By 2050, about 1 billion people in Asia may experience "severe" water shortage. While it's convenient to blame climate change for this, a new study shows socioeconomic factors may be bigger risks.

Freshwater is a scant resource. Although the world is covered by 71 percent water, majority of which is in the oceans, only 30 percent of freshwater is in the ground and most is in the ice caps and glaciers. Only a minute percentage ends up in lakes, swamps and ponds.

Thus, it doesn't bode well when a new study in PLOS One suggests that freshwater will further be reduced in some parts of Asia particularly China and India by 2050.

To know the possible impact of water shortage in Asia and the factors that can influence it, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers "integrated large ensemble of scenarios," taking into consideration the possible influencers of water needs and levels. These include economic growth, climate change, emissions and population.

They performed various simulations and measured results for climate change and socioeconomic growth separately to find out if the latter also drives water shortage.

The results indicate that while these socioeconomic changes have little significance today, it will be in the future, say, 35 years from now. Interestingly, although worsening climate change will still contribute to severe water stress, population and economic growth may play bigger roles.

"It's not just a climate change issue," said senior MIT research scientist and co-author Adam Schlosser. In fact, he stressed that climate changes may only exacerbate the effects of these factors on water shortage.

These stressors too can "vary by region," stresses lead author Charles Fant. For example, China's water shortage may be caused by its increasing wealth and economic growth while in India it may be driven by the continuous population growth.

Overall, the data is critical since Asia is the biggest land on Earth and home of the biggest population at 4.4 billion.

To help the continent prepare for the future, the team is working on fine-tuning its models to measure these water shortages more accurately. They are also looking into other factors that can contribute to the crisis like adaptation and climate mitigation.

Photo: Patty Ho | Flickr

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