Asia’s water stress challenges growth and security

by Brahma Chellaney

Water, the most vital of all resources, has emerged as a key issue that will determine whether Asia is headed toward cooperation or competition. After all, the driest continent in the world is not Africa, but Asia, where availability of freshwater is not even half the global annual average of 6,380 cubic meters per inhabitant.

When the estimated reserves of rivers, lakes and aquifers are added up, Asia has less than one-tenth of the waters of South America, Australia and New Zealand, not even one-fourth of North America, almost one-third of Europe and moderately less than Africa per inhabitant. Yet the world’s fastest-growing demand for water for food and industrial production and for municipal supply is in Asia, which now serves as the locomotive of the world economy.

Today, the fastest-growing Asian economies are all at or near water-stressed conditions, including China, India, South Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia. But just three or four decades ago, these economies were relatively free of water stress. Now if we look three or four decades ahead, it is clear that the water situation will only exacerbate, carrying major implications for rapid economic growth and inter-riparian relations.

Yet Asia continues to draw on tomorrow’s water to meet today’s needs. Worse still, Asia has one of the lowest levels of water efficiency and productivity in the world. Against this background, it is no exaggeration to say that the water crisis threatens Asia’s economic and political rise and its environmental sustainability. For investors, it carries risks that potentially are as damaging as nonperforming loans, real estate bubbles and political corruption. Water has also emerged as a source of increasing competition and discord within and between nations, spurring new tensions over shared basin resources and local resistance to governmental or corporate decisions to set up water-intensive industries.

These developments raise the question whether the risks of water conflict are higher in Asia than elsewhere in the world. With Asia becoming the scene of increasingly fierce intrastate and interstate water competition, the answer clearly is yes. Water is a new arena in the Asian Great Game.

In fact, water wars — in a political, diplomatic, or economic sense — are already being waged between riparian neighbors in several Asian regions, fuelling a cycle of bitter recrimination and fostering mistrust that impedes broader regional cooperation and integration. Without any shots being fired, rising costs continue to be exacted. The resources of transnational rivers, aquifers and lakes have become the target of rival appropriation plans.

With a river or groundwater basin often becoming tied with a nation’s identity, ownership and control over its resources is considered crucial to national interests. That has helped give rise to grand but environmentally questionable ideas — from China’s Great Western Route to divert river waters from the Tibetan Plateau to its parched north and South Korea’s politically divisive four-rivers project, to India’s now-stalled proposal to link up its important rivers and Jordan’s plan to save the dying Dead Sea by bringing water from the Red Sea through a 178-km canal, which is also to serve as a source for desalinated drinking water.

Several factors have contributed to the Asian water crisis, which is leading to river and aquifer degradation. One is that Asia is not only the largest and most-populous continent but also the fastest developing. How the swift economic rise of Asia has brought water resources under increasing pressure can be seen from the fact that most Asian economies now are water-stressed.

The exceptions are few: Bhutan, Burma, Papua New Guinea, Laos, Cambodia, Brunei and Malaysia.

Unlike the fossils fuels, mineral ores and timber that they import even from distant lands, the Asian economies must make do with their own water resources, a significant share of which is in transnational watercourses. This fact only serves as a strong incentive for some nations to try and commandeer internationally shared waters before they leave their national borders. Given the critical role of water in economic modernization, this continent has emerged at the centre of the global water challenges.

Another factor is consumption growth, as a consequence of rising prosperity. The plain fact is that on average Asians are consuming more resources, including water, food, oil and energy. The consumption growth is best illustrated by the changing diets, especially the greater intake of meat, whose production is notoriously water-intensive.

A third factor is the role of irrigation in accentuating the Asian water stress. Asia more than doubled its total irrigated cropland just between 1960 and 2000. Once a continent of serious food shortages and recurrent famines, Asia opened the path to its dramatic economic rise by emerging as a net food exporter on the back of this unparalleled irrigation expansion.

Asia now boasts the leonine proportion of the world’s surface land under irrigation. About 70 percent of the world’s 301 million hectares of land equipped for irrigation is in Asia alone, making it the global irrigation hub. Just three sub-regions of Asia — South Asia, China and Southeast Asia — by themselves account for about 50 percent of the world’s total irrigated land.

It is thus hardly a surprise that Asia leads the world in the total volume of freshwater withdrawn for agriculture. Indeed, almost 74 percent of the total global freshwater withdrawals for agriculture by volume are made in Asia alone.

Water literally is food in Asia. Yet the growth of rice and wheat output in Asia, after the dramatic increases of the previous quarter-century, has actually slowed since the late 1990s, raising concerns that Asian countries will become major food importers, roiling the international market. The international food market is not large enough to meet major import demands from Asia.

A fourth factor is that the fastest increase in water demand in Asia is now coming not from agriculture but from the industrial sector and urban households, in keeping with the fact that this continent has become the seat of the world’s fastest industrialization and urbanization.

A final factor linked to Asia’s water stress is the large-scale impoundment of water resources through dams, barrages, reservoirs and other human-made structures without factoring in long-term environmental considerations. Dams, to be sure, bring important benefits. But upstream dams on rivers shared by two or more nations or provinces in an era of growing water stress often carry broader political and social implications, especially because they can affect water quality and quantity downstream. Dams can also alter fluvial ecosystems, damage biodiversity and promote coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion.

Asia is not just the global irrigation hub; it is also the world’s most dam-dotted continent. China, the world’s biggest dam builder, alone has slightly more than half of the approximately 50,000 large dams on the planet. Most of the best dam sites in Asia already have been taken. Yet the numerous new dam projects in Asia show that the damming of rivers is still an important priority for policymakers. Such a focus on dam building has only intensified intrastate and interstate water disputes and tensions in Asia, with implications for regional security and stability.

The countries likely to bear the brunt of upstream diversion of waters are those located farthest downstream on rivers like the Brahmaputra, Mekong and Tigris-Euphrates: Bangladesh, whose very future is threatened by climate and environmental change; Vietnam, a rice bowl of Asia; and Iraq, still internally torn. Cross-border water appropriations from the Illy River threaten to turn Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash into another Aral Sea, which is dying.

So, the big question is: How can Asian nations prevent the sharpening struggle for water resources from becoming a tipping point for overt conflict? To contain the security risks, Asian states must invest more in institutionalized cooperation on trans-boundary basin resources in order to underpin strategic stability, protect continued economic growth and promote environmental sustainability.

The harsh truth is that only four of the 57 transnational river basins in Asia have a treaty covering water sharing or other institutionalized cooperation. These are the Mekong, Ganges, Indus and Jordan river basins. The absence of a cooperative arrangement in most Asian transnational basins is making inter-country water competition a major security risk, increasing the likelihood of geopolitical tensions and instabilities.

With its multitude of inter-country basins, Asia cannot continue to prosper without building political and technological partnerships to help stabilize inter-riparian relations, encourage greater water efficiency, promote environmental sustainability, take on practicable conservation strategies, and invest in clean-water technologies. If Asian states are to address their water challenges, they will need to embrace good practices on the strategic planning and management of water resources.

This article is excerpted from Brahma Chellaney’s latest book, “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press, 2011).