Asia could face chronic food shortages and social unrest if the region fails to improve its management of water and farming, according to a UN report published on Monday.
An extra 1.5 billion people will live in Asia by 2050, putting even more pressure on already scarce food supplies, said the study, issued by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
There is little scope to expand arable land in most parts of Asia, which means that growing the extra food required can only be achieved with better management of land and water supplies, it found.
The report warns many developing nations in the region are facing by 2050 the prospect of importing more than a quarter of the rice, wheat and maize needed to feed their populations.
At the same time, their is a heightened risk that cereal prices will continue to rise due to increasingly volatile international markets.
"Asia's food and feed demand is expected to double by 2050. Relying on trade to meet a large part of this demand will impose a huge and politically untenable burden on the economies of many developing countries," said IWMI director general Colin Chartres.
"The best bet for Asia lies in revitalising its vast irrigation systems, which account for 70 percent of the world's total irrigated land," he said.
The report says millions of farmers have taken the responsibility for irrigation into their own hands, mainly using out-of-date and inefficient pump technology.
This means they can extract as much water as they like from their land, draining a precious natural resource.
"Governments' inability to regulate this practice is giving rise to scary scenarios of groundwater over-exploitation, which could lead to regional food crises and widespread social unrest," said the IWMI's Tushaar Shah, a co-author of the report.
Asian governments must join with the private sector to invest in modern, and more efficient methods of using water, the study concluded.
"Without water productivity gains, South Asia would need 57 percent more water for irrigated agriculture and East Asia 70 percent more," the study found. "Given the scarcity of land and water, and growing water needs for cities, such a scenario is untenable."
The scenarios forecast do not factor in the impact of global warming, which will likely make rainfall more erratic and less plentiful in some agricultural regions over the coming decades.
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