Environmental Protection

UN Report Urges Northeast Asia to Use Water Wisely

A new UN Environment Programme report, Freshwater Under Threat – Northeast Asia, has found that countries in Northeast Asia must take immediate steps to use their scarce water resources more effectively.

The report studied five major freshwater river basins in the Northeast Asia subregion: the Chiangjiang (Yangtze), Huanghe (Yellow), and Songliao River Basins in China, and the Orkhon and Tuul River Basins in Mongolia.

It found that each basin suffered from scarce water resources, poor water use efficiency, weak basin management and coordination, and a lack of safe drinking water, particularly in rural areas.

The statistics identified in the report are stark. Northeast Asia has a quarter of the world's population, but only 0.3 percent of the world's freshwater resources. About 335 million people still don't have adequate access to safe drinking water, while more than 750 million people lack access to improved sanitation.

As part of the analysis, the report calculated a vulnerability index for the five selected river basins. The basins were found to have vulnerability indexes ranging from moderate to high, indicating that urgent intervention is needed to improve the state of water resources in the region.

"This report is a sober reminder to governments in Northeast Asia that more needs to be done and quickly to secure water resources into the future. Climate change, population increases, and the need for economic growth are all impacting on the availability of freshwater supplies. This report provides a way forward to address these challenges," said Young-Woo Park, UNEP regional director and representative for Asia and the Pacific.

The report also found that global climate change is already greatly affecting freshwater supplies in Northeast Asia. For example, since the early 1990s, trend analysis shows that the number of days the Huanghe (Yellow) River has been cut-off from entering the Yellow Sea is increasing, with a peak of 200 days in 1997. Climate change is also affecting temperatures in the region.

Analysis of the past 60 years shows that the average temperature in Mongolia continues to trend upwards, from -3 degrees Celsius to -1 degrees Celsius.

The report makes four recommendations:

  • Improve water use efficiency by revisiting how water is being used for agriculture and introduce economic incentives in water pricing policies;
  • Decentralize river basin management and involve local government and communities that rely on the waters that basins provide. A coordinated mechanism for water resources allocation also should be put in place;
  • Tougher environmental protection and pollution control, including restoring ecological flows to reduce the degradation identified in four of the five selected river basins These are the Changjiang, Huanghue, Songliao and Tuul River Basins;
  • Establish management priorities to ensure adequate access to safe drinking water for poorer populations so they can meet their basic everyday needs.

"We need to take immediate action to improve water use efficiency. Nearly 70 percent of water drawn for human use is lost during distribution and allocation to users. Loss of water must be eliminated. Investments in water resource technology will go a long way in curbing this wastage and should be a priority for governments in the region," said Prof. Yi Huang of Peking University.

Despite efforts by some governments in the region to address the issue, coordination and cooperation across international borders and between national provinces needs to improve if Northeast Asia is to better utilize its water resources, the report added.

"Some governments in the region, including China and Mongolia, have already negotiated bi-lateral agreements to manage water issues, but more needs to be done. Through working together, governments and other key stakeholders will be better placed to ensure a more efficient and rational allocation of water resources into the future." said Dr. Batbayar of the Mongolia Water Authority.

This study was produced with funding from the Belgian Government through the Belgian Development Cooperation Fund. The project was a joint collaborative effort of Peking University of China and the Water Resources Institute of the Mongolia Water Authority.

It follows the release of Freshwater Under Threat - South Asia. The next in this UNEP series, Freshwater Under Threat – Southeast Asia, will be released later this month.

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