We all know that water is essential for drinking, health, cleanliness, electricity, and the environment, but most people tend to underestimate the importance of water for food production. We also tend to take for granted the many actions required to manage water to get it to our houses or to farmers’ fields, or to produce electricity. This is especially true in the mountain regions of the Hindu Kush Himalayas, where water is abundant in nature but at the same time many people feel the pinch of water shortages.
The amount of water required to produce food is staggering. Between 500 to 1,500 liters of water are needed to produce a kilogram of wheat, and about 10 times more to produce a kilogram of meat. This is huge compared to the 50 or 500 liters per day for household consumption. Globally about 70 percent of water diversions are for irrigation, and in the Hindu Kush Himalayas this portion reaches 90 percent. Looking to the future, the challenge gets bigger. With urbanization trends and the growing wealth of part of the population, peoples’ diets tend to include increasing amounts of ‘water-rich’ food. Some estimates say that the world will need 70 percent more food in the future, and if wealthier populations don’t change their food habits, this could require up to 70 percent to 100 percent more water from rain and rivers. Consumption of these quantities will have huge social and environmental consequences. On top of this is the amount of water required for cities, and the amount of water required to produce the energy we need—although most of the water flowing through turbines is usually available downstream for reuse.
The Hindu Kush Himalayas are blessed with water resources from rain, or in the form of snow and ice. Frozen water is released slowly in the spring and summer when crops are grown in the 10 great river basins of the greater Himalayas –the Amu Darya, Indus, Tarim, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow. Seventy percent of the world’s irrigation is in Asia, much of it from these waters. These basins are the breadbaskets of Asia. Yet our mountain snow and ice is under threat from global warming.
The agricultural systems in the Hindu Kush Himalayas are characterized by low agricultural productivity, low water use efficiency, limited access to markets, and inequitable access of women to land and agricultural resources. Climate change is expected to exacerbate the situation. In addition to direct effects such as changes in temperature, precipitation, and length of growing seasons, climate change will have impacts on water resources that will go far beyond the mountain areas. In the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, we can expect disruptions in annual rainfall, surface runoff, and aquifer recharge. A large part of the river basins originating in the mountains are already facing moderate or high water scarcity.
Measures for adapting to these changes are essential to ensure food security in the region. Farmers will need to learn how to produce more from less water. Rainwater management, as an alternative to irrigation, needs more attention. Reuse of water might prove effective in the more arid areas. Farmers will also need to be prepared for increased frequency and intensity of flooding.
NEED FOR ACTION
Will there be enough water to meet the rising demand? Climate change is already being felt in the greater Himalayas with glacier retreat and changing snow and rain patterns. Can the Himalayas continue to supply the water required for today and for the future? No one has an answer to this question yet. First, the effects of environmental and socioeconomic changes on water demand and availability are extremely complex to predict, and second, the countries of the region do not have sufficient data and observations to input into scientific models. It is difficult to make measurements high up in the mountains.
We cannot afford to wait until we get the answer about future water availability to take action. Good water management will go a long way to meet the climate change challenges of tomorrow. There is a need for good water governance to serve people in dry and wet years. Water must be stored for dry periods—in small tanks, as ice, in the soil, and underground. We know how to do this. We can draw many examples from indigenous technologies and management approaches found across the Himalayas.
The difficult part is that most of the region’s major rivers cross national and administrative boundaries. The people of the region need to share these waters, their benefits, and the costs of development. This will require a joint understanding of how these great water systems work. An important step in regional cooperation is to share the technical knowledge and experience of practitioners, farmers, and scientists with policymakers.
Water resources should be protected by conserving watershed ecosystems. Payment for environmental services can be promoted to protect the upland resources for the benefit of lowland communities.
How we all manage water will be a measuring stick for humanity in the first half of the 21st century. Failure to manage it well could lead to conflict, poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition. Success could lead to greater prosperity and better wellbeing for us all. Let us go for success by taking better care of our water systems.