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Vol. 23 No. 2 Summer (April-June) 2019

THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF WATER

WILL ASIA SEE A WATER WAR IN THE FUTURE?

 

 In earlier times, water was used as a tool of military conflict. Today however, there has been a structural change and now wars could be fought over water. The existing supply of water cannot keep up with demand and at the current rate any weak monsoon period could lead to the onset of a drought period in South and East Asia. While the potential for war breaking out due to a lack of water is low in the next ten years, water challenges due to increased instability will exacerbate tensions. This paper examines China’s transboundary water policies, its relations with India, Kazakhstan and the countries forming the Mekong River basin as well as future policy implications to analyse the possibility of a water war in the area encompassing Cambodia, China, India, Kazakhstan, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

 

KRITHIKA SUBRAMANIAN

 INTRODUCTION

Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was not being overly dramatic in 1999 when he called the country’s water problems a threat to the “survival of the Chinese nation”. (Lily Kuo, “China has Launched the Largest Water Pipeline Project in History”, The Atlantic, 7 March 2014, online at https://www.theatlantic.com) Little did China, Asia or the rest of the world realise then that the problem of water scarcity and the impending doom of a water war would be this close. Since earliest times, water has been used as a tool of military conflict. The use of water to establish supremacy dates back to 2500–2450 BCE, when surface water was diverted by the kingdom of Urlama, denying water to the neighbouring kingdom of Umma, in current day southern Iraq. In the modern era, in World War Two, the British air force bombed the Mohne and Sorpe dams and surface water bodies such as the Eder River in Germany as part of Operation Chastise. (David Kreamer, “The Past, Present and Future of Water Confl ict and International Security”, Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education, vol149, no1, 2013)

 

Since the times when water was used as a tool of war, there has been a structural change and now wars could be fought over water. Water scarcity has led to a fragile political situation in the South Asian subcontinent and although until now no war has been fought over water, the chances of a fullscale military war breaking out because of the lack of water as a resource cannot be ignored. The 2012 Global Water Security report (online at https://www.dni.gov) released by the United States National Intelligence Council, highlights that the current supply of water cannot keep up with demand and while the potential for war breaking out because of a lack of water is low in the next ten years, water challenges due to increased instability will exacerbate tensions.

 

THE ASIAN WATER CRISIS

 

A recent study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concludes that Asia’s water crisis will worsen and at the current rate any weak monsoon period could lead to the onset of a drought period. The report stresses for urgent improvements in the management of water resources and other life sustaining resources such as forests and animals. (Brahma Chellaney, “Asia’s Next Major Confl ict will be over Fresh Water”, The National, 10 May 2016, online at https://www.thenational.ae) In an article Strobe Driver (“‘Oil Then’, ‘Water Now’: Another Reason for War in the Twenty-First Century”, E-International Relations, online at https://www.e-ir.info) explains that a lack of intervention and monitoring of water usage and the neglectful attitude towards this fi nite resource of developing nations are two primary causes for the mismanagement of water and a lack of cooperation between states could escalate into water wars. (Chietigj Bajpaee, “Asia’s Coming Water Wars”, Asia Pacific Journal, 14 August 2006, online at https://apjjf.org)

 

 

The most recent case of water scarcity and transboundary water issues to attract world attention is that of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its neighbouring nations. Asia houses over 60 per cent of the population of the world but has the least per capita availability of water. International geostrategic analyst, Brahma Chellaney has identified China as the world’s unrivalled hydrohegemon, taking into account its position as an upstream nation and source of

river water for most regional countries. (Gordon G Chang, “Blue Gold: The Coming Water Wars”, World Affairs, September/October 2013) With the Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Mekong and Salween rivers amongst many others fl owing through it, China plays a vital role as it shares its water resources with multiple countries, thirteen of which border it directly. Despite knowing that it is a vital source of water, the PRC is in the process of building multiple dams and hydroelectricity projects mainly to avert a looming water crisis within its own territory. This however could disrupt or even stop the fl ow of water to lower riparian nations and as such has created anxiety and tension among downstream states, leading to a criticism of Chinese policies. (Hongzhou Zhang and Mingjiang Li, “Thirsty China and its Transboundary Issues”, China and Transboundary Water Politics in Asia, New York: Routledge, 2017)