The record drought ravaging large parts of Asia will end when the monsoon rains come in June. This will bring relief to the people in parched lands, from Vietnam’s Mekong delta to central India. The drought has already claimed hundreds of lives and destroyed vast swaths of rice paddies and other farms.
But make no mistake: This drought offers a telling preview of the hotter, drier future that awaits much of the continent. This likelihood largely arises from the costs that rapid development, urbanisation, large-scale irrigated farming and lifestyle changes are imposing on natural resources, the environment and climate.
Recurrent drought promises to exacerbate Asia’s already-serious water challenges. Asia has less freshwater per person than any other continent, and some of the world’s worst water pollution. A drought-laden future will increase risks of water-related conflict. Yet little policy attention has been paid to combating droughts because of their episodic character.
Unlike other natural and human-made disasters, a drought is a silently creeping calamity. It knocks down no buildings yet wreaks high socio-economic costs. Droughts thus are deceptive disasters.
Water is not just the most undervalued resource; in the coming years it is likely to be the most contested resource in Asia. This has largely to do with the growing paucity of this life-sustaining resource and Asia’s distinctive water map.
The most important rivers in Asia traverse national boundaries and are thus international systems. Indeed, most Asian nations with land frontiers — with the prominent exception of China, which controls Asia’s riverheads by controlling the Tibetan Plateau — are highly dependent on cross-border water inflows.
Against this background, inter-country and intra-country water disputes have become common. Asia illustrates that trans-boundary water resources, instead of linking countries or provinces in a system of hydrological interdependence, are fostering sharpening competition for relative gain.
Asia is already the world’s most dam-dotted continent: It has more dams than the rest of the world combined. But this statistic doesn’t tell the real story: Most of Asia’s dams are in China, which alone boasts 90,000 dams. With its massive hydro-engineering infrastructure, China has built an impressive capacity to stockpile water for the dry season.
But China’s over-damming of rivers has contributed to river fragmentation (the interruption of natural flows) and depletion. China’s dying Yellow River exemplifies this problem. And its cascade of six giant dams on the Mekong, just before it leaves the Tibetan Plateau, is being blamed for accentuating the current Southeast Asian drought.
Asia’s vulnerability to droughts and other effects of climate change is being increased by other factors as well, including groundwater depletion and deforestation, especially in the upstream catchment areas. The extraction of groundwater at rates surpassing nature’s recharge capacity has resulted in a rapidly falling water table across much of Asia. Because groundwater is often a source of supply for streams, springs, lakes and wetlands, the overexploitation of this resource, creates parched conditions and thus fosters recurrent droughts.
Meanwhile, intensive irrigation in semi-arid regions, including northern China, Central Asia and Pakistan, has helped to create a boom in agricultural exports but exacted heavy trans-boundary environmental costs. It has caused soil salinity and waterlogging and fostered atmospheric humidity, with climate stability becoming a casualty and dry areas becoming drier.
The entire Asian belt stretching from the Korean Peninsula to the Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan region is becoming increasingly prone to the ravages of drought. But even before the current drought hit South and Southeast Asia, scientific studies on global drought risk hotspots showed that drought risks were the highest in these two regions, at least in terms of the number of people exposed.
It is past time for Asian policymakers to start addressing drought risks, the core of which is the nexus between water, energy and food. For example, the current drought is roiling world food markets through its destructive impacts on crops. And by reducing cooling-water availability, it is decreasing generation by some power plants, just when electricity demand has peaked.
The drought risks can be reduced by ensuring the protection and ecological restoration of watercourses, securing water-efficiency gains through agricultural-productivity measures, developing drought-resistant crop varieties, improving water quality to offset decrease in water quantity, and utilising alternative cooling technologies for power generation. Increasing water storage by channelling excess water during the monsoons to artificially recharge aquifers, especially in Asia’s densely populated, economically booming coastal regions, holds promise for coping with droughts.
Policymakers must appreciate that drought risks cannot be lowered without tackling the serious problem of groundwater depletion. Unlike surface water, degradation of groundwater is not visible to the human eye. Surface water and groundwater, however, are linked hydrologically and should be managed as a single resource. A one-water approach is also essential to cut the overreliance on groundwater supplies.
The spectre of permanent water losses is just one reason why Asia’s drought-related challenges demand an integrated, holistic approach. Water, food and energy, for example, must be managed by policymakers jointly so as to promote synergistic approaches. Also, ecological restoration programmes, by aiding the recovery of damaged ecosystems, can help bring wider benefits in slowing soil and water degradation, stemming coastal erosion, augmenting freshwater storage and supply, and controlling droughts.
Without such efforts, the linkages between water stress, sharing disputes, falling water quality and environmental degradation could trap Asia in a vicious cycle. Nature is indivisible: Communities and states cannot thrive for long by bending nature and undercutting environmental sustainability.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of Water: Asia’s New Battleground. The views expressed are personal