From: Sugita Katyal, Reuters
Published December 1, 2004 12:00 AM

South Asia Stares at Looming Water Crisis

NEW DELHI − It's been 10 years since farmer Bhairu Singh saw water in the well on his rocky patch of land in western India.


Experts say things aren't going to get any better for Singh and millions of farmers in South Asia who have been grappling with crippling droughts in some areas and devastating floods in others for some years now.


The reason? Global warming caused by increasing greenhouse gas emissions from burning of fossil fuels.


According to U.N. estimates, about 2.3 billion people in about 50 nations will be saddled with severe water shortages by 2020 because of global warming.


For Singh, headman of Batheda Kala village in the desert state of Rajasthan, finding water is a daily struggle.


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"We've been facing a drought for years. Our wells have dried up, our crops have withered away and our cattle, too, have died over time," he said.


"Even though it rained a bit this year, it wasn't enough to make up for all those years," he added.


The growing water crisis will only be aggravated by the melting of mountain glaciers across the world, which experts say can account for as much as 95 percent of water in river networks.


According to some estimates, the Himalayan glaciers -- which are the lifeblood of fresh water for many South Asian rivers such as the Ganga and Brahmaputra on which millions depend -- have already receded considerably in the past decade.


"Himalayan glaciers are shrinking because of climate change. This may result in acute water shortage not only in Nepal but in India and Bangladesh during the dry season and may cause flooding in the wet season," Arun Bhakta Shrestha, a hydrologist for the Nepal government, told Reuters.


"Another important consequence of global warming is on glacier lakes. The glacier lakes may burst their banks due to climate change and cause floods downstream."


According to a report by the United Nations Environment Program, global warming would cause more than 40 Himalayan glacial lakes to burst in the next few years, causing floods and killing thousands of people.


What's worse, with world temperatures expected to increase by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100 and sea levels to rise between 3-1/2 and 35 inches, small islands such as the Maldives and many in the Caribbean and South Pacific are in danger of drowning.


"The biggest dangers of climate change are the adverse impacts on agriculture, particularly for farmers dependent on rain-fed agriculture," Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said.


"In addition, the rapid melting of the glaciers and rise in sea level would also have harmful effects. Receding glaciers simply lower flows of water in our northern rivers. Sea level rise would make cyclones and storm surges more dangerous even before coastal areas get fully inundated."


Drought and Floods


Already, the impact of climate change is evident in the soaring summer temperatures in South Asia, which go up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, and the erratic nature of the monsoon, one of the world's most widely watched phenomena.


Add to this growing populations and greater demand from agriculture, cities and industry, and the result is a rapid fall in water availability.


The per capita availability of water in India has fallen to 66,000 cubic feet from 141,000 cubic feet two decades ago. Experts say it could dip to below 35,000 cubic feet in 20 years.


During the summer, thousands of people in India's villages trek for miles in search of water and even in cities water is a precious commodity, sometimes leading to street fights.


"Rainfall patterns could change as a result of climate change affecting the established pattern of the monsoon," said Pachauri.


"We could have excessive and frequent flooding as well as droughts more or less in the same locations. All of this would affect agriculture adversely and threaten food security in the region."


Some water experts say excessive tapping of ground water has aggravated the shortage.


"Floods and droughts have been there for hundreds of years," Sumita Dasguta, a water expert from the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, told Reuters.


"But the impact has become more devastating because water is being used more indiscriminately and intensely."


Source: Reuters


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