A wave of water crises hit Asia

India's water scarcity highlights concerns for regional climate security

Jonathon Zubrzycki

Development | Asia, South Asia

5 September 2019

The drying up of Chennai’s reservoirs should force Australia to reflect on its own climate policies, Jonathon Zubrzycki writes.

Since emerging on the scene two years ago in Cape Town, the phrase ‘Day Zero’, referring to the moment a city’s water reserves dry up, has entered the everyday lexicon of a quarter of the global human population.

For many, particularly in Africa and Asia, it won’t be the encroachment of the tides, but rather the recession of water from reservoirs, that will prove the most pressing climate challenge. Indeed the experiences of  Cape Town in 2018 and Chennai this year share many unifying elements, despite the distance between them.

More on this: Crest of the wave or dead in the water? Australian regional climate leadership

More importantly for Australia, these episodes indicate the fallout from water crises will not stay confined to under-developed regions of Asia, but will prove to be an existential national security threat.

Vulnerability to water crises is heavily dependent on the level of infrastructure present. As ‘Day Zero’ loomed on the horizon, Cape Town was able to introduce a slew of water saving measures; replacing taps with hand sanitiser in bathrooms, distributing water management devices and attaching a range of tariffs to non-essential water use. Altogether, the measures reduced residential consumption by 30 per cent and halved peak summer usage.

Conversely, as Chennai faced its own ‘Day Zero’, many of these options were beyond its capability to implement. Certainly, poor governance and city-planning accentuated an existing vulnerability. Yet, when it came to alleviate the crisis, deeper dysfunctions surfaced.

The city’s inadequate infrastructure means per-capita, water consumption in Chennai is relatively low. However, that usage is also far more difficult to regulate and undermines efforts to distribute relief water effectively. Many of Chennai’s residents lack access to water pipelines and it is common for communities to enter into informal private agreements with suppliers. These characteristics are repeated all across the developing world and particularly within India’s water-scarce north.

Indeed, Chennai is simply the tip of the melting iceberg.

Almost 50 per cent of the country’s population, 600 million people, are vulnerable to, or are already experiencing, water shortages.

Cape Town is hardly a model for development, the poorest 50 per cent consume only five per cent of the water. Yet, the difference in the development and demography between the two cities was such that Cape Town managed to stave off disaster, whilst Chennai had to endure one.

Climate Change will affect us all, but not equally.

Regardless of how successful one might mitigate a ‘Day Zero’, the process and experience nevertheless produces a noticeable uptick in social unrest, usually along class divides. Wealthier citizens can build private wells and purchase larger quantities of water, lessening the disruption caused to their livelihoods.

Moreover, as Chennai demonstrated, when ‘Day Zero’ arrives, water for laundry and sanitation become non-essential luxuries for a large swathe of the city.

The trends come up again and again; wealth disparities are accentuated, food production drops, poor sanitation causes disease outbreaks and wider economic disruption becomes inevitable.

For many, daily existence suddenly orbits around the arrival of trains carrying millions of litres of relief water. In this tense atmosphere, violence is never far away and unsurprisingly, there were episodes that bubbled to the surface.

The inevitable future crises will only heighten these tensions and deepen inequality.

Predictably, this is mirrored at state-level, as climate change will accentuate the divide between developed and developing nations, both in terms of vulnerability and viability of long-term solutions. Desalination projects and increasing groundwater extraction are costly and often environmentally unsustainable, putting them out of reach for many poor and populous cities.

So, what does the expected rise of two degrees globally mean for cities like Chennai that are currently out of water? What does that mean for Australia?

Well, at minimum, the climate problem is already a climate emergency. Although the region is tipped for enormous growth, there are many cities just like Chennai. Displacement and economic disruption caused by frequent water crises could easily derail numerous states.

With the global climate in its current state, we can now longer ask how can we stop this…but rather, how can we prepare for this?

Already, areas in the world are getting too hot for humans, making it logical to expect refugee or migration crises. Consequently, even if Australia’s sophisticated infrastructure and effective governance cushioned the environmental impact, the critical need for regional stability to ensure our own national security would still be compromised.

Look no further than the vulnerability of our energy supply. According to the International Energy Agency, 90 per cent of our oil demands are imported by sea, and national diesel reserves would last us just two days. This dependence implicitly extends to a need for open sea-lanes and in turn, general economic stability.

Climate change is a pressing national security threat. Public discourse must therefore shift accordingly if serious action is to be more palatable for voters.

Australia is uniquely placed to be a climate leader and pillar of regional stability.

We have the resources and expertise but lack impetus. We must begin with reversing the obvious damage done to our credibility in the Pacific, and take seriously the challenges faced by others.

At the end of the day, we will be facing them as well.

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