Features | Environment | East Asia | Southeast Asia

Are ‘Water Wars’ Coming to Asia?

Climate change-induced water loss in the Tibetan Plateau further challenges water security from Central to Southeast Asia.

Are ‘Water Wars’ Coming to Asia?
Credit: Depositphotos

A recently published study by a team of scientists from the University of Texas in Austin, Penn State, and Tsinghua University in Nature climate change journal found that terrestrial water storage (TWS) in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in China is expected to sustain significant net declines by 2060. The study analyzed seven river basin systems – the Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Salween-Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow river basins – and found that the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, also known as Asia’s “water tower” or “the roof of the world,” is threatened by climate change-induced water loss.

As the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau’s glacier melt and mountain springs provide a significant supply of water flowing out of China to many downstream countries in Asia, this study reinforces that climate change effects are exacerbating water insecurity in Asia. While the water challenges in Asia are due in part to poor water management, they are made worse by other pressures. These include rapid population growth, urbanization, growing water demands, upstream-downstream disputes, and geopolitical tensions over water resources. To avoid further water insecurity concerns and fears of a “water war” or water crisis, governments in Asia should rethink their approach to water security by improving their management of water resources.

Climate Change

In recent decades, climate change has caused a severe depletion in TWS (surface and subsurface water), which is essential in determining water availability. Water storage is affected by climate change impacts (such as climate change-induced extreme weather events) and is linked to global sea-level rise.

According to the Nature paper’s authors, the volume of TWS lost annually is 15.8 gigatons in some parts of the Tibetan Plateau, home of the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range. This region is characterized by high elevation, periglacial processes, and an arid and cold continental climate. Based on this information, the authors predict that under a moderate carbon emissions scenario, by 2050, the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau may experience a net loss of approximately 230 gigatons of TWS.

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While the total water demand in the downstream of some river basins (the Ganges-Brahmaputra, Salween-Mekong, and Yangtze) can be met using other factors, this is not the case for the Amu Darya and Indus river basins. The research found that the Amu Darya basin – which originates in the Pamir Mountains and supplies water to Afghanistan and Central Asia – will see a 119 percent decline in water-supply capacity. Similarly, the Indus basin – which originates in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and supplies water to northern India and Pakistan – is projected to undergo a 79 percent reduction in water-supply capacity.

The paper adds to a growing body of literature that emphasizes global water insecurity concerns, particularly in Asia. The global demand for freshwater is skyrocketing while supply becomes more uncertain. At present, estimates suggest that one out of three people worldwide – more than a billion – do not have access to safe drinking water. In addition,  2.2 billion people globally do not have safely managed drinking water services.

According to the United Nations, half of countries worldwide will face water shortages or stress by 2025. By then, nearly 1.8 billion people will live in areas with absolute water scarcity, while two-thirds of the world population could face water-stressed conditions. Furthermore, by 2050, as much as 75 percent of the global population may be affected by water scarcity. For instance, the U.N. estimates that between 4.8 to 5.7 billion people could live in areas with water shortages for at least one month a year by 2050.

Water and water-related challenges are notably severe in Asia. While Asia is home to more than 50 percent of the global population, it has less freshwater – 3,920 cubic meters per person per year – than other continents, aside from Antarctica.

In the case of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the region has abundant water resources with low utilization rates. As the headwater of 10 major river systems filling river basins in Asia, over 1.35 billion people – around 20 percent of the world’s population – depend on rivers originating in China’s Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. However, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has been considerably impacted by climate change. This includes increases in the annual air temperature by 0.32 degrees Celsius per decade between 1961 and 2017 and significant groundwater depletion. Given the considerable reduction in the size of the region’s glaciers, this makes the decline in TWS even more concerning.

At the same time, Asia is facing considerable challenges from additional pressures. Nearly two-thirds of the global population growth is occurring in Asia: by 2050, the continent’s population is projected to grow to 5.26 billion by 2050. While the rural population in Asia will remain almost the same between now and 2025, the urban population will soar by an enormous 60 percent. Given such rapid rates of population growth and urbanization, with concomitant water demands, this will inevitably place greater stress on Asia’s water resources.

The Geopolitics of Water

Further complicating water security issues, China, the “upstream superpower” of many of Asia’s longest and most important rivers and regional hydro-hegemon, does not have an independent transboundary river policy. Instead, the management of transnational water resources falls under the much broader framework of foreign relations with the many various downstream countries.

Given China’s distrust of multilateral frameworks to resolve international disputes, Beijing has not signed a water-sharing with its neighbors or an international transboundary-governing water treaty, causing concern in the downstream region over the potential for conflict over access to and control of shared water resources. Some of China’s neighbors have not signed these agreements either.

Complicating matters, China’s major approach to water challenges has been engineering-focused, as demonstrated by its construction of mega hydro-infrastructure such as hydropower dams. Hydropower dams can have an enormous impact on water supply by affecting river flow to the downstream region. China has built many hydropower dams on major transnational rivers, both within Chinese territory and downstream, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, China’s dam-building activities on the upper headwaters of various transboundary rivers, including major international rivers such as the Brahmaputra, Mekong, and Salween, have caused significant concern along with ecological, socioeconomic, and environmental damage in the downstream region. This consequently puts further pressure on a region that is already water-stressed.

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For instance, the Stimson Center, in a 2020 report, linked China’s dam management on the upper Mekong to significant changes in water levels downstream. According to the report, the hydropower dams held back water to such an extent that they prevented the annual monsoon-drive rise in river level at Chiang Saen, Thailand, in 2019. This was the first time this had happened since the establishment of modern records.

The increase in hydropower dams has thus increased tension between China and the various downstream countries. The downstream region is becoming increasingly concerned by the potential threat of China using hydropower dams to leave its neighbors without adequate water supply or, in the case of a dispute or conflict, “turning the tap off” to the downstream. In response to such growing concerns and the apparent threat of China’s proposed 60 gigawatt “super” dam, India has announced it is considering building its own 10-gigawatt hydropower dam in a remote eastern state.

At the same time, various inter-basin project proposals have caused alarm in the downstream region. One project proposal, in particular, the Red Flag River concept, aims to annually divert 60 billion cubic meters from the major rivers of the ecologically fragile Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to arid Xinjiang and other parts of northwest China. This would impact three transnational rivers (the Mekong, Salween, and Brahmaputra). Chinese scholars believe that water resources from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau – despite the decrease in quantity since the 1960s – may encourage the regional development of northwestern China.

For the downstream region, particularly India and Vietnam, the project proposal has raised additional concerns about water scarcity and potential growing competition between the downstream area for access to and control water resources.

Are “Water Wars” on the Agenda?

There has been much speculation over the possibility of water wars, driven partly by the media and sensationalist headlines. Further linking water and conflict, various politicians and high-ranking officials from leading international organizations have made statements about the looming specter of water wars, including former U.N. Secretaries General Kofi Annan, Ban Ki-moon, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Think tanks and non-profit organizations have also identified the risks associated with water crises, such as political and socioeconomic instability, especially in the case of transboundary water basins. In 2015, the 10th global risk report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked water crises first among global risks.

More recently, an unclassified memo from the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) in July 2020 examined global water security over the next 30 years. The memo noted that without sufficient water, countries will experience a decline in socioeconomic, political, and public health, as well as gross domestic production, made worse by climate change effects. The U.S. NIC Global Trends 2025 report also predicted that “cooperation to manage changing water resources is likely to become more difficult within and between states” in Asia and the Middle East.

While this may appear incredibly worrisome, the “water wars” narrative has also been refuted. Various academics have pointed out that going to access to water is not usually the primary reason for war. Other academics have noted that water conflict can coexist at different variations of intensity and scales alongside different forms of cooperation.

In such circumstances, countries should rethink their approaches to water security to meet increased water demand and avoid further concerns of water crises. Specifically, governments must recognize that improving water management practices is necessary not only to decrease water demand but also to improve water quality. Although the downstream region may prefer to construct mega hydro-engineering projects, they should also consider the (greater) use of alternative water supply sources (e.g. treated wastewater and desalination) for both non-potable and potable uses. They may also consider implementing water demand management practices (such as smart meters and other technologies) and improved access to financing along with the implementation of nature-based solutions.

Asia’s water and water-related challenges are set to increase in the coming decades. As the recent study in Nature notes, the TWS is expected to continue to decline, especially for the Amu Darya and Indus river basins, the latter of which begins in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The challenges posed by water insecurity and poor water management in Asia will also continue to worsen due to the effects of climate change. For the downstream region, this adds another challenge to the existing concerns over water management and water availability, made worse by China’s dam-building agenda.

While the “water wars” narrative may lack historical evidence, it is undeniable that interlinked concerns of rapid population growth and urbanization combined with growing demands for water further challenge the poor water management in the countries. Climate change impacts will further exacerbate these significant concerns, and in such a context, a “water war” or “water crisis” cannot be ruled out. To avoid additional water challenges and to ensure water security, countries must improve water management alongside the implementation of water demand management methods.