost 80 per cent of wastewater being discharged in water bodies get little or no primary treatment. In Indonesia, only 14 per cent of wastewater is treated; in the Philippines, 10 per cent; India, 9 per cent; and Vietnam, 4 per cent.

Moreover, industrialisation and economic transformation require more power and a shift to more water-intensive diets, thus increasing competition between water users like industry and agriculture.

The report projects the region’s water demand to increase by 55 per cent due to the growing needs for domestic water, manufacturing and thermal electricity generation. Agriculture will need to produce 60 per cent more food globally by 2050, and 100 per cent more in developing countries, using diminishing water resources largely due to rapid groundwater depletion.

A positive trend

Water insecurity means drinking water and sanitation facilities are available to no more than half of the population, water service delivery is either informal or just starting to develop, and water quality is poor or just starting to be improved.

Overall, Asia and Pacific nations have shown a positive trend in strengthening water security since 2013. From 38 out of 49 economies found to be “water insecure” in 2013, the number has improved to 29 out of 48 economies in 2016 that were evaluated.

Advanced economies like Australia, Japan and New Zealand consistently lead the way in water security. East Asia has shown remarkable positive progress while South Asia and South-East Asia have potential for improvement, particularly in Myanmar, Pakistan and the Philippines. Significant investment and leadership are required to push many cities in Asia and the Pacific on the path to urban water security and become water-sensitive cities, the ADB report says.

The water security framework used for the ADB study was found not suitable for small island nations, thus the conditions in these states were not discussed in the report.


The ADB report says increasing demand cannot be met by simply developing new water resources. Rather, it will be met by a combination of improving water productivity (through water use efficiency in agriculture and reduced urban nonrevenue water), improved water management (such as rainwater harvesting), reuse, and desalination.

There is also a need to monitor groundwater resources and actually start managing these sustainably. This will require more thought beyond the water sector, given that power subsidies also contribute to groundwater overuse.

“The math tells us that business as usual, even if fully and uniformly implemented across Asia and the Pacific, will simply not suffice due to limited water resources. Strengthening governance is undeniably the major requirement for effective resource management and sustainable development,” the ADB report says.

Ravi Narayanan, chair of the governing council of the Asia-Pacific Water Forum, one of ADB’s partners in the report which comes out every three years, says that the management of the Asia-Pacific cities’ water and sewerage systems is a matter of concern, as is the health of rivers and water bodies, along with climate change and its accompanying uncertainties.

“While all these challenges are daunting, there are ways to overcome them and develop solutions, provided there is leadership, real commitment and investment,” Narayanan says.

Dominant water usage

At IIASA, whose research results on world water conditions are extensively cited in the ADB report, analysts note that in Asia and Pacific countries, irrigation has been the dominant water usage and exceeds 90 per cent of total water demand in many countries, most notably in India and Pakistan.

“Water scarcity has been already prevalent in these countries due to increasing water demand for irrigated agriculture over past decades,” Yoshihide Wada, deputy director of the IIASA water program, tells SciDev.Net.

Future population growth in these countries is expected to further exacerbate water scarcity conditions, he adds.

“It is also alarming that groundwater depletion is getting more severe and current water use practices may not be sustainable for future generations and compromise future food production from irrigated agriculture,” Wada stresses.

Xueliang Cai, senior lecturer and water productivity specialist at the department of integrated water systems and governance of the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, notes that Asia has more irrigated areas and uses much more water for agriculture than any other continents.

“While agriculture is crucial for jobs, economic growth, food and water security in Asia, the agricultural use efficiency (often expressed as crop water productivity) is generally low and highly variable across countries, basins, systems, and even farm plots,” Cai tells SciDev.Net.

Governments need to turn their practices from emergency response-oriented to actual planning for the future.

Xueliang Cai, UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education

One of the most common problems is, unless the total consumptive water use (the amount of water consumed or polluted and no longer available for other users) is properly understood and managed, many of the investments that countries make in infrastructure, crops, technology and research, will continue to see little progress in addressing the real challenge, and to better prepare for the increasing competitive demand on water, Cai says.

Policy interventions

Asked what policies governments may adopt to improve water management, Cai notes that water is high on the agenda of most Asian countries. But while policies may be ambitious, they are “often accompanied with less robust commitment and improper implementation.”

“Governments need to turn their practices from emergency response-oriented to actual planning for the future. And agricultural water management, especially irrigation, represents the biggest potential and most cost effective way to start with,” explains Cai.


Wada says different policy interventions may be applicable to different situations. For example, in countries with large irrigation water demand, improving irrigation efficiency has large benefit to adapt to future water scarcity. Changing from flood or surface irrigation to drip or sprinkler irrigation needs large economic investments and irrigation modernisation but that is possible if governments prioritise their policy towards sustainable water management.

For certain South-East Asian nations, Wada says, it is important to achieve sustainable transboundary water management for the Mekong River, the dominant source of water supply for many countries along its path.

There are also new technologies like desalination, new cultivar for crops, which however largely rely on the progress of new technological development and may be still too expensive for developing countries, Wada says.

Then again, the ADB report says there is evidence that shows it is not necessarily the wealth of a nation that determines water security. Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand were able to make major progress in drinking water and sanitation while they were still relatively poor countries.

“Water-related investments can increase economic productivity and growth, while economic growth provides the resources to invest in institutions and capital-intensive water infrastructure,” the ADB report points out.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.

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