3.4 billion people with insecure water access in Asia by 2050

A recent report from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) paints a bleak picture for the water and sanitation landscape in Asia, despite huge strides in economic progress. Whilst the unprecedented growth in Asia over the last two decades has lifted more than a billion people out of extreme poverty, that rapid growth has also led to water insecurity.

The Asian Development Bank’s 2013 data shows that 38 out of 49 economies could be 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. But all is not so rosy.

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, says the ADB report. Recent estimates indicate up to 3.4 billion people could be living in water-stressed areas of Asia by 2050.

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

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. In the water chapter of the OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050, it argues that 60 percent of the world’s population, including half of the world’s poorest, residing in Asia and the Pacific, will face water shortages. Much of that new demand for will come from a rapidly transitioning Asian economy.

Around 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 OECD to call the region a global hotspot for water insecurity.

Without new policies, by 2050, freshwater availability will be further strained, with 2.3 billion more people than today (in total over 40% of the global population) projected to be living in river basins experiencing severe water stress, especially in South and Central Asia. Global water demand is projected to increase by some 55%, due to growing demand from manufacturing (+400%), thermal electricity generation (+140%) and domestic use (+130%).

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.

The results of investment in water supply and sanitation have been obvious positive, says the ADB, 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. Safe sanitation is practiced by nearly 80 percent of people in most sub-regions, 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.

The ADB argues that addressing these gaps is of utmost priority 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. Put simply, “business as usual” is not possible anymore. 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.

There is no easy fix for the water crisis that Asia faces – to which climate change also adds a variable of uncertainty. But unless we think much harder about water issues, shortages will constrain economic growth, reversing development and causing untold hardship to many in the region.

Text by Richard Welford / Retrieved from CSR Asia