FAO/IFAD Publication: Water interventions for improving rural livelihoods in Asia



Figure 1: Global Undernourishment in 2010 by Region 

Poverty is a major problem in Asia despite its high economic growth and rapid rural transformation. Asia still accounts for two thirds of the world’s 1.4 billion poor, concentrated mostly in South Asia.  About a third of the rural people are considered poor, which accounts for up to 70% of the total poor (Figures 1 and 2).  While East Asia and Southeast Asia have made striking progress in reducing rural poverty over the past three decades, progress has been restricted in South Asia.

Figure 2: Distribution of Rural Poverty in Asia 

This study identifies the hotspots of poverty and water constraints in Asia, and analyses them in the context of livelihood systems. It identifies and maps 14 major livelihood systems based largely on agro-ecological considerations (Figure 3).




Figure 3: Livelihood System in Asia 


The analysis shows that South Asia is the epicentre of rural poverty in both relative and absolute terms. Both Southeast Asia and East Asia have a similar distribution of rural poor, but Southeast Asia has much higher poverty rates than East Asia (Figure 4). There is no great variation in poverty among different livelihood systems: poverty rates vary between 40-50 % in South Asia and 30-40% in Southeast Asia. In East Asia poverty rates are below 6% in all livelihood systems. Interestingly, there is not much variation in poverty distribution between irrigated and rainfed zones in East Asia: there are other factors than water accessibility for agriculture determining poverty levels. This is clearly indicated by the increasing share of the nonfarm economy in rural areas in recent times. Another interesting feature is that poverty is more concentrated in rice-based systems than in either rainfed or other irrigated systems. Rice-based systems account for slightly more than 30% of the rural population.

The study focused on three factors for prioritizing water interventions: the extent of rural poverty, water development potential, and water as a limiting factor. While water development potential has been computed from physical availability considerations, water as a limiting factor is judged through subjective evaluation, considering the dependence on water in a given livelihood system.


Figure 4: Rural Poverty across Livelihood Systems

In large parts of Asia there is still potential to exploit water resources and therefore offer opportunities to develop new water control schemes. In other areas, there is no potential for further expansion and parts of these areas already suffer from water scarcity. Interventions in these areas should focus on demand management, including management of existing systems to increase water productivity or value addition to water. In other areas, like those irrigated with groundwater, the problem is environmental sustainability as a result of over-draft and rising salinity.The hydrological regime and the socio-economic conditions in various livelihood zones offer a range of possible options for development. These options are summarized in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Potential Water Intervention Options 



  • Future water interventions must be directed to the following four broad areas: 1) increasing availability of and access to water; 2) increasing water productivity and value added of water; 3) addressing water vulnerabilities; and 4) promoting multiple use water systems (MUS)
  • Geographical targeting by itself is not enough for poverty reduction. Attention must also be given to different social groups, including the landless and women who are most vulnerable.

  • From a livelihood systems perspective, the rainfed lowland rice based systems in South and Southeast Asia and rainfed systems (dry tropical and subtropical; humid subtropical) in South Asia offer the highest potential for water interventions to improve rural livelihoods.

  • Governments must look beyond water and agriculture, and equally prioritise development of the rural nonfarm sector. Poverty and rural livelihood issues have gradually moved beyond the agrarian domain; the nonfarm sector’s contribution to the rural economy is growing and diversified forms of rural livelihood patterns are emerging both as coping and thriving mechanisms. Rural diversification is now a dominant factor in rural livelihood strategies.

  • The goal should not be to search for alternatives to agriculture innovation, expansion and change, but to look at how best to integrate agriculture into the wider economy to stimulate production and consumption linkages, and encourage rural transformation. Agriculture should not be seen in isolation from other spheres of the economy. 



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Land and Water Division, Natural Resources and Environment, Food and Agriculture Organization Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok Thailand 10200

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