ADB Thirsts for Mackellar Touch

The Asian Development Bank warns South-east Asia’s water footprint needs to shrink dramatically.

Luke Hunt

When Dorothea Mackellar penned ‘…of drought and flooded plains,’ in her famous poem My Country, published in London back in 1908, she brilliantly encapsulated the difficulties of Australian life while still pining for its wide open spaces.

More than a century later, Mackellar’s poetry continues to resonate as a cultural backstop as Australians continue to battle the extreme forces of nature and grapple with what it means to live in fear of running out of the most precious of commodities—water.

These are fears that so far haven’t been shared in South-east Asia. Understandable, perhaps, given the annual monsoon typified this year by the deadly floods that wreaked havoc across much of the region.

But in the corridors of regional institutions, attitudes are changing—and fast.

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The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is warning that Asia is facing a worsening water crisis that’s threatening food production and which could exact a heavy toll on the regional economy.

In a bid to get its message across, the ADB is taking a leaf out of Mackellar’s repertoire and is pushing its own line: water footprint. Like its cousin carbon footprint, it won’t win any awards for poetic value. However, it still carries a genuine punch by highlighting the enormous wastage when water is harnessed for human use.

According to a recent report by the bank, weak enforcement of laws governing the degradation of Asian water quality is largely to blame. It found, for example, that up to 89 percent of all untreated wastewater was leaching into fresh water in South-east Asia. Climate change, industrialisation, water pollution, dietary shifts and the drive to grow bio-fuels are expected to complicate this fast emerging crisis further.

If the current trend is maintained, then the ADB reckons a 40 percent gap between water demand and supply in Asia will emerge by 2030, with some countries experiencing a deficit of up to 50 percent.

Amid such dire warnings, the Manila-based lender is urgently telling governments, industries and others around the region that the current water footprint is extravagant and needs to shrink if forecast shortages are to be headed off.

Asia, it says, must become acutely conscious of the value of its accessible freshwater.

‘In short, Asia is witnessing a despoliation of its freshwater resources with disastrous consequences for ecological balance and environmental sustainability,’ the ADB said.

It’s not quite Mackellar, but hopefully the message will get through.

Luke Hunt
Contributing Author

Luke Hunt

Luke Hunt is a Southeast Asia correspondent for The Diplomat and has worked in journalism for more than 25 years.

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