Asia's next major conflict will be over fresh water

Crippling drought in Asia and India reveal the challenges of finding fresh water for the future, writes Brahma Chellaney

A dog walks over a drought hit plot of land in Ben Tre Province, Vietnam. Christian Berg / Getty Images
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Nothing illustrates the emergence of fresh water as a key determinant of Asia’s future better than the drought that has parched lands from South East Asia to the Indian subcontinent. It has withered vast parcels of rice paddies and affected economic activity, including electricity generation at a time when power demand has peaked.

Droughts are deceptive disasters because they don't knock down buildings but they do carry high socioeconomic costs. Tens of millions of people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and India are now reeling from the searing drought, precipitated by El Niño, the extra-heat-yielding climate pattern.

For China, the drought has created a public-relations challenge. Denying allegations that it is stealing from shared water sources or that its existing dams on the Mekong River are contributing to river depletion and recurrent drought downstream, China has released unspecified quantities of what it called “emergency water flows” to downriver states from one of its six giant dams, located just before the river flows out of Chinese territory.

For the downriver countries, however, the water release was a jarring reminder of not just China’s newfound power to control the flow of a critical resource, but also of their own reliance on Beijing’s goodwill and charity. With a further 14 dams being built or planned by China on the Mekong, this dependence on Chinese goodwill is set to deepen – at some cost to their strategic independence and environmental security.

Asia’s water challenges are underscored by the fact that it has less fresh water per person than any other continent and has some of the world’s worst water pollution.

A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology warned that Asia’s water crisis could worsen by 2050. And an earlier global study commissioned by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found that drought risks are the highest in Asia in terms of the number of people exposed.

The monsoon-centred hydrologic calendar means that annual rain is mainly concentrated in a three- to four-month period, with the rest of the year largely dry. A weak monsoon can compound the long dry period and trigger drought.

The water crisis highlights the urgent need for better management of the life-sustaining resource. Rapid development, breakneck urbanisation, large-scale irrigated farming, lifestyle changes and other human impacts have resulted in degraded watersheds, watercourses and other ecosystems, as well as shrinking forests and swamps and over-dammed rivers. The diversion of sand from riverbeds for the construction boom has damaged rivers and slowed the natural recharge of underground aquifers.

The current drought illustrates some of the key water-related challenges Asian nations must confront. One challenge is for Asia to grow more food with less water, less land and less energy. Increases in crop yields have slowed or flattened and the overall food production in Asia is now lagging demand growth for the first time, after the impressive strides Asia made between the 1970s and 1990s when in one generation it went from being a food-scarce continent dependent on imports to becoming a major food exporter.

With its vast irrigation systems, Asia boasts the bulk of the world’s land under irrigation – 72 per cent of the global irrigated acreage. With so much water diverted for agriculture, water is literally food in Asia. Excessive water withdrawals for agriculture have actually compounded vulnerability to drought.

With resources in rivers and reservoirs not adequate to meet demand, users have turned to pumping water from underground wells. Because groundwater is often a source of supply for rivers, springs, lakes and wetlands, the overexploitation of this strategic resource has helped to spread parched conditions.

With competition for scarce water increasingly a source of political dispute and instability, intra-state water disputes have become more common than inter-country wrangles. The potential for inter-country conflict, however, is being underlined by sharpening geopolitics over shared water resources.

In the coming years, water scarcity threatens to act as a conflict risk multiplier. Yet most Asian countries are not making serious, sustained efforts to build a water-secure future.

Asian countries need to place fresh water at the centre of their strategic planning, or else the linkages between water stress, sharing disputes, falling water quality and environmental degradation could trap Asia in an interminable vicious cycle.

Countries must restore vegetation, reverse the degradation of fresh water and coastal ecosystems, improve water quality to offset decrease in water quantity, incentivise water-use efficiency and use alternative cooling technologies for power generation.

Improved planning for water resource allocation demands an integrated, holistic approach. Water, food and energy, for example, must be jointly managed by policymakers to promote synergistic approaches.

American diplomatic efforts can promote better hydropolitics in Asia, given that the state department has classified fresh water as a central foreign-policy concern for American interests. If Asia is to avert a parched future, it must think and act long term.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including, most recently, Water, Peace, and War