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Water: Quenching the Thirst for Security?

June 22, 2011

By John J. Brandon

Asia has fewer fresh water resources than any other continent in the world. The global average of fresh water per capita annually is 6,280 cubic meters. The only countries rich in water resources in all of Asia are Malaysia, Laos, Bhutan, Nepal, and Kyrgyzstan, leaving the rest of Asia water-stressed.

Life on the Mekong

The Mekong River serves as a source of food security and livelihood for approximately 70 million people on mainland Southeast Asia. Photo by Bart Verweij.

Asia has 47 percent of the global average of fresh water per person, but has 65 percent of the world’s population. The situation in China is most severe, with people having only one-third of the global average of fresh water per person at 2,100 cubic meters. China has 22 percent of the world’s population, but only 5 percent of the world’s water resources and 7 percent of the planet’s arable land.

Whereas oil helped to shape geo-politics in the 20th century, water may define many inter-state relationships in the 21st century. However, unlike oil, there are no substitutes for water. Some analysts speculate whether nations will go to war over lack of water resources. While such a scenario cannot be ruled out as a possibility, competition for water resources – at a minimum – will be keen. But is this really the way to approach the issue?

Of the 261 international rivers in the world, 15 are in China, and involve 16 nations and all three sub-regions of Asia, including the Mekong, Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Indus rivers. At this juncture, China does not have any kind of water treaties with any of its riparian neighbors. Of the world’s 2,000 large dams, 1,000 are in China, which naturally affect neighboring regions. For a country like Vietnam at the mouth of the Mekong River Delta, a dam that reduces the amount of nutrient-rich sediment that flows down from the upper part of the river would have adverse consequences on that country’s ability to grow rice, a major staple. A reduction in freshwater flow caused by poorly designed dams in the upper or lower Mekong would increase salinity of river water, adversely affecting the rice crop and destroying the fertile soil of the area. There are 17 million Vietnamese who make their living growing rice, which is the country’s largest sector of employment. Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of rice after Thailand, another nation that borders the Mekong. Such consequences would have real implications for these countries to feed themselves, for their economies, and also for other nations that are food dependent.

In addition, dams built on the lower Mekong could block the path of migratory fish species that supply up to 80 percent of the animal protein in the local diet. The Mekong River serves as a source of food security and livelihood for approximately 70 million people on mainland Southeast Asia. Poverty still challenges the region as 20 million of these people live below the poverty line. While the sale of electricity generated by dams provides a source of foreign revenue for countries such as Laos that have limited economic alternatives, this may be unsustainable and comes with potentially significant environmental and social costs. In the end, what is important is to have sensible and sustainable development for the Mekong, and for other international rivers on which people depend for their economies, health, and livelihood.

When water crises occur, they are most frequently a result of continual mismanagement and ineffective governance. If poor governance persists, water wars may be fought, not necessarily with military force but rather through various forms of diplomatic and economic pressure. This may make the conflict silent, but could create a bitter cycle of recrimination that fosters mistrust which would impede broader regional cooperation.

Virtually all the nations of Asia need to address water issues in a cooperative, constructive manner. Recently, there have been a few positive signs that countries are taking this course. At a Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference last week, China indicated it is equally balancing development and protection of water resources, noting that it would take full consideration of the interests of downstream countries. Laos also announced suspension on the controversial Xayaburi dam in May, agreeing to further investigate potential downstream consequences.

Nonetheless, effective water governance predicated on norms and rules involves issues of access to decision-making and information, participation, and justice at local, national, and regional levels. Asian policy- and decision-makers need to better cooperate on how water will be managed as a precious natural resource and as a conservation issue, and not view water just as a security issue. Such cooperation will require institutions that are more inclusive and effective than they are now.

John J. Brandon is The Asia Foundation’s director of International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C. He is a member of a management security in Asia study group, organized by the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), which recently convened for the first time in Hanoi, Vietnam. Brandon can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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