Originally Published 2011-02-18 00:00:00 Published on Feb 18, 2011
Adequate access to water is not only a human right but it also forms the cornerstone of economic development. It is growing in importance in Asia where the population is rising at an exponential rate making it home to more than half of the world's population.
Ensuring Water Security in Asia

Adequate access to water is not only a human right but it also forms the cornerstone of economic development. It is growing in importance in Asia where the population is rising at an exponential rate making it home to more than half of the world's population. Water availability per capita in the region is amongst the lowest in the world. South Asia especially has been identified as one of the most critical regions with respect to water.

Often lessons from the past act as suitable deterrents to conflicts or aggressive postures. However in a world where most large-scale conflicts have been largely territorial, conflicts based on resource constraints would pose unique challenges. Future dynamics of water will be different from the past.

Conflict Potential In Asia

More than 90% of the water in central Asia is concentrated in Kyrgystan and Tajikistan with major rivers being the Syr Darya and Amu Darya. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are the region's main water consumers. Uzbekistan has a dependency of about 77% on external waters which is important for its agricultural needs. There have been tensions over hydro projects proposed to be built in Kyrgystan, as Uzbekistan opposes these. Water situation in Afghanistan especially in its present post- war scenario is  largely dependent on the Amu Darya.

China is one of the critical stakeholders in the region's resources. Its history with Russia has been that of both cooperation and conflict including a military standoff over water. With Kazakhstan it has an agreement for 23 three transboundary rivers. The proposed hydropower projects for the south north water transfer project designed to transfer the Brahmaputra to the Yellow river has generated considerable concern among its lower riparians viz (India and Bangladesh).

The Mekong river commission comprises of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam .Each country in the commission has relatively divergent interests. Thailand wants energy, Laos for hydropower, Cambodia favours status quo, while China and Myanmar prefer to stay outside the formal framework.

India is an upper riparian to the Indus water system, which further downstream is the lifeline for Pakistan's predominantly agro-economy. On the other hand it is lower riparian to China since Brahmaputra has considerable effect on India's eastern plains. India and Pakistan have one of the lowest per capita water availability in Asia. The Indus Water treaty (1960) signed between India and Pakistan has come under increasing pressure lately over new hydro projects under construction in India. These include the Baglihar and Kishenganga projects. Most of these issues have however been addressed by an arbitration system which has been provided for in the treaty thus preventing any escalation.

Between India and Bangladesh, a Joint Rivers Commission was established in 1972.This was complemented by the Ganges Agreement in 1977. Bangladesh, however, continues to be concerned about the water flows in the river affected by Indian constructions and usage. The US$15 billion ambitious river interlinking project proposed by India for transferring excess water from northern and eastern rivers to the water deficient western and southern regions was strongly opposed by Bangladesh. The Mahakali agreement in 1996 on integrated development and hydropower generation signed between India and Nepal was seen as a  way forward but Nepal continues to have concerns about overdependence on India for energy etc.

Across the region, national problems have peculiar similarities. China's northern regions have conflicts over water supply in villages, counties and provinces with per capita water availability dwindling at 1/10 of the world average. There are conflicts along ethnic lines in urban areas where migration patterns have affected water allocation. Cambodia has the problem of illegal ground water exploitation. Indonesia, despite having 6% of the world's fresh water resources, is unable to provide piped water access to 80% of its population who use rivers for drinking and washing.

Despite reinforced effluent regulation to improve water quality in Japan, problems still remain due to lack of sewage treatment infrastructure leaving 70% of the drinking water sources polluted. Laos which is rich in water resources and depends on water resources for irrigation, hydropower, navigation, fisheries and plantation etc also has similar problems. Malaysia again has water pollution and groundwater problems

Myanmar despite being richly endowed is predominantly agriculture centric and percentage population covered by access to safe drinking water is low. Philippines has a manufacturing based development model .Water pollution causes economic losses of about US$1.3 billion every year. Thailand faces pricing and pollution issues. Vietnam has adequate supply but lacks physical infrastructure and financial capability to tap its supplies. Nepal has untapped hydroelectricity potential of about 45000 MW and Bhutan about 30,000 MW.


Nine out of twelve basins which have been identified as high risk in the world    are in Asia. The indicators include high population density, low per capita GDP, unfriendly relations, politically-active minority groups, hydropower projects and less fresh water treaties

Ambiguous legal frameworks regarding water usage rights mean that water becomes an automatic corollary to land rights laws. Water usage rights from individual to the international level remain an  unfinished agenda as the Helsinki Declaration, an attempt towards an international water law,  failed to address the issue.

Pricing policy with negligible user charges cause low efficiency levels of 40-60%.There has been little or no public investment in surface water based irrigation infrastructure.

The region is a climate change hot-spot. Glacier-melting scenario could be very hard to mitigate, precipitation could change, sea water intrusion could cause increase in soil acidity, flora could be destroyed, and there could be a large displacement of population. Worst-case scenario needs to be considered to be in a position to deal with them. One of the key problems is a concentrated and complex pattern of water distribution which is very hard to predict.

One of the main problems is that technical and management challenges are often treated as political and sovereignty issues.

Looking ahead there will be a decline in per capita availability of water; this is in line with what has been happening historically. The question would be whether the rate of decline would be slow enough to allow adaptation and mitigation .The indication of such an adaptation would be changing lifestyles, acceptance of a scarcity situation and a conservationist and cooperative model of water usage. However the enormity of the challenge would be magnified if the availability were to change drastically.


With such commonality of rivers, riparian systems and issues, there is a reason to create collaborative rather than competitive frameworks within the Asian region .There is a need to develop a dedicated comprehensive regional framework to tackle issues related to water scarcity. This is possible because unlike the case of climate change, most countries in Asia today face a common problem leading towards water scarcity and mitigation. There are also no issues of equitable burden sharing as joint management and technical collaboration would only lead to increased gains both in short and long term. The only obstacle would be summoning the political will to do the same.

On a regional level there should be increased cooperation between nations to develop an institutional response to trans-boundary allocation which would focus on strengthening conflict prevention capabilities. Existing organisations such as Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) and Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) could support. Mitigation would have to be based on economic and social equalization. New and innovative ideas such as benefit sharing could be explored. Storage in Nepal could be an answer to floods in Bangladesh. A regional grid based on hydropower could be set up in capital deficient Bhutan which could cater to energy deficient   Pakistan, India and China. India could grow fruits and Pakistan paddy, under some trade conditions to provide efficient utilization of the river downstream.

There could be an exclusive judicial process for water conflict arbitration-this would ensure uniformity in justice. Awareness and knowledge of water could act as means of security.

On a national level what is required is effective governance and better practices. This would entail developing integrated water resources management, micro-shed water development, rainwater harvesting and revival of traditional methods of storage and usage. Revamping ground water policy by negating electricity subsidies, introducing disincentives for fertilizer and pesticide use, ensuring  realistic water pricing mechanism and promoting artificial recharge methods would also be beneficial . It would be ideal to formulate policies that create incentives for stakeholders to invest in water. Acquiring technological expertise and improving data quality and monitoring is also an essential requirement.

There is a need to seriously engage in preventive diplomacy and perception management to ensure that the false perceptions of water scarcity do not emerge within the nation or among people in riparian countries. Despite any political gains that a country may accrue out of trying to mobilise the nation around a socio-political objective of scarcity of water, in the long run and in the interest of the region this could have catastrophic consequences. There should be an attempt to prevent securitization of the issue.

The private sector has emerged as one of the key reasons for growth and development across the region. There needs to be an increased investment in water technology, some like drip irrigation techniques have been hailed as tremendous achievements. There should be an emphasis towards increased efficiency of water use. Innovative pricing models and cost reduction must be provided for avenues such as recycled water and desalinization techniques. Businesses need to recognize the importance of water both as a life sustaining form and also as an unsurpassed business opportunity. Water could become the oil of the future.

Today water shortage is a challenge which can be met with immediate action, however once it transcends into a scarcity phenomenon, the magnitude of the fallout would be so immense that that tackling related challenges would become priority and the situation could spiral out of control. The time to act is now.

Akhilesh Variar is, Research Assistant, ORF

The article is an abridged version of an entry submitted to the "Asia's Challenge 2020" essay competition organized by Asia Business Council and has been selected as a potential candidate for inclusion in the book Asia's Challenge 2020: Views of Asia's Next Generation.

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