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Securing Asia's Water Future

Apr 17, 2009

Saleem Ali, visiting fellow at Brookings Institution’s Doha Center; and professor of environmental planning and Asian studies, University of Vermont.

Saleem Ali, visiting fellow at Brookings Institution’s Doha Center; and professor of environmental planning and Asian studies, University of Vermont.

NEW YORK, April 17, 2009 – Asia, the world’s most populous continent, is also the most water scarce continent after Antarctica. Water-related problems are particularly acute in this region and experts project that reduced access to fresh water 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 geopolitical tensions and instabilities. Over time, these effects will have a profound impact on security throughout the region

Asia Society and the Earth Institute at Columbia University organized an event today to launch the Asia Society Leadership Group on Water Security in Asia Report, entitled "Asia’s Next Challenge: Securing the Region’s Water Future." The report considers the security dimensions associated with decreased access to a safe, stable supply of water in Asia and provides a forward-looking agenda aimed at averting a water crisis in the region.

Saleem Ali, Visiting Fellow, Brookings Institution’s Doha Center; and Professor of Environmental Planning & Asian Studies, University of Vermont, Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Upmanu Lall, Director of the Earth Institute’s Water Center at Columbia University joined at the Asia Society to present the findings of the report and discuss policy recommendations and actions to prevent, manage and respond to water scarcity and its impacts. The discussion, moderated by Suzanne DiMaggio, Director of the Asia Society’s Social Issues Program, highlighted the most significant current water challenges facing the Asia region.

Saleem Ali, the initiative’s principal advisor, presented the report main findings. Asia’s increasing population and growth present many water security challenges. Countries must often reconcile transboundary usage of water resources, such that water quantity is often linked with conflict events. The security linkage is particularly acute in countries that are highly dependent on water sources outside of their political borders, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. The report also addresses climate change and subsequent glacial recession and sea-level rise as central issues affecting water issues in Asia. Fluctuations across the Himalaya glaciers are having repercussions across many countries, yet coordinating empirical research across borders remains a significant challenge.

To address the problems, the report provides a set of comprehensive recommendations, including: raise the profile of water security on the political and development agendas in governments in Asia; include water in security policy planning; encourage investment in water management; harmonize the Millennium Development Goals that pertain to water under a unified task force; and improve data quality in order to generate better policies, among others. The report’s policy recommendations advocate for a clearer, target-driven agenda for addressing water security issues across Asia.

The summary of report findings was followed by a presentation by Jeffrey Sachs, a member of the Asia Society’s Leadership Group on Water Security. Sachs emphasized how crucial water issues have become and advocated in support of a more concerted effort to tackle the indelible human impact on the physical processes of our planet. “We are not yet in any way, shape or form facing up to the size of the challenges in this report,” he said.

Sachs addressed the imbalance of attention to water issues, suggesting that “policy discussion of these issues have been wholly inadequate. Water must be addressed in its entirety, in relation to agriculture, food production, industrial use, and in ecosystem preservation.” The limitations of calling on governments as a solution to pressing water issues was explicitly expressed. In order to affect real change, Sachs urged civil society and organizations to become more involved in the governance process. He offered three recommendations for furthering change on a policy level: maintain an ongoing group of expertise and advocacy as established by the Asia Society’s Leadership Group on Water Security; create further impact by participating in projects to solve problems with local counterparts in order to become a compelling model for change; and maintain the scientific assessment component of finding solutions to water challenges, as the scale of the challenge has overwhelmed more traditional approaches of local communities.

The discussion also focused on water security issues in India. Upmanu Lall called attention to the challenge of modifying local resources to address specific needs. While ground water depletion is high in particular areas, more water abundant areas face significant pollution problems. Lall emphasized that addressing these issues in the long run will require a major change in policy. Looking at water issues from both the private and public sector perspective helps to assess those most impacted by water scarcity and thus to advance the formulation of appropriate actions.

Reported by Cathleen Cimino

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