Water Challenges in South Asia

Reflecting on water challenges in South Asia for sustainable water solutions, Ajaya Dixit calls for greater dialogue and sharing of perspectives across sectors, disciplines, epistemologies, ontologies, geographic regions, and generations.

Some of the most pressing problems facing South Asia’s waterscape relate to worrying trends in public health, infrastructure development, and climate change. These trends exacerbate already-existing threats that plague South Asia: flooding, water scarcity, groundwater overdraft, pollution, degradation of rivers, and abject poverty.

Public Health

Not only has COVID-19 exposed the fragility of South Asian countries’ public health systems, but it has also driven millions of migrant workers from cities back to their villages, increasing pressure on local water sources for domestic and health needs. Despite notable progress, most South Asian nations have not yet fulfilled the Sustainable Development Goals related to improving drinking water or sanitation and hygiene. In fact,

  • 134+ million people lack access to good drinking water supply services;
  • 610+ million people lack access to good sanitation;
  • Nearly 360,000 people, mostly children under 5, die every year due to waterborne diseases.

New approaches to water management for public health and well-being are needed. The first- and second-order impacts of COVID-19 intensify these needs.

Inertia of the ‘Large Infrastructure’ Paradigm

Long-standing bureaucratic approaches to water development and management have failed to secure benefits for South Asian ecosystems and societies. Water management in the region over the past 200 years has focused on the construction of large-scale physical infrastructures like barrages, dams, and embankments. However, such infrastructure is often poorly matched with South Asia’s unique environmental and social contexts, and thus it continues to yield unsatisfactory results. South Asian agriculture, for example, is still predominantly dependent on the mercy of the monsoon. Repeated flooding disasters across the region suggest that a new paradigm to flood risk reduction is required. The conventional approach focused on central government-led solutions, has not paid enough attention to the need to build cooperation between central and local governments, traditional institutions, and neighbouring countries.

Climate Change

Runaway global climate change magnifies myriad existing challenges.  Climate change is leading to the melting of ice sheets and glaciers on Greenland (the North Pole), Antarctica (the South Pole), and the Himalayas (the “Third Pole”). Greenland lost between a total of 150 and 250 km3 of ice between 2002 and 2006, while Antarctica lost 152 km3 total between 2002 and 2005, contributing to sea-level rise. Likewise, between 1977 and 2010, the total estimated ice reserve in Nepal’s Himalayas decreased by 29 percent (or 129 km3), with negative consequences for the downstream region dependent on dry season snowmelt. Depletion of snow and ice systems of the three poles is contributing to sea-level rise, with implications for coastal areas and deltas. Melting of ice has resulted in rising sea levels and, in the foreseeable future, may displace millions of South Asian fisherfolks, small landholders, and labourers who live in coastal settlements. These populations are also vulnerable to storm surges and saltwater intrusion. Collectively, these impacts could contribute to rural-to-urban migration on a scale not seen in recent history.

Climate change will exacerbate floods and droughts in South Asia, severely stressing an already stressed waterscape. Other consequences will cascade through the hydrological cycle: more intense rainfall events; more frequent floods, droughts, and increased humidity; depleting snow and ice systems; and greater risk of glacial lake outbursts floods. Climate change has already led to a rapid loss of natural ecosystems and biodiversity. Heatwaves in haphazardly expanding cities are becoming more common, and some areas may simply become too hot for humans to inhabit. Higher temperatures will increase the bacterial growth rate in polluted water, leading to worse health outcomes and loss of livelihoods. Collectively, these factors could contribute to migration on a scale much higher than that during COVID-19.

Multiplicity of Problems

These trends exacerbate already-existing threats that plague South Asia: flooding, water scarcity, groundwater overdraft, pollution, degradation of rivers, and abject poverty.


Groundwater is used extensively for irrigation and for domestic and industrial purposes in South Asia. It has provided farmers with a reliable supply of water for irrigation, but at the same time, it has led to excessive pumping. Due to market demand, groundwater is excessively pumped to meet non-consumptive water needs. The provision of free electricity (e.g. in India) has created perverse incentives for excessive pumping, lowering the groundwater table across aquifers. Poor farmers and wage-earners dependent on groundwater for drinking and small-scale irrigation suffer when wells run dry. In coastal areas, sea-level rise has caused saline water to intrude into aquifers, threatening the livelihoods of millions. Changes in rainfall patterns add further uncertainty to recharge dynamics. Arsenic in the aquifers of the Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Meghna River basins poses health risks to millions of families who use groundwater for drinking.

Floods and Droughts

Annual monsoon floods are essential for preserving soil fertility, sustaining riverine ecology, and recharging aquifers, but they also bring misery to human populations across South Asia. Floods damaged houses, crops, and other assets. They cause people to lose access to jobs and transportation networks, and they increase the prevalence of water-borne diseases that hit children, women, the elderly, and the physically impaired the hardest. Direct economic losses interact with class, gender, and poverty to create heightened states of vulnerability. Embankments create a false sense of security from floods, leading to encroachment upon floodplains. Wetland ecosystems, which serve as natural buffers against floods, are being lost at alarming rates. Green areas converted into ill-planned concrete infrastructure and the constriction of natural waterways have further increased flood risks. The regular flooding of cities like Dhaka, Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Karachi, and Kathmandu is a chilling manifestation of rapid and unplanned urban growth that disregards the specificities of local hydrology. Of South Asia’s total cultivable area, 45 percent is drought-prone and every year 290 million people are affected by droughts. In the hills and mountains, the drying up of spring sources has impaired the performance of thousands of community-based drinking water schemes. Droughts can affect the vulnerable, triggering the migration and adding to the number of climate refugees.

River Fragmentation and Degradation

Pollution, water extraction, river canalization, and sediment mining degrade riverine environments at a very fast rate. Dams and barrages fragment rivers, affecting biodiversity and ecosystem services. Though hydropower is often considered a “non-consumptive” use of water, dams nonetheless disrupt the movement of organisms, sediment, organic matter, nutrients, and energy through the riverine environment. Thus, they alter the key natural functions of rivers necessary for maintaining diverse, complex, and dynamic ecosystems that provide important societal and economic services. Water management systems are characterized by inefficiency, wastage, and frequent pollution by untreated faecal sludge and other wastes. Ninety-five percent of wastewater is discharged into the environment without treatment, turning freshwater bodies brown and black. Meanwhile, indiscriminate sand and gravel mining for construction has ravaged riverbeds. Rivers of life have been turned into sewers of filth.

Sustained Dialogue

South Asia’s vast and dynamic waterscape encompasses diverse hydrological, social, and political systems. Finding pathways to sustainable water solutions will require hard work and a willingness to adapt. New approaches to water stewardship must consider water’s multiple functions and the need to conserve the waterscape and adapt to climate change. Solutions will be found through greater dialogue and the sharing of perspectives across sectors, disciplines, epistemologies, ontologies, geographic regions, and generations. Debates and discussions are necessary to decide on the concepts, procedures, and instruments for transitioning to sustainable water solutions. The following bullet points (though not exhaustive) highlight starting points or discussions:

  • Bottom-up vs. top-down approaches to planning and designs
  • Justice: Putting the vulnerable first (smallholders, artisans, fisherfolks, women, other marginalised groups)
  • Trade-offs between different societal needs and water use
  • Data transparency, data sharing, big data, data in policymaking
  • Research and knowledge creation
  • Holistic ecological paradigms to break sectoral silos
  • Understanding and managing growing risks
  • Economic vs. non-economic values of water, including culture, freshwater bio-diversity, and rivers.
  • Aligning public and private actors’ goals and interests
  • Avoiding technological lock-ins
  • Addressing erosion, depleting dry-season river flow from upstream, increased pollution, and rising sea levels that threaten deltaic and coastal habitats and communities
  • The critical role of water in alternative development approaches

Few Suggested Readings

  1. Bajracharya, S.R.; Maharjan, S.B.; Shrestha, F.; Bajracharya, O.R.; Baidya, S. (2014) Glacier status in Nepal and decadal change from 1980 to 2010 based on land sat data. Kathmandu: ICIMOD.
  2. Brahmaputra: Toward Unity, Scholars from Bangladesh, China, and India explore the way forward for intranational cooperation in the Brahmaputra Basin. thethirdpole.net
  3. Dixit, A. (2018) Trans-Boundary Water Governance in South Asia: The Beginning of a New Journey Ed. Imtiaz Ahmed South Asian Rivers A Framework for Cooperation. University of Dhaka, Springer International.
  4. Fawad Khan, Marcus Moench, Atta ur Rehman, Fazal Ali Saadi, Sharmeen Malik, Lea Sabbag (2013) Indus Floods Research ProjectFinal Technical Report. ISET- International
  5. Flooded Future: Global vulnerability to sea level rise worse than previously understood October 29, (2019) Report by Climate Central.
  6. Ganges Strategic Basin Assessment: A Discussion of Regional Opportunities and Risks (2014): World Bank South Asia Regional Report.The World Bank Washington, DC
  7. P. Wester, A. Mishra, A. Mukherji, A. B. Shrestha (eds) (2019) The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment— Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People Springer Nature Switzerland AG, Cham.
  8. Suhardiman, D. Clement, F., & Bharati L. (2015) Integrated water resources management in Nepal:
    key stakeholders’ perceptions and lessons learned, International Journal of Water Resources Development, 31:2, 284-300, DOI: 10.1080/07900627.2015.102099
  9. United Nations Environment Programme (2019) Emission Gap Report 2019 UNEP, Nairobi http//www. unenvironment.org/emissionsgap
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