Asian Water Wars

March 23, 2009

Many believe that water disputes will be able to generate peaceful coexistences and actually catalyze peace talks as shown by historic examples; fifty agreements between countries relating to rivers, dams, water basins and more. Also, there are at least 263 water boundaries between countries total, but there seems to have been little conflict along many of the borders in the past.

We feel the future outlook is a lot dimmer. We suggest that at the moment, as it has been in the past, water is a priority for country leaders who rate the immediate problems of border disputes, ideological/identity/religious conflicts and energy resources higher than anything else. However, given that environmental protection and climate change policies are slowly rising, the new focus is on energy conservation, climate/ecosystem preservation, and resource allocation.

China is (or will soon be) suffering a water crisis, partly due to the fact that it has made little investment in water and water treatment infrastructure, while experiencing exponential growth. China is rapidly expanding and becoming a world power and its demands on many resources are growing, but water is a finite resource with no alternative. Even if bigger, first world countries manage to solve their problems in time, there is no guarantee that any of the smaller countries will react in time to avoid conflict.

With less water available countries like China have already diverted their water sources to its cities and industrial sectors, relying on buying in grain from abroad using their foreign reserves. This leaves poorer countries with very limited options. As the economist hints, most of the existing treaties or informal arrangements on water are asymmetrical in power, countries without foreign reserves might have to resort to armed conflict in order to challenge the terms dictated by the bigger bullies and afford foreign food sources . Eventually the challenge is for policy makers right now to make the changes that will prevent future conflicts that might not even affect riparian countries but have global impact.

The impact is made all the more dangerous by global warming; China’s glaciers are melting, their pollution is increasing, and aquifers are drying up. The north is experiencing droughts quite regularly, which are increasingly leading  to bad desertification and severe sandstorms. This, in addition to its excessive pollution, is leading to food security problems, and has an abysmal impact on environmental health.

China is in such shape due to its shocking economic growth, and its sometimes wasteful use of resources (water included). This soon to be economic powerhouse could lose water completely or parts of it within 30 years. This is incredibly dangerous for the rest of the world in terms of water usage, resource allocation, and especially economy, we can’t deal with another economic downturn soon after the current one.

This may also promote inter-state conflict, China has already built several dams upstream of other countries in Southeast Asia, apparently they are considering building more on the Mekong, which would directly affect the countries of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. They are also making developments in Tibet that could negatively affect water that flows into India. A third party may need to step in as in the case of India and Pakistan and help push a new treaty between India and China, and perhaps other Asian countries as well. Asia has the some of the fastest growing economies, military expenditures, populations, and resource competition with the least amount of fresh water in the world (except Antarctica). Water treaties might be the only thing that could prevent military conflicts. They may help the recent military exercise between China and India remain simply an exercise.


One Response to “Asian Water Wars”

  1. lmcinhk Says:

    Brent —

    I would agree with you that access to clean water is an increasingly important human security issue for China (and many other places). Yet, I don’t see third party intervention as the answer to this problem. In fact, China’s national leadership has shown itself to be very cognizant on this issue.

    Instead, much more could be done on the local/provincial level in building the necessary domestic consensus around preventing and alleviating water pollution. As Ma Jun among others has pointed out, if one has money like many of the officials in these communities, one can afford to drink bottled water and eat imported food to avoid the problem. The crucial question in order to implement change then, is how to make the local officials and business leaders who are largely responsible for polluting industries more accountable to “vulnerable social groups who suffer most from water and air pollution.”

    — LMC

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