Resource mismanagement has led to a critical water shortage in Asia

Water is set to become the most contested resource in Asia if the continent’s biggest players continue to mismanage its use

Beed, India. At present, 255,000 villages in 254 of India’s 678 districts are suffering a water crisis of some description 

In May, India’s Water Resources Minister, Uma Bharti, claimed that transferring water to areas worst affected by drought was – or at least should be – the government’s top priority. Speaking about plans to divert the country’s rivers, she said: “We have got the people’s support and I am determined to do it on the fast track.” Whether the plans amount to anything or not remains to be seen.

In a move not seen since 1947, the proposed $168bn river-linking project will make use of water from surplus rivers and dams and divert it to lesser sites. Once completed, the 30 canals and 3,000 reservoirs will stretch across 15,000km to create 87 million acres of irrigated land and transfer 174 trillion litres of water a year. Yet critics argue the project could displace as many as it will save, and the loss of downstream biodiversity has ecologists up in arms. Experts, meanwhile, are concerned the costs could sap much-needed funding from areas such as health and education, and then there’s the more general criticism that nothing this size has ever been attempted before.

Controversial as the plans may be, the prospect of redrawing India’s landscape and defying its ecology is seen in some circles as the only feasible means of channelling water to the more than 330 million people affected by drought. Unprecedented in scale, the river diversion programme could spell disaster as easily as it could salvation for the millions who struggle daily with acute water shortages. The risks inherent in carrying through this project are proportional to the risks of not doing so.

The subcontinent runs dry
India is facing its worst water crisis on record, and a quarter of its population is suffering from a second successive drought. Spoiled crops and sprawling dustbowls are a common occurrence, and some farmers have gone so far as to steal water from elsewhere for their most basic of requirements, never mind to irrigate their land.

A billion people in Asia could be without access to water by 2050

All in all, 255,000 villages in 254 of India’s 678 districts are suffering a water crisis of some description. Demand has outstripped supply, and with another 450 million people forecast to be added to the country’s population by 2050, the crisis, both in terms of quality and availability, is on course to worsen. Not taking into account the added stress these expanded services will exert on the economy, the expectation that conditions in India will improve gradually over time is not as widespread as it once was.

Millions of farmers, not to mention city residents and companies, are placing huge pressure on water reserves in what is already one of the world’s most water-stressed countries, draining its wells and aquifers at a quite alarming rate. One report by the Water Resources Group predicted the national supply will fall 50 percent below demand by 2030. “The ever-expanding water demand of the world’s growing population and economy, combined with the impacts of climate change”, it said, “are already making water scarcity a reality in many parts of the world – and with it we are witnessing severe damage to livelihoods, human health and ecosystems.”

Government data for the end of March showed 91 of India’s major reservoirs were running at 25 percent capacity, 30 percent lower than at the same point a year before and 25 percent less than average storage for the decade. Reservoirs and wells in some parts of the country are at their lowest in a generation, and commercial ventures are competing against individuals for the use of what little water remains.

The competition between companies, farms and people also means over 54 percent of India’s landmass faces “extremely high” water stress, which, aside from the aforementioned issues, is forcing inhabitants to use otherwise undesirable methods of extraction.

India’s river-linking project




Distance that will be covered



87 million

Acres of land will be irrigated




Litres of water transferred annually

Drilling deeper has offered locals a little relief, though doing so ultimately risks making the problem much worse. The repercussions can be seen across the subcontinent.

As many as four reservoirs in Hyderabad have run completely dry this year. In Telangana, as many as 35 million farmers have migrated elsewhere to avoid the financial and social hardships of a second successive drought, and in the capital 10 million people had their access to running water cut for more than 24 hours. According to India’s Ministry of Urban Development, 70 percent of the local population received as little as three hours of running water a day.

Reports of rising suicide rates among farmers are widespread, and in the state of Maharashtra 3,228 farmers are said to have killed themselves last year after the drought hit – the highest in 14 years. A second successive dry season has many worried that thousands more could follow. A report from the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University Law School said insurmountable debts together with unaccommodating government policies are to blame for the spike. Far from its effect on the economy, water shortages have impacted the lives of millions of individuals, and many more are struggling to make a living.

And the rest
Given agriculture is the principal source of income for around 60 percent of the country’s population and accounts for 15 percent of GDP, the impact of the water crisis in India is understandably severe. All this isn’t to say, however, that the crisis is a distinctly Indian phenomenon: throughout Asia – particularly the southern portion – climate change together with population growth and industrialisation is compromising the ability of entire nations to meet demand.

“It’s not just a climate change issue”, said Adam Schlosser, who recently contributed to a study on Asia’s water shortage. “We simply cannot ignore that economic and population growth in society can have a very strong influence on our demand for resources.”

A recent Greenpeace report found coal power plants around the world consume enough water to sustain a billion people. What’s more, 44 percent of those plants are located in areas suffering from high water stress, with a quarter in red-list areas such as China, Inner Mongolia and, of course, central India. “Water security”, said the report, “is one of the most tangible and fastest-growing social, political and economic challenges faced today.” Without swift and decisive action to curtail consumption, millions in Asia and beyond could feel the effects.

Though home to more than half of the world’s population, Asia has less freshwater than any other continent on Earth, barring Antarctica. To make matters worse, an Asia Society Leadership Group report showed two-thirds of global population growth is set to occur in Asia, with the urban population in particular on course to increase a staggering 60 percent in the 10 years to 2025.

“As population growth and urbanisation rates in Asia rise rapidly, stress on the region’s water resources is intensifying”, said the report. “Experts agree that reduced access to freshwater will lead to a cascading set of consequences, including impaired food production, the loss of livelihood security, large-scale migration within and across borders, and increased economic and geopolitical tensions and instabilities. Over time, these effects will have a profound impact on security throughout the region.” Asia, it seems, is teetering on the brink of a crisis – or is already partway into one.

While it may be true that India has so far shown itself to be the worst hit by the unfolding crisis, nations across south Asia share many of the same issues. Shared waters, transboundary flows and the control of flows from one state to another are issues that compromise the ability of each country to properly manage and distribute what limited resources they have. Each is understandably concerned about the extent to which population growth, industrialisation and urbanisation could handicap its economy, and in this new water-scarce era, relations are strained.

Coal-fired power plant on the banks of Huangpu River near Shanghai
Coal-fired power plant on the banks of Huangpu River near Shanghai

Rivers that straddle international borders are a particular bone of contention, and nowhere is this better encapsulated than in the case of India and Bangladesh. The Farakka dam, the Tipaimukh dam and the diversion of the Ganges, for example, have turned the relationship between the two sour. Should India, Bangladesh and others choose not to cooperate on the issue of water scarcity – which ultimately affects the whole of the region – proposed mitigation strategies will likely amount to nothing. The scale of the issue demands they overcome their differences.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are of the opinion that, without measures to mitigate the effects of industrialisation and population growth, as many as a billion people in Asia could be without access to water by 2050. In a report, they wrote: “Water needs related to socioeconomic changes, which are currently small, are likely to increase considerably in the future, often overshadowing the effect of climate change on levels of water stress.” The effects will be similar to what we are seeing today, only “more intense, more frequent” and with “more severe effects”.

Water management
The reasons for water shortages vary across the region: in China, for example, they are attributable mostly to industrial processes, while in India and Vietnam personal consumption is the main problem. As wide-ranging as these challenges are, the underlying cause is not adverse conditions.

Shortages in New Delhi, for example, are arguably due more to poor management than either population growth or increased industrial activity. According to Manpreet Juneja, a research assistant at the Indian Council for Research of International Economic Relations, more than half of the city’s running water leaks are born of neglected pipelines. In towns and cities across the country, this poor management is to blame for completely avoidable crises.

Too often, observers are quick to write off India’s water crisis as a result of factors outside the country’s control, whereas in reality poor governance and planning are as much – if not more – to blame. The government’s insistence on subsidies for sugar cane producers in particular has drawn criticism from all angles; such support mechanisms for resource-intensive processes, say critics, are exacerbating the crisis.

Maharasta, in west-central India, is home to 35 percent of the country’s dams, yet only 18 percent of the land is irrigated, as opposed to the 47 percent national average. A more targeted investment strategy would yield more even results and quash mounting concerns that India’s government is catering only to a vocal minority.

Whenever a drought or flood dissipates, so too does the will to change

A free, or otherwise highly subsidised, water supply has done a great deal to perpetuate toxic water policies, and this unsustainable approach to maintaining what is essentially a renewable resource has succeeded in handicapping much of the continent. If India and neighbouring south Asian nations are to address the issue at its root, they must dedicate at least a shade more time and money to making certain the resource is utilised more effectively.

Strong water institutions are a prerequisite for growth, and so too is the political will and necessary funding to make them so. Provided governments do their bit, there must also be an acceptance from the public that tariffs and taxes are a necessity. Leaky pipes and contaminated local sources are one thing, but improvements to agricultural and industrial processes are a must. Agricultural productivity gains, the restoration of watercourses and drought-resistant crops could reduce the need for water, while cooling technologies for power generation and a focus on improved water storage could do the same.

The question, rather than “Is there enough water?” should be “Is there a way of utilising what water we have more efficiently?”, to which the answer is most certainly “Yes”.

A solvable problem
Tackling south Asia’s water crisis has been made all the more complicated for governments by the issue’s seasonal nature, which makes it all too easy for policymakers to palm off responsibility in times of prosperity. Simply put, whenever a drought or flood dissipates, so too does the will to change. Fortunately or not, the escalating scale of the crisis means water’s political value is ever greater, and any administration not engaging with the issue, at least on a superficial level, risks sparking discontent.

The issue of groundwater preservation is perhaps the most complicated of all; unlike surface water, the loss of it is not at all visible to the human eye. If public pressure turns out not to be enough to improve water governance, the realisation that water will in all likelihood become the most contested resource in Asia surely will be. Studies emphasise the seriousness of south Asia’s water crisis and give good reason to be concerned, though the fact that it could be largely solved through effective governance and improved management is encouraging.

The point that water shortages are not just a result of climate change and environmental stress is an important one, and should give policymakers reason to feel the situation is within their power to control. The question for now is whether the powers-that-be are willing to concede short-term gains in exchange for long-term water security. As far as the population is concerned, for as long as the issue of water scarcity remains, they must be willing to reconsider the ways in which they use what precious water there is.

Impressive as schemes such as the India water-linking programme are, the answer lies not in expensive projects, but in changing attitudes to water use. If Asia is to avoid a future in which a billion people will face severe water shortages, it may need to scrap its current growth model altogether and make way for a more water-efficient – albeit less growth-orientated – one.