Asia may see more conflicts over water

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Asia may see more conflicts over scarce water resources in the coming years as climate change and population growth threaten access to the most basic natural resource, a report warned on Friday.

A fisherman casts a net on the Mekong River at Kampi village in Kratie province, 230 km (143 miles) northeast of Cambodia, March 24, 2007 . REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea

Water problems in Asia are already severe, with one in five people, or 700 million, not having access to safe drinking water and half the region’s population lacking access to basic sanitation, according to the report produced by the Asia Society, a New York-based think tank.

Population growth, rapid urbanization and climate change are expected to worsen the situation, according to the report, “Asia’s Next Challenge: Securing the Region’s Water Future.”

It said water disputes between hostile neighbors India and Pakistan and the complex relations governing the vast Mekong River, which is shared by China and its southern neighbors, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The report said while water issues have more often generated cooperation than conflict between nations in the past, demographic pressures and water scarcity would be unprecedented in the coming decades.

“The potential for conflicts sparked by the direct and indirect impacts of an increasingly volatile water supply should not be underestimated, particularly in the light of rising concerns about climate change,” it said.

“No matter how we approach water resources -- whether it is on the basis of quality and quantity, or as the most potent manifestation of extreme climatic events -- hydropolitics is likely to be a growing force in Asian security,” it said.

While Asia is home to more than half the world’s population, it has less fresh water per person than any other populated continent, the report said. Asia’s population is expected to rise by nearly 500 million within 10 years.

“The majority of Asia’s water problems are not attributable to an actual shortage, but rather are the result of poor water governance,” it said. “They are solvable through more effective governance and better management practices.”

The report makes 10 recommendations to governments in Asia, including greater regional cooperation and ensuring that water management organizations work directly with those responsible for defense and diplomacy.

It also urged more investment, both public and private, in efficient water management and infrastructure.

Ecological leaders should not only look to governments for change, said Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Civil action is needed to give rise to a movement for water access and quality, he said in an address to the Asia Society in New York.

“Our governments are incompetent ... in an institutional sense,” said Sachs, a member of the society’s leadership group on water security. “Our governments are overwhelmed. There’s no use to calling on them to do things in the old-fashioned way.”

Additional reporting by Al Yoon, editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Eric Beech