Asia May Face Severe Water Shortage by 2050: MIT Study

It’s not just a climate change issue but also an economic and population growth problem. 

Published
India
2 min read
Khomnal Village pond at Mangalwheda taluka, Solapur district which usually has water around the year. However, in March 2016, the pond is completely dry. (Photo Courtesy: Subrata Biswas/Greenpeace)

Countries in Asia, including India, may face a severe water shortage by 2050 due to rising economic activity, growing populations and climate change, MIT scientists have warned.

There is a “high risk of severe water stress” in much of an area that is home to roughly half the world’s population, scientists said.

Having run a large number of simulations of future scenarios, the researchers found that the median amounts of projected growth and climate change in the next 35 years in Asia would lead to about 1 billion more people becoming “water-stressed” compared to today.

While climate change is expected to have serious effects on the water supply in many parts of the world, the study underscores the extent to which industrial expansion and population growth may by themselves exacerbate water-access problems.

It’s not just a climate change issue. We simply cannot ignore that economic and population growth in society can have a very strong influence on our demand for resources and how we manage them. And climate, on top of that, can lead to substantial magnifications to those stresses.
Adam Schlosser, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Residents of a Delhi colony crowd around a water tanker
provided by Delhi Jal (water) Board to fill their containers. (Photo: Reuters)
Residents of a Delhi colony crowd around a water tanker provided by Delhi Jal (water) Board to fill their containers. (Photo: Reuters)

To conduct the study, the scientists built upon an existing model developed previously at MIT, the Integrated Global Systems Model (IGSM), which contains probabilistic projections of population growth, economic expansion, climate, and carbon emissions from human activity.

They then linked the IGSM model to detailed models of water use for a large portion of Asia encompassing China, India, and many smaller nations.

The scientists then ran an extensive series of repeated projections using varying conditions. In what they call the “Just Growth” scenario, they held climate conditions constant and evaluated the effects of economic and population growth on the water supply.

In an alternate “Just Climate” scenario, scientists held growth constant and evaluated climate-change effects alone.

And in a “Climate and Growth” scenario, they studied the impact of rising economic activity, growing populations, and climate change.

Approaching it this way gave the researchers a “unique ability to tease out the human (economic) and environmental” factors leading to water shortages and to assess their relative significance, Schlosser said.



A dried canal at Sohale village, Mohol taluka, Solapur district in Maharashtra, made for carrying water to remote villages from the Ujjani dam. (Photo Courtesy: Subrata Biswas/Greenpeace)
A dried canal at Sohale village, Mohol taluka, Solapur district in Maharashtra, made for carrying water to remote villages from the Ujjani dam. (Photo Courtesy: Subrata Biswas/Greenpeace)
For China, it looks like industrial growth (has the greatest impact) as people get wealthier. In India, population growth has a huge effect. It varies by region.
Charles Fant, Lead Author

(The study was published in the journal PLOS One.)

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