Climate change and urbanization threaten water resources in South Asia

August 14, 2014
José Alberto Gonçalves Pereira

Professor Shah Alam Khan is the Director of the Institute of Water and Flood Management at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

Khan spoke with writer José Alberto Gonçalves Pereira about how the stressors of climate change and urbanization are leading to reduced water availability and security for vulnerable populations in peri-urban areas of South Asian cities.

Low water levels on the outskirts of cities in South Asia will lead to resource conflicts in coming decades: that is one of the key findings of an IDRC-funded research collaboration between four South Asian universities. The research teams studied four sites threatened by climate pressures and runaway urbanization, in Khulna (Bangladesh), Gurgaon and Hyderabad (India), and Kathmandu (Nepal).

JAGP: At all four research sites, a common perception is that rainfall is declining. Does this perception match the scientific evidence?

SAK: There are real changes in total annual rainfall, but not necessarily a decline, in all four sites. In Gurgaon, popular opinion says that it is declining, which somewhat agrees with the local rainfall trend. In Bangladesh, river flooding has been devastating – monsoon rains and water flow from upriver have actually been heavier.

JAGP: You have concluded that poor communities are more knowledgeable than scientists about some aspects of climate change – can you explain?

SAK: People deal directly with climate realities in their fields every day. Farmers are affected by it and can sense any change in the rainfall pattern right away, since this affects their livelihood.

JAGP: Have you found that climate-related pressures are related to resource conflicts?

SAK: We found that urbanization and climate change have put extra stress on water resources on the outskirts of cities. These two processes mix, which limits resources and can either cause new conflicts or aggravate existing ones.

JAGP: What are the chief concerns about water insecurity in Khulna?

SAK: Groundwater in Khulna's outskirts have high levels of salinity and the only surface freshwater source in the area is the polluted Mayur  River. Climate change could hurt crop production, with rising salinity and urban flooding because of higher tides.

JAGP: How are farmers coping?

SAK: People are opting for salt-resistant crops, building dykes, and leasing ponds. These salt-tolerant crops were developed by the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), and have increased rice production on the coast over the last 10-15 years. Rice was not grown so widely on the southwestern coast before then.

JAGP: Will the research team continue to work together on water security?

SAK: This research was part of the IDRC Climate Change and Water program. Before this joint research, we had worked together for five years on another South Asian project that focused on Integrated Water Resources Management and the relationship between gender and water. These same partners have been working together on several other projects since our work with IDRC. In these research projects, we are picking up from where we left off with the IDRC-funded project.

José Alberto Gonçalves Pereira is a Brazil-based writer.

This interview is part of the In Conversation series. The project Water Security in Periurban South Asia: Adapting to Climate Change and Urbanization is funded by IDRC's Climate Change and Water Program and was coordinated by the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies with a team from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Nepal Engineering College, Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University in Hyderabad, and the Management Development Institute in Gurgaon.

For detailed information about the project, visit the project website

Watch an interview with researcher  M. Shah Alam Khan

Video interview with Dr M. Shah Alam Khan