By by Dr Paul McShane
Climate, human population and water are intrinsically linked. In Asia, most water (80 per cent) is used for irrigation in support of agriculture – in other words, food production. As human population grows, demand for food and water will increase. Policies which prioritise this use of water need to be developed.
The major river systems of Asia are all sourced from the Himalayan plateau; changes to snow and glacial melts will influence water flow as will rainfall and dams in their catchments.
In India and Bangladesh, most water (75 per cent) comes from ground water drawn from wells. As shallow wells become depleted, water is drawn from deeper aquifers. Contamination of ground water by Arsenic is an unavoidable consequence of boring deep wells in some regions of South Asia. However, contamination of both ground and surface waters through human activity is a consequence of poor management and is avoidable.
Apart from the obvious health impacts, there are other consequences, including persistent poverty. Those affected by poor water quality are unable to work, or to care for children. In South Asia women traditionally gather water from wells. As women travel further and further to collect water, they are unable to engage in other gainful activities such as caring for their children.
The benefits of the remarkable economic growth in India typically flow to the wealthy and middle classes. The challenge of reducing poverty remains, but the poor lack a potent political voice.
Recharge of ground water aquifers is slow (because of impervious granitic substrata). Thus, surface water sources must be managed more effectively. Public education programs, better water reticulation, improved urban planning (for new cities), improved water harvest and storage, improved management of ground water and aligning legal and regulatory frameworks all present as practical and potentially cost-effective solutions to water availability.
Agencies responsible for land and water management can and should work together to align policies responsive to improved water resource allocation. The identification of mutual benefits across states provides a common incentive for agencies/governments to cooperate. Cultural differences among (and within states) should be recognised and taken into account to drive a coordinated political response to water allocation issues. Better land management in upstream states will improve water quality and availability to downstream states.
Sensible and realistic water pricing policies, including payment for ecosystem services yielding greater water availability should form part of discussions among riparian states. Solutions to poverty and sustainable resource development lie in more effective water resource management. Monash University