The Two-headed Problem of Asian Hydropolitics: Security and Scarcity

July 2, 2009

Lake Nam Tso, Tibet. CREDIT: Ernie R

This article was originally posted in Carnegie Council's digital magazine, Policy Innovations.

As the rift has widened between the Chinese government and the Tibetan leadership in exile during the past year, it is high time that innovative strategies be considered for conflict resolution. During a recent visit to the Netherlands, I had an opportunity to interact with the Dalai Lama at a seminar on water security organized by the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. Sitting around a table with about fifteen scholars from Asia and Europe, the Buddhist spiritual leader called the Tibetan plateau a "third pole" of available water on the planet. The conversation was meant to be apolitical and to focus on science as a touchstone for cooperation. The Dalai Lama humorously commented that it is time we protect mountains not just because they are "sacred" but because "science tells us they are important." A global strategy is needed by scientists and policymakers alike to address the challenge of water scarcity in Asia.

The situation is particularly acute for the world's largest continent. While home to more than half of the world's population, Asia has less fresh water—3,920 cubic meters per person—than any continent except Antarctica. Almost two-thirds of global population growth is occurring in Asia, which is expected to grow by nearly 500 million within the next 10 years, mostly in urban areas. In November 2008, The U.S. National Intelligence Council highlighted Asian water scarcity in its Global Trends 2025 report: "With water becoming more scarce in Asia and the Middle East, cooperation to manage changing water resources is likely to become more difficult within and between states."

Yet despite these indicators, there has been little progress at the international or regional level. Meetings such as the World Water Forum provide useful exchange of information but little policy intervention. And much of the popular reporting on water security has been polarized between those who believe that conflicts arise from water scarcity and others who consider such analysis sensationalist, pointing to the historical paucity of "water wars." From the perspective of early warning assessments and strategic planning, policymakers should not be complacent about the potential for water conflicts based simply on the historical record. Demographic pressures, resource scarcity, and climate change dynamics in the coming century will be unprecedented.

The link between water and terrorism is also well established. Water can be used as a conduit for biological and chemical agents, and infrastructure used for water delivery and hydropower can be targeted during armed conflict. Just a few months ago the Taliban threatened to blow up Warsak Dam in Pakistan, which would have a catastrophic impact on the city of Peshawar.

Although the desire for an integrative approach to water resources has existed for several decades, the establishment of international water dispute mechanisms has been painfully slow. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses was promulgated in 1997, but has failed to muster the 35 votes needed for it to take effect. Ecosystems transcend political borders and water is the lifeline for all biological systems. Any attempts to contain water by political geographies are bound to have serious consequences on the natural system.

Small mountain states such as Nepal and Bhutan have a disproportionate share of water resources which they can potentially leverage against the hegemonic influence of their larger neighbors. A water governance regime that takes into account such asymmetries is thus essential. The waters of the Tibetan plateau are precisely the kind of distributed resource over which zero-sum conflicts can arise in international relations.

In 2005, the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources published a book titled Tibet's Water Will Save China, which was distributed widely across the government ranks to highlight the strategic importance of Tibet. Clearly the harnessing of waters from this region is a priority for President Hu Jintao, who is himself a hydrologist and a firm supporter of the South-North Water Transfer Project—an ambitious attempt to build dams, canals, and waterways that would bring Himalayan water to Chinese cities. This will clearly raise concerns in India and Bangladesh since rivers such as the Brahmaputra have their origins in China and there is no cooperative regime to address riparian distribution in this regard.

Despite the potential for conflict over water, there are also prospects for ecological cooperation. Indeed, the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan exemplifies how riparian cooperation among adversaries can be facilitated by international agencies such as the World Bank. Furthermore, when water problems are transformed from a purely quantitative distributional concern to one of scientific inquiry, greater cooperative potential can also be realized.

Even in cases of highly polarized territorial conflict such as Tibet, there must be an urgent call for joint research across borders to understand the dynamics of the changing glaciers and to find and disseminate adaptive strategies. As a starting point, China could promote interaction with Tibetan leaders on the issue of environmental education, while also granting global research teams greater access to study the decline of water resources on the Tibetan plateau.

All too often, countries assume that they will be able to desalinate seawater as a last resort. However, the potential for using massive amounts of energy (often oil) to harvest water from the sea is financially and ecologically unsustainable in the long run. This was most recently exemplified by the $2.2 billion debt crisis of the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority. Until we find efficient renewable energy sources, desalination is untenable as a panacea for water scarcity, especially in highly populated Asian countries.

While much of the world remains focused on the geopolitics of oil, water may become the more salient and influential resource. The latest James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, lends fictional impetus to the very real struggle for water access across many parts of the world. World leaders must treat the matter with utmost importance, particularly in Asia, and move toward a clear plan for meeting water demand through binding international agreements and domestic water conservation laws.

Because of its importance as a water source for the most populous parts of the world, the Himalayan and Tibetan region will be the bellwether for any progress that can be made on this vital resource issue. Initially the prospect of such cooperation may seem distant to many political realists, but if countries as disparate as the G20 can come together to work out solutions to our economic crisis, we can surely do the same for our most precious and life-giving resource.

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