A liquidity crisis of the drinkable kind

Water covers more than two thirds of Earth, but freshwater supplies are declining at an alarming rate. The economic impact could be catastrophic if the trend continues.

In July 1969, astronauts on board the Apollo 11 moon mission sent back some of the most spectacular images ever taken of planet Earth. From 158,000km, the images showed a predominately blue globe dotted with brown and green land masses set against an ink black backdrop in space.

More than 70 per cent of the planet is covered by water but only 3 per cent is drinkable and 2 per cent of that is contained in glaciers that are fast disappearing, threatening the entire region's economic growth and development, according to numerous international studies.

In the September issue of Nature magazine, a study claimed that 80 per cent of the glaciers in western China were in retreat and that 27 per cent of the country's glaciers were expected to disappear by 2050.

Not only will this impact on China but the region as a whole as 60 per cent of the water run-off feeds major river systems that run through India, Pakistan and South East Asia, and in particular the Mekong, which flows through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Asia's rapid industrial growth over the past 30 years, led mainly by China and India, has resulted in a huge population shift from rural centres.

Population growth, rapid urbanisation and competing demands from agriculture, energy and industry have left water stocks in many Asian countries in a critical state, a major international conference on water security, held at the Asian Development Bank's (ADB) headquarters in the Philippines, was told recently.

With water way down on most Asian nations' list of infrastructure priorities the impact on economic growth could be catastrophic.

"Asia's water world has gone past its tipping point," Arjun Thapan, the ADB's adviser on infrastructure and water, told the conference of more than 600 delegates from 53 countries.

He said the challenge now was how to try to reverse the decline in freshwater availability without impacting on economic growth.

China and India were experiencing an alarming drop in water supplies, he told the delegates.

"The onset of climate change, with increasing instances of extreme weather events, is already impacting Asia's freshwater resources," he said.

"Asia needs to aggressively adopt measures that dramatically improve water use efficiencies and safeguard the region's food and energy security."

Mr Thapan said little had been done to improve water efficiency in the region over the past two decades.

"Treated water lost in urban centres is worth about US$10 billion (Dh36.72bn) annually. Up to 90 per cent of our waste water is let go without treatment of any sort. Not even 1 per cent is reused," he told the conference.

"Groundwater resources have been widely abused. Surface water pollution is almost endemic. Climate change is ensuring that uncertainty occupies centre stage in our lives. It is, indeed, a grim picture - and one not likely to get much better unless we radically alter our ways of managing our accessible freshwater resources. Our choices are, in fact, very limited."

China and India, home to more than a third of the world's population, is expected to have significant water shortages over the next 20 years. According to ADB estimates, India will have a shortfall of 50 per cent by 2030 and China 25 per cent.

By 2050, the world's population is expected to increase by 2.5 billion from 6.6 billion today, with Asia contributing 1.5 billion.

"Although both nations (China and India) are seeking to become the superpowers of the 21st century, their weak point is water," Yoichi Funabashi, the Japanese foreign affairs commentator and editor in chief of the Asahi Shimbun, said recently.

"Oil can ultimately be replaced by other resources but the same cannot be said for water. If the 20th century witnessed the rise and fall of nations over oil, the 21st century could be one in which the rise and fall of nations is determined by water."