Navigating water scarcity in Asia and the Pacific

In an era marked by rapid urbanisation, industrialisation, population growth, and climate change, water scarcity has emerged as a critical challenge for the Asia-Pacific region. To combat this pressing issue, the Australian Water Partnership has joined forces with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to launch the Asia-Pacific Water Scarcity Programme. This collaboration aims to build climate-resilient communities and promote sustainable water management practices across the region.

“The FAO-Australia partnership is a strategic alliance designed to draw on Australia’s extensive fifty-year experience in water accounting as we scale approaches for the Asia-Pacific Region.” – Bob Simpson, Special Advisor, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific at the Regional Technical Meeting on Water Scarcity.

Between 1975 and 2010, the region’s population living under high or severe water scarcity grew from 1.1 billion to over 2.6 billion. Similarly, those experiencing green-blue water scarcity increased from around 0.2 billion to nearly 1.5 billion. Seasonal water scarcity is particularly acute in countries with monsoonal climates and wet tropical regions.

“A region that was once considered ‘water plenty’ is now experiencing seasonal and localised water scarcity.” – Louise Whiting, Water Management Officer, FAO.

As a result, the agricultural sector faces increasing pressure as water availability declines. Intensifying cropping systems without exacerbating water quality and ecosystem health issues is crucial. Further, prioritising environmental flow requirements is essential to prevent long-term detrimental effects on agriculture.

Water scarcity threatens food security and the sustainability of societies, economies, and ecosystems. Over 50% of the world’s urban areas and 75% of irrigated farmlands currently experience recurring water shortages. By 2025, it is estimated that around 1.8 billion people will live in regions with “absolute” water scarcity.

In response to these challenges, FAO launched the Asia-Pacific Water Scarcity Programme in 2019. The programme aims to work with countries to maintain water consumption within sustainable limits, preparing them for a productive, food-secure future with less water. It promotes practical water accounting and evidence-based water allocation processes, ensuring the interests of all water stakeholders are represented.

For countries not yet facing water scarcity, establishing a legislative framework for water sharing before over-allocation occurs is critical. Strengthening river basin organisations through improved water accounting, data management, stakeholder engagement, and water allocation processes are an essential step towards sustainable water management.

With the support of Australian technical partners Alluvium and Amperes, and regional stakeholders such as the Institute for Technology Cambodia, Water Stewardship Indonesia, the Global Water Partnership, and the Stockholm Environment Institute, the Water Scarcity Programme has been providing technical and policy support to countries including Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia for the past year. Activities have focused on working with governments to develop national multidisciplinary teams dedicated to working across government on water scarcity, implementing water accounting trainings, developing national water accounting road maps, and national water scarcity action plans.

“The Asia-Pacific Water Scarcity Program has demonstrated that through collaboration we can develop sustainable water management practices that benefit all stakeholders.” – Caroline Turner, Water Scarcity Programme Manager, FAO.

In March 2024, to mark the end of a successful Phase 1 implementation, the Water Scarcity Programme held a regional technical workshop, bringing together representatives from Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam to discuss the programme’s progress so far.

Key outcomes from the workshop included positive reflections on the progress made and a desire to further deepen the work achieved to date. With each country presenting on key areas where they could benefit from technical assistance, the workshop provided the programme with a steady path forward to continuing support for countries in the region to improve sustainable water resource management, seeking to overcome the challenges posed by increasing water scarcity.

Photos featured in this article are from participants at the Regional Technical Workshop in Thailand. (Credit: FAO)

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