Based on a series of simulations ran through sophisticated computer models, researchers from MIT are highlighting the possibility that a significant percentage of the population of Asia could suffer severe water shortages by the year 2050. As a basis for the study, the team made use of a pre-existing MIT-generated computer model designed to simulate Asia's complex economic, climate, and growth characteristics. A detailed water-use model known as a Water Resource System was then introduced, and the team ran a number of simulations aiming to cover the widest range of potential scenarios.
Each of the simulations tested the key variables by holding steady one or more of the factors while allowing another, such as population growth, to increase in line with predicted numbers. Each of the scenarios also accounted for, amongst a host of other factors, the interconnected nature of the water supply in the affected regions. For example, if climate change or any other contributing element causes the water basin at the top of a network to go unfilled, other basins further down the network that would ordinarily be fed by the primary basin suffer in kind.
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Employing this methodology allowed the researchers to gain a greater understanding of the relative importance of each variable's impact on future water shortages.
According to the model employed by the team, there are currently 850 million people in southern and eastern Asia living in regions experiencing water stress. Moving forward to 2050, the median results of the study indicate that an extra 1 billion people will experience water stress, and that countries such as India and China could be pushed into an unsustainable stress category.
The water stress conditions that could occur, in part as a result of the unsustainable exploitation of groundwater and subsurface extraction, will not exhibit itself as a single catastrophic event. Rather, water stress will, among other manifestations, increase the likelihood of severe water shortages due to prolongued droughts, which the researchers suggest could be similar in nature to the scenario unfolding in California today.
The researchers emphasize that the study is a numerical exercise designed to highlight the increasing threat of water stress rather than to serve as an ironclad prediction. Some of the outcomes of the computer simulations are indistinguishable from the decade-to-decade natural weather and climate variations, and some nations in the region could even see an easing in water stress due to local climate variations
However, whilst these are indeed possibilities, there is an increasing likelihood that nations in the region will be pushed into more severe and even unsustainable water stress situations. Dr. Adam Schlosser, a senior research scientist at the MIT Center for Global Change Science and deputy director of the MIT Joint Program for Global Change, sums up the ethos behind the study best by asking the question, "What amount of risk is one willing to take – and what is the point at which one must take action?".
The study is not the first warning issued by scientists painting a grim image for the future of humanity as our ever-increasing population puts further strain on our planet's limited resources. The next 35 years will need to see breakthroughs across a number of fields if we are to avoid soaring rates of malnutrition and water stress across wide swathes of the world's population.
The team responsible for the research is currently exploring the potential effects of agricultural techniques and water use practices that could lessen the stress on Asia's future water supply.
A paper detailing the research can be found online in the journal Plos One.