Infrastructure development threatens water supplies to billions in Asia – UN report

6 September 2005

Overgrazing, deforestation and the building of roads and settlements on the mountains of Asia are increasing the risk of flooding in some areas and drying up rivers in others, affecting billions of people and endangering the region’s rich wildlife, according to a new report from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).

Overgrazing, deforestation and the building of roads and settlements on the mountains of Asia are increasing the risk of flooding in some areas and drying up rivers in others, affecting billions of people and endangering the region’s rich wildlife, according to a new report from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).

The report, “The Fall of the Water,” released in advance of the 14-16 October World Summit at the UN and the General Assembly immediately thereafter, said satellite images from 1960 to 2000 show that deforestation and unsustainable land use practices may explain why the region’s rivers now have the largest sediment loads in the world and why dissolved nutrients in the water are increasing more than in any other region.

These human land use practices are among the primary causes for the increasing drought in some areas, coupled with flood-related disasters in other areas in the region, including the latest floods in China and India, with high numbers of casualties, according to the report, compiled by UNEP in collaboration with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and local experts across the Himalayan region.

The report calculates that currently nearly half of Asia’s mountain regions are affected by infrastructure development and that, by 2030, this could rise to over 70 per cent, if trends continue unchecked.

Development will have its biggest impact on river catchments and wildlife along the Karakoram Highway, Pakistan, the Indian and southern side of the Himalayas and in south-eastern Tibet and the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of south-western China, it said.

Overgrazing along road corridors in dry regions of Pakistan and China results in erosion and land-slides, as well as dust storms, it said.

“The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) covering poverty eradication and the better supply of sufficient, safe, drinking water, up to reversing the spread of disease, cannot be met without economic growth. But this needs to be carried out in a way that conserves the life support systems and the ecosystem services they provide. Otherwise, it cannot be sustainable for current or future generations,” UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said.

“Mountain areas are especially important and particularly vulnerable. These are the water towers of the world and often home to unique wildlife species upon which local people depend for food, medicines and other important materials. They have often been saved from uncontrolled development by their remoteness. But modern engineering methods mean this is no longer the case,” he added.

Some 7 per cent of China’s glaciers are disappearing each year and by 2050 some 64 per cent will have melted, according to experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences who contributed to the report. “An estimated 300 million Chinese live in the country’s arid west and depend on water from glaciers for their survival,” the report said.

Meanwhile, studies by UNEP and other institutions have pinpointed some 50 lakes that have formed recently in Nepal and Bhutan as a result of melting glaciers. Experts are concerned that these lakes, held back only by soil and stones, could burst their banks, sending torrential floods down valleys and threatening villages.

 

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