As the contradictions of Asia’s water challenges have been laid bare this summer—with millions affected by flooding while others are hit by droughts—one thing has been made clearer: the coming water crisis could exacerbate already simmering domestic and regional tensions.
Heavy monsoon rains have produced the worst flooding in Pakistan’s history, with more than three weeks of flooding leaving at least 1,500 dead and more than 4 million homeless. Millions of Pakistanis already require humanitarian assistance, yet the likelihood that many more could be added to this list has grown with the announcement that 200,000 have been evacuated as flood waters continue to rise in Singh Province in the country’s south.
Meanwhile, flash floods and mudslides have submerged some villages in China’s Gansu Province, killing hundreds and leaving more than a thousand missing. Today, Chinese state media announced 250,000 had been evacuated in the north of the country after the Yalu River burst its banks.
But while attention has been focused on disasters in Pakistan in China, South-east Asia has been hit by its own torrential downpours. Last month, Singapore suffered three major floods—an unprecedented number for the prosperous city state—with even the shopping and financial districts hit in the first serious flooding disaster in the city since 1978.
Vietnam has also been affected, with many parts of Hanoi under water last month after a major storm struck the country. What added insult to injury in Vietnam’s case is that the flooding came after a nine-month dry spell that disrupted the country’s power supply (about a third of Vietnam’s power source comes from hydroelectric power plants whose operations have been adversely affected by falling water levels in the Mekong River).
And Vietnam hasn’t been the only country in the region to face the twin curse of droughts and flooding. The Philippines (recently ranked by the Belgium-based Center for Research and Epidemiology Disasters as the most disaster-prone area in the world) was last year hit by 14 meteorological and 9 hydrological disasters, the most devastating of which was last September’s typhoon, which unleashed the worst flooding in Metro Manila in 40 years.
This year, although floods have been a regular occurrence in Manila since the start of the wet season, the June-July rainfall was insufficient to increase water levels at the Angat Dam—the principal source of fresh water in the country’s capital. The result has been both tragic and somehow comic: Residential homes are flooded, but there’s no water in the faucets.
To top all this, Thailand is also this year experiencing a longer than usual dry season and was forced to postpone the rice planting season for a month, which will have knock-on effects around the region as Thailand, like Vietnam, is among the world’s top rice exporters.
It’s an alarming pattern—both flooding and dry spells across Asia are becoming more intense, and occurring more frequently, each year.
So how should Asian governments respond? For a start, they can do better than simply blaming God or Nature, arguments rolled out by one Singaporean minister to explain the massive flooding there.
Flash floods, landslides, and other symptoms of climate change are also in part man-made disasters. In the case of Singapore, for example, some experts blame excessive property development in the city for rising floodwaters, while the Gansu landslide in China has been linked to massive deforestation, mining activities and the construction of several hydropower plants in the area.
Inadequate government planning is also a major reason for the rising human casualties. The Philippines drafted comprehensive flood control measures as early as 1976 but failed to implement the proposed engineering solutions to minimize the harmful impact of the annual floods. Water rationing is now being undertaken in Manila precisely because previous governments have failed to develop or tap other sources of clean water. If Malaysia doesn’t learn from the mistakes of the Philippines, it’s estimated that it too could encounter a water crisis in 2014.
But swiftly addressing these problems is about more than the immediate goal of saving lives in individual countries—doing so can also help prevent regional disputes. For example, the construction of several dams in China along the Mekong River has been pinpointed as one reason for the drop in water levels along the river, which is vital for servicing the water needs of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (though of course China resents any suggestion that its damming activities are causing environmental problems for its neighbours).
There’s potential for such disputes to turn into conflict. For countries like Singapore confronted with scarce water supplies, it’s crucial that sustainable water agreements are inked with adjacent countries. Singapore has a water agreement with Malaysia, but the deal comes to an end next year. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad pondered in a blog entry whether it’s time to charge Singapore for the water it buys from Malaysia at adjusted market prices. This comes at a time when Malaysia is blaming Singapore’s land reclamation project for flooding in the Sungai Johor area. Could Malaysia and Singapore end up battling over clean water next year?
This isn’t, of course, the only potential flashpoint over water in Asia—India and Pakistan have already been widely cited as two countries at risk of conflict over Himalayan water sources.
But it’s still unclear whether there’s any urgency to take a more broad-based approach to tackling these problems.
Regional governments find plenty of time to meet and discuss trade imbalances, poverty and terrorism. But recent crises have demonstrated that it’s time they also stopped seeing problems such as the floods in Pakistan as simply national, internal issues and started taking a regional perspective instead. Failure to do so may well prove nothing short of disastrous.