Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Concerns over Asian water scarcity set to worsen

In many parts of the world, freshwater is already a scarce resource. In the Asia Pacific region, even though it has become an economic powerhouse, many countries are under immense strain to appropriately allocate fresh water for their individual industries and population, but also to ensure neighbouring countries are not affected as well.

Considering this planet is practically swimming with over 70 percent of earth covered by water, 98 percent of that fluid is salt water while only 2.5 percent is fresh water. Even more worrying is that according to WHO estimates only 0.4 percent of this water is easily accessible for human consumption, with this number continually dropping as pollution segregates fresh from dirty and the hungry energy industry diverts water for their needs.

Three Gorges Hydroelectric Power Plant - China
In China, according to a current Brookings Institute report, somewhere close to the present equivalent population of the United States lack consistent access to clean drinking water. The story is very similar in India. Over the last 50 years, extraction of groundwater has tripled worldwide, while supplies have remained fairly constant. Replacing groundwater naturally is not a simple task with UNESCO worrying in Asia that it may be depleting faster than it can be replenished.

Aside from the conventional conflicts making headlines throughout the region, many places in Asia share large bodies of water over which there are few concrete, recognised usage laws. Water shortages are becoming routine in China and India. And over 75 percent of countries in Asia lack good water security which could constitute a serious crisis in the future if steps are not taken to improve management of water resources, according to a recent study by the Asian Development Bank.

No matter how one looks at it, the scenario throughout Asia is one of growing water scarcity. As the earth’s human population rises, especially in the Asian landmass, demand already surpasses supply, with even more people expected to join the throngs over the next 50 years. The problem is compounded with the gradual but encouraged shift away from fossil fuels towards alternative energy sources.

To achieve energy independence, many Asian states - at one time with an overabundance of fresh water - are increasingly diverting water from human consumption to feed hungry hydroelectric and coal-fired plants. The overriding factors leading to today’s water scarcity in China and India seem to be the aggressive energy policies and unrelenting focus on ever-expanding economic growth in two of the world’s most populous nations.

Hydroelectric energy might divert rivers and change irrigation patterns downstream, but at least the water eventually flows in fits and starts. Coal plants require water to boil away in steam turbines but need three times as much water as natural gas-fired plants to operate. In China alone, collieries consume over 17 percent of the country’s water supply with India demanding almost as much water for similar projects.

In the next decade, China plans to increase their coal-fired power generation by twice the capacity of its regional rival India. This will please the Australians, but for rural Chinese in the north of the country where almost all of the collieries are based, this will directly affect their access to fresh water and will exacerbate the trend of moving to urban areas as they escape one of the driest regions in the world.

Thankfully for these people, new fossil fuel extraction methods are evolving at rapid rates, but it remains the case that unconventional fuels – such as tar sands and shale gas – are extremely water-intensive. Some embryonic methods of extraction reportedly need significantly less water to function, but it will be years before these techniques are refined enough to replace current processes.

In the south, China has built half of the world’s 50,000 largest hydroelectric dams and continues to funnel resources into building more of these structures along rivers originating in the Tibetan Himalayas. This would be fine if the water flowed into China exclusively, but they don’t. The rivers in question also cascade into the lowlands of southeast Asia and India where tens of millions of people will need to cope with potentially disastrous changes to their fresh water supplies.

The dams China is building will probably not affect downstream nations according to Chinese officials. And it is true that many are run-of-the-river dams which do not rely on reservoirs, instead harnessing water energy in underground tunnels. Other Chinese officials have pointed to these dams actually benefiting lower nations by controlling flood damage during the rainy season.

However, India is largely unconvinced by these arguments. They fear three new dams planned for Chinese Tibet will affect the flow of water to both India and Bangladesh dangerously. New Delhi lodged a diplomatic protest about the development after it discovered the news in the local media, rather than via official channels from Beijing. But because China is in the dominant position with these rivers, Beijing has reportedly ignored the protest.

Tensions over access to Asian fresh water sources are sure to grow in the coming decades as populations increase, economic development sprints ahead, and the continued headwater countries’ lack of interest in talking multilaterally to downstream nations about water-sharing agreements. Although war is unlikely to break out over water shortages, the region is finding a whole new set of problems over something it not long ago took for granted.

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