South Asia has highest number of children exposed to severe water scarcity - UNICEF

With climate change impacting water supply, UNICEF urges greater investment in water services that can withstand climate shocks

13 November 2023
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KATHMANDU/NEW DELHI, 13 November 2023 A staggering 347 million children under 18 are exposed to high or extremely high water scarcity in South Asia, the highest number among all regions in the world, according to a new UNICEF analysis.

Water scarcity affects children’s well-being and growth, causes food insecurity, malnutrition, and other diseases, such as diarrhoea. Financial hardships faced by farming families can impact children’s education and push children into work. In addition, water scarcity is a threat not only to children’s well-being but also to agriculture, industry and economic growth.

“Safe water is a basic human right, yet millions of children in South Asia don’t have enough to drink in a region plagued by floods, droughts and other extreme weather events, triggered increasingly by climate change,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia. “Children across South Asia who live in areas of water scarcity suffer severe climate hazards such as devastating floods and heatwaves. They often live in a vicious cycle of drought and water scarcity. When village wells go dry, homes, health centres and schools are all affected. With an increasingly unpredictable climate, water scarcity is expected to become worse for children in South Asia.”

Poor water quality, lack of water and mismanagement are reasons for water scarcity in South Asia. Although South Asia is home to more than one quarter of the world’s children, the region has only 4 per cent of the world’s renewable water. Droughts are becoming more frequent and more severe, lasting longer in many South Asian countries because of climate change and increased water demand.

Climate change is disrupting weather patterns and rainfall, leading to unpredictable water availability. Climate change also adds additional stress as it exacerbates conditions caused by the over-extraction of groundwater.  Across the region, 70 million children live in drought-prone regions where aquifers are severely over-pumped.  The Indo Gangetic Basin covering Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal is the most heavily exploited aquifer in the world. Groundwater salinity and drying reservoirs are other problems. Climate warming further decreases the amount of water charging the aquifers. Soil quality and strong rainfall also affect the capacity of groundwater to recharge.

UNICEF’s analysis also shows that South Asia had the highest number of children under 18 years exposed to extreme water vulnerability in 2022 among all regions (169 million children). South Asia was followed by Eastern and Southern Africa (130 million) and West and Central Africa (102 million). Extreme water vulnerability indicates a combination of high or extremely high levels of water scarcity and low or very low levels of drinking water service. In addition, 45 million children still lacked access to basic drinking water services in South Asia , more than any other region in 2022.

UNICEF in South Asia urges governments, partners and others to respond to the crisis by:

  • Promoting the more efficient management of water resources and improving access to water and sanitation services than can withstand climate shocks;
  • Investing in areas where high exposure to climate hazards overlaps with low access to water and sanitation services;
  • Taking stronger action in national adaptation plans and climate finance investments to manage water scarcity and boost infrastructure for drinking water;
  • Generating data to understand the patterns of use for groundwater resources and recharge potential is critical as is early detection of groundwater depletion;
  • Improving water supply and storage, especially by capturing rainwater and artificially recharging groundwater in water scarce areas.

Projections for 2030 show that coverage of basic drinking water services is expected to continue to increase rapidly in South Asia, thereby reducing the number of children exposed to water vulnerability. At current rates of progress, South Asia will more than halve the children who do not have basic drinking water from 45 million to 18 million.

South Asia is a global climate hotspot and children are paying the price.  According to UNICEF’s 2021 Children's Climate Risk Index (CCRI), children in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan are at 'extremely high risk' of the impacts of climate change. Maldives is at risk of disappearing entirely. Every child in South Asia is affected by at least one climate-related hazard, shock or stress. Over 600 million children - roughly double the population of the US - are highly exposed to diseases associated with climate change, such as malaria or dengue. Almost 597 million face high levels of air pollution while 128 million children are affected by heat waves.

Despite children’s unique vulnerability to climate change, only 2.4 per cent of climate finance from key multilateral climate funds support projects that incorporate child-responsive activities. At COP28, UNICEF is calling on world leaders and the international community to take critical steps with and for children to secure a livable planet. This includes elevating children within the final COP28 Cover Decision and including children within the final decision on the Global Goal for Adaptation (GGA).

“Unless we act now, children will continue to suffer,” added Wijesekera. “It is incumbent on governments , private sector and civil society organizations to work in partnership to improve water management and design services that can withstand climate shocks.”

Notes to the editors:
  • Regional aggregates are based on 163 UNICEF CCRI countries with data available in 2022.
  • Water scarcity is a measure of baseline water stress; interannual and seasonal variability; groundwater table decline and drought risk.
  • Water vulnerability index[1] is based on water scarcity and drinking water service using population data from the World and United Nations World Population Prospects.

[1] UNICEF, 2021, The UNICEF Extreme Water Vulnerability Index (EWVI) – Methodology Paper. TP/12/2021

Media contacts

Sabrina Sidhu
Communication Specialist (Media)
UNICEF South Asia
Tel: +91 9384030106

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About UNICEF

UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone. 

UNICEF’s Regional Office for South Asia (ROSA) works with UNICEF Country Offices in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to help to save children’s lives, defend their rights, and help them fulfil their potential. For more information about UNICEF’s work for children in South Asia, visit www.unicef.org/rosa and follow UNICEF ROSA on Twitter and Facebook