World Water Day Highlights Crisis in Asia

Pakistani women carry water in jerrycans on their heads in a slum area of Lahore. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

While the rising cost of food stokes fears of an impending food crisis in Asia, the region is also grappling with another ongoing worry: water scarcity. Both problems are closely related and water scarcity has a direct, and often immediate, effect on both national and global food security. The agricultural sector is the heaviest user of water, on average consuming 70 percent of a country's available water supply to fuel crop production.

Today, countries around the world are marking World Water Day to raise awareness of the global water crisis. This year, World Water Day focuses particular attention on water in cities. Asia is an especially important region in this context. Currently, one of out of five people in Asia—this is equal to roughly 700 million Asians—does not have access to clean water. Six out of the world's ten largest megacities (cities with a population of more than 10 million people) are located in Asia, and with the urban population in Asia expected to grow by an astonishing 60 percent in the next 15 years, securing adequate water supplies to meet a city's daily needs represents one of the region’s most enormous challenges. 

Meeting the needs of a rapidly growing and urbanizing population Asia, however, is just part of the water scarcity equation in Asia. Asia is struggling to contain water pollution that is common in many of the region’s cities and groundwater extraction rates are overtaking available supply in many areas. Meanwhile, irrigation systems in many of Asia’s rural areas suffer from waste and inefficiency. It is estimated that only 40% of water used for agriculture is put to productive use. As such, the core of the problem is often not availability, but poor water governance and management.

Ensuring safe and adequate supplies of water will not only ensure healthy and productive populations in Asia’s cities, but will also provide safeguards against growing food insecurity throughout the region. In an April 2009 report, Asia's Next Challenge: Securing the Region’s Water Future, the Asia Society’s Leadership Group on Water Security outlined the many consequences that reduced access to fresh water will have. In addition to impaired food production, water scarcity could result in the loss of livelihood security, large-scale migration within and across borders, and increased geopolitical tensions and stabilities. Over time, these effects could have a profound impact on security throughout the region.

To address these challenges, the Leadership Group's report outlines a ten-point agenda to avert a water crisis in Asia. Among the many possible solutions, one thing is clear: city, state, and national leaders in Asia must raise the profile of water security higher on their political and development agendas if they are to meet current and future demands for water. At the same time, exploring ways to raise and sustain the productivity of farmers in ways that conserve water is crucial to ensuring food security in Asia. Only then can both food and water security be achieved.

Related video: Water: Asia's Next Challenge

To learn more about what Asia Society is doing to address water security in Asia, visit

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Himalayan Glaciers & Asia’s Looming Water Crisis
Interactive Panoramas of Glaciers
On Thinner Ice