The original version of this article, by Michael Kugelman, appeared in the public policy journal Seminar
In today’s era of globalization, the line between critic and hypocrite is increasingly becoming blurred. Single out a problem in a region or country other than one’s own, and risk triggering an immediate, yet understandable, response: Why criticize the problem here, when you face the same one back home?
Such a response is particularly justified in the context of water insecurity, a dilemma that afflicts scores of countries, including the author’s United States. In the parched American West, New Mexico has only 10 years-worth of drinking water remaining, while Arizona already imports every drop. Less arid areas of the country are increasingly water-stressed as well. Rivers in South Carolina and Massachusetts, lakes in Florida and Georgia, and even the mighty Lake Superior (the world’s largest fresh-water lake) are all running dry. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, if American water consumption habits continue unchecked, as many as 36 states will face water shortages within the next few years. Also notable is the fact that America’s waterways are choked with pollution, and that nearly twenty million Americans may fall ill each year from contaminated water. Not to mention that more than thirty U.S. states are fighting with their neighbors over water.
Such a narrative is a familiar one, because it also applies to South Asia. However, in South Asia, the narrative is considerably more urgent. The region houses a quarter of the world’s population, yet contains less than five percent of its annual renewable water resources. With the exception of Bhutan and Nepal, South Asia’s per capita water availability falls below the world average. Annual water availability has plummeted by nearly 70 percent since 1950, and from around 21,000 cubic meters in the 1960s to approximately 8,000 in 2005. If such patterns continue, the region could face “widespread water scarcity” (that is, per capita water availability under 1,000 cubic meters) by 2025. Furthermore, the United Nations, based on a variety of measures – including ecological insecurity, water management problems and resource stress – characterizes two key water basins of South Asia (the Helmand and Indus) as “highly vulnerable.”
These findings are not surprising, given that the region suffers from many drivers of water insecurity: high population growth, vulnerability to climate change, arid weather, agriculture dependent economies, and political tensions. This is not to say that South Asia is devoid of water security stabilizers; indeed, its various trans-national arrangements, to differing degrees, help the region manage its water constraints and tensions. This paper argues that such arrangements are vital, yet also incapable of safeguarding regional water security on their own. It asserts that more attention to demand-side water management within individual countries is as crucial for South Asian water security as are trans-national water mechanisms.
Continue reading on Seminar.
Michael Kugelman is a program associate for the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Sources: The American Prospect, Jaitly (2009), The New York Times, UNEP, UN Population Division, Washington Post.
Video Credit: “Groundwater depletion in India revealed by GRACE,” courtesy of flickr user NASA Goddard Photo and Video. For more on the visualization, see the story on NASA’s Looking at Earth.