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"This little-heralded crisis is repeating itself across Asia and could cause widespread famine in the decades to come," London-based New Scientist said in a report on scientists' findings at a recent water conference in Sweden.
The worst affected country is India.
There, small farmers have abandoned traditional shallow wells where bullocks draw water in leather buckets to drill 21 million tube wells hundreds of meters (yards) below the surface using technology adapted from the oil industry, the magazine said.
Rural regions in Africa and Asia are worst affected, but the global trend towards urbanisation is also putting more of a strain on water services in cities.
Unicef and the WHO want this report to be a wake-up call to world leaders.
Achieving clean water and sanitation for everyone will take more than money, they say.