The Challenges Of Water And Climate In Asia

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Mr. Arjun Thapan, Special Senior Advisor to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) President for Infrastructure and Water

Mr. Arjun Thapan, Special Senior Advisor to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) President for Infrastructure and Water


Mr. Arjun Thapan was appointed Special Senior Advisor for Infrastructure and Water to Asian Development Bank (ADB) President Haruhiko Kuroda in January 2010 with the task of strengthening the communities of practice in Water, Energy, Transport, and Urban Development, and ensuring that ADB develops effective partnerships and knowledge platforms to deliver high quality policy and technical advice to its clients. He also guides the design and development of the ASEAN Infrastructure Fund. Mr. Thapan was previously the Director General of ADB’s Southeast Asia Department since 15 December 2006 after having been the department’s Deputy Director General from December 2004. He guided and oversaw ADB’s strategic agenda and development programs in Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Viet Nam, as well as the Greater Mekong Sub-region. A new relationship with Brunei Darussalam was forged during his tenure, and an important re-engagement with Malaysia developed. He was also responsible for the execution of the BIMP-EAGA and IMT-GT sub-regional initiatives of the department; both saw substantive growth in the range and scale of activities, including the first ever development of sub-regional projects. Mr. Thapan is a leading thinker on Water issues in Asia and a strong advocate of ADB’s water agenda. He served as Chair of ADB’s Water Committee until August 2008, and continues to guide the larger water community of practice at ADB. Mr. Thapan has led the initiative to double ADB’s investments in water and sanitation to over $2 billion annually. He is co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Water Security. His work on water policy issues, especially on “Water for ALL” for Asia’s developing countries, has been universally recognized; he is currently guiding the design of a water resources operational framework to sit within a Green Growth paradigm in ADB. Mr. Thapan is an Indian national with 34 years of professional experience. He joined ADB in 1991 as a Financial Analyst in the Infrastructure Department.

Mr. Arjun Thapan

Special Senior Advisor to the ADB President for Infrastructure and Water

Among Asia’s better-known records during the decade to 2010 is the dramatic reduction in poverty across the region. Regional income per capita has roughly doubled in the last 10 years. But despite these gains, security in food, water, health care, and livelihoods continues to plague many hundreds of millions within the Asia and Pacific region. While this is a daunting challenge in itself, it is compounded by the fact that Asia’s growth has come, in some significant part, at the expense of the physical environment ‰ÛÒ deforestation, land degradation, and the pollution of our water and air resources.

But this is not all. Climate change is our newest challenge. Asia is already experiencing the impact of climate variability, and its countries are now at risk through a combination of geography, patterns of settlement, and resource endowments. As all of us know, climate change is about water ‰ÛÒ Asia’s inhabitants will experience alterations in the hydrologic cycle, most likely including an increasing frequency and intensity of floods and droughts. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified water, along with agriculture, as the sector ‰ÛÏmost sensitive to climate change-induced impacts in Asia.‰Û Climate-related risks will exacerbate existing water stresses on the continent, which have resulted from rapid economic development, demographic changes and associated increases in water demand.

Many large Asian river basins are particularly vulnerable to regional warming, since Himalayan glaciers and snowfields serve as the region’s ‰ÛÏwater towers‰Û supporting dry season and drought-year flows upon which roughly a billion Asians depend. And, in low-elevation coastal zones where many of Asia’s largest cities are located, sea level rise will further degrade coastal aquifers through saline intrusion, and threaten urban water supplies. This is already happening, for instance, in the Mekong delta where saline intrusion has progressed 80 kilometers inland and impacted on agricultural productivity and livelihoods. In a sense, the future is already with us. Overall, we believe that up to 1 billion Asians are potentially vulnerable to increased water stress by 2050 as a result of climate change.

From a recently published study on the world’s water resources in 2030 for 154 basins around the world, water requirements in 2030 will grow from 4,500 billion cubic meters (bcm) to 6,900 bcm, an increase of 40 percent. About a third of the world’s population, concentrated mainly in the developing world, will live in basins where the deficit will exceed 50 percent. In India and China, for instance, the aggregate gap is estimated to be 50 and 25 percent respectively. With economic growth and social equity so crucially dependent upon water, policy makers in Asia have some quick decisions to take if the crisis is not to overwhelm us.

It is uncertainty ‰ÛÒ rather than change ‰ÛÒ that currently represents the greatest challenge to decision makers in adapting to climate change in the water sector — do we act now on the basis of what we presently believe will occur, and risk the misallocation of scarce resources, or do we wait until the quality of our projections improves, and risk having waited too long?

Clients of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) consistently request improved mid-to-long term climate and water resources projections, methods and tools for climate change impact and vulnerability assessment, and resources for adaptation planning. This is sought in the context of water resources and disaster management. But while ADB is well positioned to facilitate the delivery of such tools and services, the development of scientific products, including the synthesis and interpretation of Earth observations, will come from partnerships such as an alignment of GEOSS and ADB around common objectives. These objectives include an improvement in the physical and social well-being of the region’s inhabitants, a reduction in the risks posed by climate variability and change, and protection of the region’s ecological health and biodiversity in the face of development pressures. A good example is the Integrated Citarum Water Resources Management Investment Program ‰ÛÒ a 15-year, $3.5 billion program in a strategically important basin in West Java, Indonesia. Climate-related risks include an increased flood hazard in the upper catchments, loss of hydropower capacity, reductions in water deliveries for irrigated agriculture and urban water supply (Jakarta), and threats to coastal aquifers from sea level rise. The GEOSS Asian Water Cycle Initiative (AWCI) is designed to address these challenges, through the sharing of ‰ÛÏtimely, quality, long-term information on water quantity and quality and their variation as a basis for sound decision-making of national water policies and management strategies.‰Û In addition, both ADB and GEOSS/AWCI recognize the effectiveness of the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) approach to basin water resources management, and are supporting its implementation throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Let me emphasize that water, along with agriculture, has been identified as the sectors most sensitive to climate change-induced impacts in Asia. We must establish a sustainable pattern of development. Our experience and evidence show that a sustainable pattern of development needs to be disaster and climate resilient. Support for climate change adaptation can be supported through country-led developments in partnership with international organizations such as ADB and GEOSS to step up policy research, increase our knowledge, and build greater capacity. This collaboration will help us all become better prepared to understand and deal with climate change as it unfolds unpredictably in multiple ways.

Tomorrow’s Asia will be very different from the continent as we currently know it. Science and technology will help in identifying the factors most likely to impact sustainable development. Innovation will help in designing the solutions. GEOSS is very much a part of that effort and we commend the process of strengthening the Earth observation network.