In Asia, one in five people still lacks access to clean water. Population growth, water-intensive agriculture, and global warming cause considerable stress on the water supply, but mismanagement on a large scale is also to blame. In this project, RFA investigates and gives a voice to those most closely affected: villagers, farmers, and housewives.
In Asia, 75 percent of water goes to agriculture, but more than half of this is lost through evaporation or leaks. Deforestation increases the risk of floods, and global warming intensifies droughts, while industrial growth adds pollutants to what is left.
For most of us, getting a glass of water is the simplest thing in the world. For people living in Southeast Asia, this is much more arduous. Getting a daily supply of fresh water involves a trip to a well, a pump, or a river, sometimes with no success. More and more, water in Asia has to be transported or diverted to those who need it.
Most rural Asian households do not have running water. Instead, they use a barrel or other forms of containers to keep the water they retrieve from wells, pumps, rivers, and rain.
Urban water distribution systems tend to be antiquated, suffering from leaks and rusting pipes.
China's efforts to bring piped water to its citizens stand out as a success story. But few trust what's coming out of the tap.
Rivers and Lakes
Industrialization and a lax enforcement of pollution controls have resulted in widespread pollution in Asia.
Tucked away in northwestern China, Kashgar and its surrounding desert are feeling the strains of a Chinese rush to industrialization. Drinking water is getting scarce and is sometimes contaminated. Food production and quality are also affected.
Wells are the most ancient way to get water in villages but they are open to the elements and can be polluted by natural or human waste.
Pumps are a common way for people to get water, as they do not require open wells and are therefore cleaner. However, many Asian countries face the problem of arsenic leaking into the groundwater and contaminating water sources, sometimes making even pumped water unsuitable for human consumption.
Many households in rural areas of Asia collect rainwater during the rainy season. But over the last couple of years, dry seasons have lengthened by several days, rendering rainwater an unreliable source of drinking water.
With a dry season that lengthens every year, Myanmar is one of the countries most at risk of losing agricultural productivity due to climate change.
NGOs and charitable organizations sometimes help people in rural areas by distributing bottled water. But this happens only rarely and is unreliable in the long term.
Getting water is not easy. Try to survive for a whole week as a person living in rural Asia
Drinking water has become a scarce commodity in China and Southeast Asia. The poor suffer more than the rich, but they are learning to demand what is increasingly seen as a basic human right: access to clean drinking water.
Fit to Drink?
Water at the pump can be contaminated with arsenic while at the tap it is often not trusted, and at the well it sometimes runs dry. Water supplies have become depleted, and pollution often contaminates the water table.
"They just said, 'Don't use it,' and sprayed it with red paint," a Cambodian villager said about a water pump contaminated with arsenic. A survey by the World Health Organization found many pumps along the Mekong River and its tributaries to be contaminated.
More About Polluted Water
Breakneck industrial growth, corruption, or simply a lack of funds to protect the environment all contribute to severe pollution. In China, water is so unsafe that less than half of what is available can be treated for safe drinking.
Fit to Eat?
Asia has the most water-intensive agriculture in the world. But the region’s overdependence on rice and a new race to get rich have gotten in the way of improved efficiency and long-term preservation.
In the Mekong Delta, Vietnamese rice farmers have been reaping the benefits of three crops per year. But the stress on the water system has led some to question this bonanza's sustainability.
A Pinch of Salt
In remote Northwestern China, where Uyghurs live, the lack of iodine in the water has long been a severe health problem. But some experts say the problem may now be considerably reduced.
Sanitation is often left out of the conversation, as "politicians don't win votes by talking about s**t," one expert says. One in two Asians lacks access to proper toilet facilities. Yet a few NGOs have successfully equated the ownership of toilets to social status.
'Getting sanitation talked about by policymakers is difficult,' an NGO worker told our reporters in Luang Prabang, Laos. As a result, many people remain undereducated about the link between sanitation and health.
Building Latrines for Better Health
Worldwide, the health of as many as 1.5 billion people suffers from a lack of proper sanitation. Here, Steve Sugden from Water for People discusses the importance of building latrines.
Selling Toilets to the Poor
In Cambodia, Aun Hengly of WaterShed Asia speaks about toilet building and sustainable economy.
As they run out of water, countries draw more from international rivers. But already, six hydropower dams have been built on the Upper Mekong mainstream in China alone, without regard to their impact on downstream countries. Other projects are being built in Laos and Cambodia. On the Tibetan plateau, China holds control over India's water supply from the Brahmaputra River.
Like many other rural people in China, farmers in Xinmin village appear to be on the losing end of the rush to riches and economic reforms. As one says, 'What can be polluted is polluted, what can be sold is sold.'
Don't forget the poor, warns a Burmese expert
As Burma suffers its second consecutive year of severe drought, drinking water becomes scarce and experts want to make sure the needs of all people are addressed.
More About Dam Building
Dams can bring important benefits if adequately designed, but they can also damage local ecosystems and village life. In a number of places in Asia, dam building has triggered grass-roots opposition that autocratic governments have tried to stifle, not always with success.
Having exhausted or polluted their own water sources, countries now frequently draw on international rivers for water for drinking and irrigation, and also as a source of energy.
Brahma Chellaney, author of Water: Asia's New Battleground, says China controls the spigot for much of Asia's water.
More About Transboundary Water:
Dam-building activities by China and Southeast Asian nations have complicated relations among states bordering major rivers, impeding broader regional cooperation and integration.
This project was produced by Wubi Wang.
Executive producer is Catherine Antoine.
The names of the reporting team and videographers remain anonymous to protect their sources.
The videos and articles draw extensively on the RFA language services' reports.