Troubled waters: Central and South Asia exemplify some of the planet's looming water shortages.

AuthorRenner, Michael

Do a simple Google news search for "Afghanistan" and the top hits are all about military offensives, drone strikes, and killings. Reporting on that country has been dominated by a widening spiral of violence.

Yet Afghanistan and its neighbors also contend with serious natural resource pressures. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that each year some 400,000 Afghans are seriously affected by floods, avalanches, and drought. As the United States pours enormous resources into its Afghan war--the Obama Administration requested US$73 billion for fiscal year 2010 even prior to the decision to increase the number of U.S. troops there to about 100,000--large parts of Central and South Asia are facing increasing water troubles that affect livelihoods and, if unalleviated, could undermine the region's future stability.

Two large river basins--that of the Amu Darya and the Indus--are of critical importance to millions of people in Central-South Asia, a region that encompasses Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also parts of the territories of their neighbors India, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Some 178 million people inhabit the densely populated Indus basin, and the Amu Darya basin is home to 21 million people.

Much of the region is already undergoing or approaching physical water shortages (see table). While the region is mostly arid or semi-arid, poor water and watershed management lie at the heart of many problems. Competing water use plans pose critical challenges under conditions of environmental degradation (including heavy loss of original forests), demographic pressure, and rising demand for water. Asymmetries in political and economic power, along with diverging priorities accorded to irrigation and hydropower projects, make for complex and often uneasy relations among the different countries. Climate change--in the form of glacier melt, drought and shifting precipitation patterns, rising temperatures, and changes to the monsoon cycle--will increasingly exacerbate water scarcity. And qualitative issues are as important as quantitative ones: Access to clean drinking water is a major, though largely unmet, objective.


Carrying more water than any other Central Asian river, the Amu Darya rises in the mountains of Tajikistan and forms a long stretch of Afghanistan's northern border. Downstream, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan withdraw by far the largest quantities of water. The Amu Darya river basin contributes more than half of Afghanistan's total river flow.


The livelihoods of at least 80 percent of Afghans are based on agriculture and related occupations. Given low and erratic rainfall in much of the country, spring and summer runoff from snowmelt is the lifeblood of much Afghan agriculture. The fertile plains of the Amu Darya basin account for about 40 percent of Afghanistan's irrigated lands. But poorly constructed or-maintained irrigation canals translate into water losses as high as 70 percent.

Three decades of armed conflict have displaced a large portion of the population, impeded access to farmland because of landmines, and destroyed many irrigation systems or rendered their maintenance impossible. Add recurring droughts and floods and the population's desperate coping strategies, and the net result has been a severe degradation of Afghanistan's natural environment and its water and farming infrastructure. Massive deforestation and heavy pressure on grazing lands has led to erosion and reduced flood resistance, causing large agricultural areas near the Amu Darya in Balkh and Jawzjan provinces to be submerged or damaged.

Water Resources and Usage in Central and South Asia Country Longterm Average Total Renewable Water Precipitation Resources per Capita * (mm/year) ([m.sup.3]/year) 1990 2006 Afghanistan 350 5,135 2,492 Pakistan 500 1,994 1,400 India 1,100 2,205 1,647 Tajikistan 700 2,896 2,407 Turkmenistan 150 6,363 5,045 Uzbekistan 200 2,344 1,868 Country Dependency Proportion of Ratio [dagger] Renewable Water Resources Withdrawn [double dagger] percent percent Afghanistan 15 36 Pakistan 76 75 India 34 34 Tajikistan 17 75 Turkmenistan 97 100 Uzbekistan 77 116 * The sum of internal and external renewable water resources. It corresponds to the maximum theoretical yearly amount of water actually available for a country at a given moment. [dagger] Water resources originating from outside the national territory, relative to total water resources. [double dagger] Water used for all purposes. Source: FAO Aquastat, "Water resources by country/territory and by Inhabitant, and MDG Water Indicator." [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

A 2008 report by Oxfam U.K. observed that "in recent years Afghanistan's overall agricultural produce has fallen by half. Over the last decade in some regions Afghanistan's livestock population has fallen by up to 60 percent, and over the last two decades the country has lost 70 percent of its forests."

Millions of Afghans are either seasonally or chronically food insecure, and these desperate conditions often trigger local-level conflicts. In an Oxfam survey in six provinces across Afghanistan, nearly half the respondents regarded land and water issues as major causes of disputes.

The loss of rural livelihoods has also triggered migration to cities. But urban water contamination amounts to a severe public health threat, owing to poor household and industrial...

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