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UNEP: Hundreds of millions of South Asians face increasing water stress

Source(s):  United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

UNEP Press release

Bangkok/Nairobi, 6 February 2009 - Over-exploitation, climate change and inadequate cooperation among countries threaten some of the world's greatest river basins, which sustain around 750 million people.

These are just some of the findings of the new report Freshwater Under Threat: South Asia produced by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT).

The report examines the state of freshwater resources in selected major river basins in South Asia. It identifies key threats to water resources development and management, and assesses the challenges the region faces in coping with these threats.

South Asia is home to one-fourth of the global population including some of the world's poorest people, who have access to less than 5 per cent of the planet's freshwater resources.

The three transboundary river basins assessed in the report include the largest in South Asia: the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) river basin (which spans Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal), the Indus river basin (in Afghanistan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan) and the Helmand river basin (which covers Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan).

UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said: "These river systems are major economic arteries as well as social and environmental assets for South Asia. Investing in sustainable management is thus an investment in the current and future prosperity of Asia and will be a central and determining factor underpinning the transition to a resource efficient, sustainable Green Economy."

"Water is a vital resource for people's health and livelihoods, especially in South Asia where these three transboundary river basins sustain about half of the region's 1.5 billion people, and some of the poorest people in the world," said Mr. Young-Woo Park, UNEP Regional Director and Representative for Asia and the Pacific, who launched the report today at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit.

Dr. Mukand Babel of AIT said that this vital resource is facing a number of threats from high population growth, unsustainable consumption patterns, poor management and use of available water resources, pollution, and inadequate investment in infrastructure as well as environmental change, particularly climate change. "This situation is exacerbated as the poor are particularly vulnerable," he added.

The report uses a vulnerability index based on resources stress, development pressure, ecological health and management challenges to assess the vulnerability of each of the river basins. Key findings of the study include:

- Climate change is likely to lead to severe water shortages in all of the basins in the long term, as about 67 per cent of Himalayan glaciers are reported to be receding, reducing the glacial runoff which feeds these rivers.

- Water resources in the Indus and Helmand river basins are highly vulnerable - this is mainly due to ecological insecurity illustrated by decreasing vegetation cover and declining water quality.

- The Indus Basin is the most resource stressed, based on water availability per person and variation in precipitation, and at the same time, most exploited among the three river basins.

- The GBM and Helmand basins are not currently water stressed, but uneven endowment and exploitation point to the need for basin-wide development and management. Management challenges pose the greatest risk for the GBM basin, which is also highly vulnerable.

- Groundwater levels are declining at a rate of two to four meters per year in many parts of the GBM and Indus basins due to intense pumping, which threatens soil and water quality and results in saltwater intrusion into groundwater aquifers.

The report says urgent policy attention and accelerated research into the impact of climate change on water resources, infrastructure and management practices are necessary to avoid serious water-related vulnerability in the future. The report calls for improved cooperation among the riparian countries and integrated basin management.

Freshwater Under Threat: South Asia is the first of a series produced by UNEP that covers three sub-regions, North East Asia, South Asia and South East Asia. A similar assessment was completed for selected river basins in Africa. They are intended to complement the efforts of governments, non-governmental organizations and development agencies engaged in improving the status of water systems in Asia. In addition, they provide the knowledge and understanding necessary for forward-looking cooperation among riparian states regarding competing water demands.

For more information please contact:

Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson and Head of Media, on Tel: +254 20 7623084, Mobile: +254 733 632755, or when traveling: +41 795965737, or e-mail:

Or: Anne-France White, UNEP Associate Information Officer, on Tel: +254 (0)20 762 3088; Mobile in Kenya: +254 (0)728 600 494, or E-mail: Or: Xenya Cherny Scanlon, Information Officer, on Tel: +254 20 762 4387, Mobile: +254 721 847 563, or e-mail:

Or: Mr. Jinhua Zhang, UNEP Division of Early Warning & Assessment, on Tel: +66 (0)2 288 2665/1894, Mobile: +66 81 689 0686, Email:

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  • Publication date 06 Feb 2009

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