Climate Change, Food and Water Security in South Asia 2030: Change is Inevitable and the Region Must Prepare for it

4 May 2017 Benjamin Walsh, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • A rising population and the need to feed and water it will likely be a cause of food and water insecurity in South Asia out to 2030.
  • Climate change will intensify this food and water insecurity.
  • Given the climate has always changed to some extent; it is not possible to stop it and reverse the effects of it. It is possible, and more prudent, however, to offset that change by preparing for the negative implications of future climate change.
  • Though change is inevitable, regional mitigation efforts should still be implemented. At the same time, however, the region must prepare to face the long-term effects of climate change on food and water security.


South Asia, which is defined as the region encompassing India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and the Maldives, is one of the fastest growing regions in the world. According to the World Bank, the South Asian economy is expected to grow by roughly 7.3 per cent in 2017, up from 7.1 per cent in 2016. Though rapid economic growth is predicted to continue throughout the region, there are a number of challenges set to dominate the policy agenda out to 2030. Chief among these challenges will be ensuring food and water security for the expanding population. Long-term food and water challenges, however, will be exacerbated by rising temperatures, receding groundwater levels, rainfall variations, flooding and glacial melts. Climate stresses are likely to exacerbate human-induced food and water insecurity out to 2030.


Food Security

Agriculture is one of South Asia’s biggest employers, contributing roughly 18 per cent to regional GDP. Based on UN estimates, the population of South Asia is about 1.86 billion people. This is expected to grow by 25 per cent by 2030 and 40 per cent by 2050. About 70 per cent of the population is employed in agriculture which explains why, in all countries except the Maldives, the rural population is larger than the urban one. An increasing population will inevitably demand more grain and other items such as dairy and meat products. More people mean the need for more housing, energy and water for crop production, industry and drinking. Securing a healthy supply of food for an expanding population is one of the many challenges South Asian countries will have to deal with out to 2030 and over the longer term. It is made more challenging by the biggest obstacle the region is likely to face in the long term: climate change.

Due to climate change, the region is projected to experience rising temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events in the long term. From 2046-2065 the region is expected to experience a rise in temperature of 2-4 degrees Celsius. The World Bank has calculated that a two degree rise is likely by the end of the 21st century. If the global temperature changes by 1.5°C, heat extremes not seen today are likely to cover 15 per cent of land areas in summer. The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that climate change and rising temperatures will affect food production across Asia differently, but the most food insecure populations are likely to be found in South Asia. Extreme temperatures are also likely to affect crop production globally, with the production of wheat, rice and other crops in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh particularly affected. A report by the World Bank that looked at the effects of climate change in South Asia found that if optimal growing temperatures for cereal crops are exceeded, then lower yields can be expected. The same report, however, found that by analysing the heat stress in Asian rice production from 1950-2000, large parts of South Asia are already exceeding the maximum average daytime temperature of 33˚C.

By the end of this century, and provided current climate change projections prove to be accurate, crop production in South Asia is expected to decrease by 30 per cent. The IPCC has painted a bleak picture for South Asia’s long-term food security, stating that rice, wheat and maize production will decline significantly and that the region will suffer as a result of the direct correlation between rising temperatures, water stresses and food insecurity. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, climate change and heat stress will be a long-term impediment to increased agricultural production in South Asia. The report indicates a negative impact on food production and consumption due to climate change in South Asia. Climate change will influence consumer decisions, as changes to the kind of food that can be produced over the long term will affect the eating and buying patterns of people in the region. Beyond 2030 and out to 2050, there are likely to be declines in rice, wheat and maize production by 14 per cent, 44 to 49 per cent and nine to 19 per cent respectively. This fall in production will not only have implications for cereal consumption patterns, but also those of meat and dairy. Falls in production will cause, for instance, the price of feed to increase, causing farmers to push up the prices of meat, making it harder for people to purchase meat products. A reduction in the supply of cereals will also cause prices to rise. It has been estimated that climate change could cause the price of rice, maize and wheat to increase by 32 to 37 per cent, 52 to 55 per cent and 94 to 111 per cent respectively. Interestingly, the report found that even without climate change, food prices would increase. Climate change will simply aggravate a worsening situation.

These numbers indicate that South Asia must be prepared to face the inevitable change likely to occur in the region. Population increases, the humanitarian demands this entails and the added stress of climate change all comprise the reality: though efforts should be made to slow the rate of change, change is inevitable and governments should now be preparing to meet the challenges that this change is certain to deliver.

Water Security

Water insecurity also has its origins in human activity, but is exacerbated by climate change. Even without the added stress of climate change, South Asia is becoming increasingly water insecure. Large-scale urbanisation, an increasing demand for agricultural products due to a rising population, poor water management and the insufficient maintenance of water conveyance infrastructure are largely responsible. Climate change, however, will multiply this stress through increasingly variable rainfall, river flows and groundwater recharge rates; the sources of sustenance South Asian countries rely on.

A key trend in South Asia has been the rate of urbanisation. This is not a rate that has been achieved with great enthusiasm; India, the largest country in South Asia by population, has often been labelled a “reluctant urbaniser”. Nonetheless, people increasingly believe that more opportunities, and thus better lives, are to be found in cities, which is why between 2001 and 2011, the World Bank found that South Asia’s urban population grew by 130 million people and is set to grow by 250 million by 2030. Cities and urbanisation are one of the key policy focus points for South Asian leaders since large metropolises attract investment, are hubs of innovation and encourage job creativity in areas of manufacturing and services. New urbanites have to live somewhere, which is why, across the region, countries are experiencing huge construction booms as cities are erected and overhauled to house new migrants. The McKinsey Global Institute calculated that about 840 million square metres of real estate is needed each year in India to service the migrants coming into the cities. Constructing buildings requires huge amounts of sand which, inadvertently, has an impact on water security. Other materials are also required, but sand is critical as it is connected to water security. As stated in a previous Strategic Weekly Analysis, illegal sand mining in India has an impact not only on crime and public safety, but on water security because of sand’s ability to retain groundwater used for drinking and agriculture.

Agriculture and a rising population will be another factor contributing to water insecurity out to 2030. South Asia accounts for nearly half of the world’s groundwater use for irrigation and the wide proliferation of water bores and subsidised electricity has led to the overexploitation of the resource. The critical point, however, is that even without climate change, groundwater supplies are at critical levels. This is mainly due to the politicisation of subsidised electricity and access to water supplies. In India, 15 per cent of the country’s groundwater is overexploited. Oddly enough, groundwater extraction is increasing, so much so that recently in the Indian state of Hyderabad, the state government has put a six month ban on digging wells. In Pakistan, Reuters found that over the last five to six years groundwater levels have dropped by about three to four metres. Wells have to be dug deeper – a costly and time consuming endeavour – and water-heavy crops like sugar cane and rice could be phased out over the long term. In Sri Lanka, farmers face similar challenges.

Groundwater and Recharge Rates from Rainfall

Groundwater is overstressed already, due to human activity, and climate change will only increase the rate at which groundwater decreases. Changing rainfall patterns, due to climate change, are having an effect on groundwater stores. Some argue that rising temperatures in the Indian Ocean are causing rainfall patterns to change and even decline. Though some studies have found that, due to climate change, heavy rainfall has increased over some parts of the sub-continent, recent reports indicate that the frequency of moderate-to-heavy rainfall has decreased over the region. A study in Nature Communications found that a warming Indian Ocean potentially weakens the land-sea thermal contrast which has led to a decrease in the summer monsoon rainfall across the north of India and into the Himalayas. Despite what some climate models show – that the land-sea thermal gradient is strengthening the monsoon rainfall – scientists argue that there is no evidence to suggest such a positive trend. Further observation and analysis of climatic conditions is necessary before the implications of climate change on groundwater can begin to be understood.

Rainfall and Flooding

One of the most significant effects of climate change in South Asia is likely to be the increased frequency of extreme weather events. The region constantly experiences floods but climate change is expected to alter the variability of rainfall and river flows that lead to them. Some predict that as temperatures warm, there will likely be a rise in precipitation by about five to 20 per cent by the end of the century. It could be argued that more rain is a net positive, as floods, though destructive, can increase groundwater recharge. The increased frequency of heavy rain, however, brought on by climate change, is a negative as this introduces regularised flooding to the region. If the average global temperature reaches four degrees Celsius by the end of the century, the region could experience a ten per cent increase in annual mean monsoon intensity and a 15 per cent increase in year-to-year variability of summer monsoon rainfall compared to present normal levels. According to one study, this means that heavy monsoonal rainfall, which currently occurs roughly every 100 years, will likely occur every ten years. Modern-day (post-1950) floods have been increasing in magnitude compared to floods that occurred in the first half of the 20th century and, while though there is no concrete trend, a study published in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography argues that there is plenty of data to suggest that extreme rainfall, resulting in more extreme floods, is increasing in both intensity and frequency due to both climate change and human activity. In 2015/16, the region suffered one of these kinds of floods that could occur more regularly given the region’s current climate course. Monsoonal rainfall resulted in the submersion of roads in West Bengal, landslides in Nepal and mass floods in Bangladesh. Some argue that flooding is expected to affect millions of people out to 2030. According to the World Resources Institute, approximately 2.7 million people could be affected by river-flooding each year by 2030. South Asia, which is predicted to be one of the hardest-hit regions in the world, is expected to lose billions of dollars in GDP, especially India and Bangladesh (and here). By 2030, South Asia could see US$215 billion ($286 billion) in GDP exposed annually because of flooding, an increase of more than US$193 billion ($257 billion). Overall, the number of people expected to experience river flooding is expected to rise. Roughly 9.6 million people are affected on average each year in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Globally, these numbers are expected to rise and up to 54 million people – compared to 21 million today – could be exposed to climate-induced flooding by 2030.

Rising Temperatures and Glacial Melts

The Hindu Kush and the Himalayan Mountains provide the majority of upstream freshwater to South Asia’s river basins. Both of these sources feed into the region’s three biggest rivers: the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. Himalayan snowmelt supplies over 40 per cent of pre- and early-monsoon supply in the Greater Himalayan catchment, and more than 65 per cent and 30 per cent of annual supply in the Indus and Brahmaputra inlets, respectively.

Due to rising temperatures, sporadic rainfall and manmade emissions glaciers are expected to retreat faster than they can reform which can be seen as helpful in the short term. Countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and India often experience extreme drought and an increase in river flow, especially in summer months, could be a positive outcome in the short term.

In the long term, however, the region’s glacial insurance will be devastated. Nature News found that glaciers in the Himalayas are melting faster than any other glacial structure in the world and could disappear around 2035. Other reports suggest that around 2045-2065, the spring and summer periods in the region will see huge reductions in the flow of glacial water and, because monsoonal rainfall during the spring and summer is supposed to lessen, rivers will not be covered upstream. In the short term, temperatures may rise and rainfall could still fall during the summer months, but after 2030 the region is likely to see the eradication of glaciers and less rainfall in summer. More rain may be set to fall in the winter, but this comes with flood risks and the added projection of rising sea levels places low-lying parcels of land, such as the north-west and southern parts of Bangladesh, at risk of flooding.

Similarly to what was said about food security, climatic change and the over-stressing of water resources show the change the region will inevitably have to deal with, no matter how much this rate of change is slowed. Temperatures, regardless of mitigation efforts, are likely to continue to rise and the flooding and melting that ensues is perhaps an inevitable fact of life that South Asian states will have to negotiate. This is not to discount any efforts to mitigate the rate of change, however, as states should be preparing for the changes brought about by climate and human stresses.


Climate change is likely to have a detrimental effect on South Asia out to 2030 and beyond, mainly because of its ability to exacerbate one of South Asia’s biggest challenges: an expanding population and the challenge of feeding, housing, clothing, watering and employing it. The scope of both of these challenges is what is so striking, which is why efforts should be made to prepare for both climate- and human-induced stresses. Popular opinion may call for the reduction of emissions and the mitigation of climate change as the number one priority, and these efforts should not be discounted, however, the focus should be on accepting what could be argued as irreversible climate change and preparing for this climate phase out to 2030. To some degree, climate change is inevitable and South Asian decision-makers need to realise this. Governments, therefore, need to realise climate change is present, that it will inevitably multiply present challenges and that preparation is key.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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