Asia’s Worsening Water Crisis

Brahma Chellaney

Survival | vol. 54 no. 2 | April–May 2012 | pp. 143–156, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2012.672806

Of all the natural resources on which the modern world depends, water is the most critical. There are replacements for oil, but there is no substitute for water. It is essential to produce virtually all the goods in the marketplace, from food to industrial products, as well as to produce electricity, to refine oil and gas, and to mine coal and uranium. Put simply, water scarcity and rapid economic advance cannot go hand in hand.[1] Yet water scarcity now affects more than two-fifths of the people on Earth, and by 2025 two-thirds of the global population is likely to be living in water-scarce or water-stressed conditions.[2] Water-scarce nations face very tough choices and serious socioeconomic consequences. And the majority of the world’s people living in water-related despair will be in Asia.

Water has emerged as a key issue that will determine if Asia heads toward greater cooperation or greater competition. Asia is the world’s driest continent, with availability of freshwater less than half the global annual average of 6,380 m3 per inhabitant. Asia’s rivers, lakes and aquifers give it, per capita, less than one-tenth the water of South America or Australia and New Zealand, less than one-fourth of North America, almost one-third of Europe, and moderately less than Africa.[3] Yet the world’s fastest-growing demand for water is in Asia, which now serves as the locomotive of the world economy. Today, the most dynamic Asian economies, including China, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam, are all in or close to being in conditions of water stress. The exceptions are few: Bhutan, Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.

Yet Asia continues to draw on tomorrow’s water to meet today’s needs.[4] Worse still, Asia has one of the lowest levels of water efficiency and productivity in the world. Against this background, it is no exaggeration to say that the water crisis threatens Asia’s economic and political rise and its environmental sustainability. For investors, it carries risks as potentially damaging as non-performing loans, real-estate bubbles, infrastructure overbuilding and political corruption. The water crisis means that the cost of doing business in Asia is set to rise. Water has also emerged as a source of increasing competition and discord within and between nations, spurring new tensions over shared basin resources and local resistance to governmental or corporate decisions to set up water-intensive industries.

Asia’s water challenges

In the face of rising populations, rapid growth of the middle class, expanding irrigation and water-intensive industries, and spiralling household consumption, per capita water availability in Asia is actually declining by 1.6% per year. The decline is greater across central, southern, southwestern and western Asia as well as in semi-arid northern China. In areas where water availability has traditionally been very low, such as the Near East and the Arabian Peninsula, even small declines or annual variation in precipitation can exacerbate the vulnerabilities of entire communities by creating drought-like conditions. The spreading water stress in Asia has direct consequences for economic and human development as well as environmental protection.

With aquifers being drained to dangerously low levels, a number of cities in Asia that rely on groundwater, such as Yemen’s capital Sana’a and Quetta in Pakistan, face the spectre of running out. Beijing increasingly depends on water brought in from elsewhere. In an ever-deeper search for water, millions of pump-operated wells threaten to suck Asia’s subterranean reserves dry, even as the continent confronts river depletion. Asian economies can import fossils fuels, mineral ores and timber from distant lands, but they must make do with their own water resources.

Pressure on national water resources is said to be high when water withdrawal exceeds 25% of total renewable water resources. This ratio is 34% for India and 26% for South Korea. China’s 18.57% may be relatively decent, but the country remains chronically unable to meet its water needs in the north, where almost half its population lives and where rivers are dying. In contrast, Japan, at 21.26% is doing a better job than China in managing its water resources by maintaining water quality.[5]

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) captured the Asian crisis through its 2009 Index of Water Available for Development, a measure of per capita water availability for human, economic and ecological uses per year on the basis of each country’s internal renewable water resources minus total water used. This index reveals that there have been steep declines in water availability for development since the baseline year of 1980 in a number of Asian nations, including the two giants, China and India, that make up nearly two-fifths of the global population.[6] The water situation in India looks particularly ominous. The report warned that ‘water shortfalls on this scale heighten competition for a precious resource and frequently lead to conflicts, which are emerging as new threats to social stability’.[7]

Although Asia’s overall population growth has slowed, an important factor driving the water crisis is growth in consumption due to rising prosperity. This is best illustrated by changes in diet, especially a greater intake of meat, whose production is notoriously water intensive. In China, for example, meat consumption rose fourfold between 1980 and 2010, with its beef sector growing from almost nothing to become the third largest in the world. By 2030, Chinese meat consumption is projected to double further. This shift from traditional rice and noodles to a meatier diet has already fuelled a doubling of China’s water footprint for food production since 1985: it takes ten times more water to raise a kilo of beef than grow a kilo of rice or wheat.[8]

Once plagued by serious food shortages and recurrent famines, Asia opened the door to its dramatic economic rise by emerging as a net food exporter on the back of an unparalleled expansion of irrigation: total irrigated cropland in Asia doubled between 1960 and 2000. It is notable that few advanced industrial countries depend on other countries to feed their populations; many of them, on the contrary, are important food exporters.

This may explain why Asian nations have attached great strategic importance to food security, often equating that goal, rather imprudently, with food sovereignty. Yet the extension of agriculture to semi-arid and arid areas in Asia has necessitated intensive irrigation, which, in turn, has created serious waterlogging and soil-salinity problems and undercut crop-yield growth. Even in Asia’s fertile valleys drained by major river systems, irrigation is usually necessary in the dry season; much of the continent’s rainfall is concentrated in a three- or four-month monsoon period. By contrast, Europe, with its temperate climate and long rainy periods, is able to produce most of its food through rain-fed crops. In fact, such is the widespread prevalence of rain-fed agriculture among rich nations that industry, not agriculture, is their leading water consumer, except in Australia and New Zealand.

Asia now boasts the lion’s share, about 70%, of the world’s irrigated land. Three sub-regions — South Asia, China and Southeast Asia — by themselves account for about 50% of the global total. It is thus hardly a surprise that Asia leads the world in the total volume of freshwater withdrawn for agriculture. Indeed, almost 74% of the total global freshwater withdrawals for agriculture by volume are made in Asia.[9] As a proportion of its own renewable water resources, Asia’s yearly agricultural water withdrawals aggregate to 81%, or at least 10 percentage points higher than the global average. By contrast, that figure is just 29% in Europe and 38% in North America. Water withdrawals for industrial purposes account for a mere 11.4% in Asia; and for household needs the figure is 7.3%.

Yet the growth of rice and wheat output in Asia, after the dramatic increases of the previous quarter century, has slowed since the late 1990s, raising concerns that Asian countries such as China and India that are largely self-sufficient in food will become major food importers, disturbing the international market, which is not large enough to meet such demands. With population, consumption and developmental pressures growing and increases in yield gains flattening, Asia needs a second green revolution, for which water will be the single biggest constraint.

The fastest increase in water demand in Asia, however, is coming not from agriculture but from the industrial sector and urban households. The United Nations projects that industrial water withdrawals in the world will double between 2000 and 2025, with much of the increase likely to occur in the Asia-Pacific region, ‘given its rapidly rising status as a global industrial production centre and the fast growth in subsectors with high water consumption, such as the production of transportation equipment, beverages and textiles’.[10] The fastest rise is projected for India, whose economy is currently led by the services sector but where industrial water use is expected to almost quadruple by 2050 as manufacturing rapidly expands. But water shortages are already impeding this rapid industrial expansion in Asia; water scarcity is, for example, causing billions of dollars’ worth of annual losses in industrial output in China.[11]

A final factor underlying water stress in Asia is the long-term environmental impact of large-scale sequestration of water resources through dams, barrages, reservoirs and other structures. Dams do bring important benefits: if appropriately designed and scaled, they aid economic and social development by regulating water supply, controlling floods, facilitating irrigation, generating hydroelectricity and bringing drinking water to cities. But they can affect water quality and quantity downstream, alter fluvial ecosystems, damage biodiversity and promote coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion.

Large dams have caused sedimentation, inundation, habitat damage, destruction of fish species, and other environmental and public-health problems in Asia. Equally significant is the fact that heavy damming upsets a river’s natural tropical flooding cycle, which is critical to fisheries and the re-fertilization of soil. The Aral Sea in Central Asia has shrunk by more than half owing to the over-damming of its sources, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, and the heavy extraction of their waters for irrigation.

The vast majority of dams in the world have been built since the 1950s. The construction of large dams has, by and large, petered out in the West but continues in full swing in Asia, where a host of countries from Japan to Turkey are involved in major dam-building activities. Over the next decade, the number of dams in developed countries is likely to remain about the same, while much of the dam building in the developing world (in terms of aggregate storage-capacity build-up) will be concentrated in China, which already has slightly more than half of the approximately 50,000 large dams on the planet.[12] But most of the best dam sites in Asia are already in use.

New dam construction to boost water supply may no longer be a viable option other than in underdeveloped countries such as Laos, Myanmar and Nepal that have not adequately exploited their water resources or in autocracies that can effectively stifle grassroots opposition. Yet the numerous new projects in Asia show that the damming of rivers is still an important priority for national and provincial decision-makers.

This focus on dam building has intensified water disputes and tensions in Asia, with implications for regional security and stability. These disputes are bound to worsen, given China’s new focus on erecting mega-dams on international rivers, exemplified by its latest addition on the Mekong River (the 4,200MW Xiaowan Dam, which dwarfs Paris’s Eiffel Tower in height) and a 38,000MW dam planned on the Brahmaputra at Metog, close to the disputed border with India. The Metog Dam will be twice as large as the 18,300MW Three Gorges Dam, currently the world’s largest, construction of which officially uprooted at least 1.7 million Chinese. Turkey, too, is building big dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The countries likely to bear the brunt of such massive diversion of waters are those located farthest downstream on rivers such as the Brahmaputra, Mekong and Tigris–Euphrates: Bangladesh, whose very future is threatened by climate and environmental change; Vietnam, a rice bowl of Asia; and Iraq, still internally torn. China’s water appropriations from the Illy River threaten to turn Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash into another Aral Sea.

Continued dam building in a number of Asian nations is also creating new intra-state tensions and challenges. Degraded watersheds constitute one of the most serious problems for sustainable development in Asia. Dams are also having other impacts, including changing river hydrology, sediment load, riparian vegetation, patterns of stream-bank erosion, migration of fish, and water temperature.

Rising security risks

With increasingly fierce intra- and inter-state water competition, the risk of water conflict is higher in Asia than elsewhere in the world. Water is a new arena in the Asian Great Game. In fact, political, diplomatic or economic ‘water wars’ are already being waged between riparian neighbours in several parts of Asia, fuelling a cycle of bitter recrimination and fostering mistrust that impedes broader regional cooperation and integration. The resources of transnational rivers, aquifers and lakes have become targets of rival appropriation plans. Securing larger portions of shared resources has become a flashpoint in inter-country relationships; there is no incentive to conserve or protect supplies for users beyond national borders, unless there are specific water-sharing arrangements in place.

With a particular river or groundwater basin often tied into a country’s identity and self-image, ownership and control over such resources can be perceived as crucial to national interest. This has helped give rise to grand but environmentally questionable ideas: China’s Great Western Route to divert river waters from the Tibetan Plateau to its parched north; South Korea’s politically divisive Four Rivers Project; India’s proposal to link up its important rivers; and Jordan’s plan to save the shrinking Dead Sea by bringing water from the Red Sea through a 178-kilometre-long canal (which is also to serve as a source for desalinated drinking water). India’s river-linking plan was conceived by a poet prime minister, which may explain why it never took off and was abandoned by the current government. In contrast, the Great Western Route plan was conceived by the engineers who dominate China’s top political leadership.

Asia’s water map fundamentally changed after the 1949 Communist victory in China. Most of the continent’s important international rivers originate in territories that the People’s Republic of China either forcibly annexed or reasserted Chinese control over. The annexed Tibetan Plateau, for example, is the world’s largest freshwater repository and the source of Asia’s greatest rivers, including those that are the lifeblood of mainland China and South and Southeast Asia. Other such Chinese territories contain the headwaters of rivers such as the Irtysh, Illy and Amur, which flow to Russia and Central Asia.

This makes China the source of cross-border water flows to more countries than any other upstream power in the world. Beijing now controls the headwaters of more than a dozen important international river basins. Yet China rejects the notion of water sharing or institutionalized cooperation with downstream countries. Whereas riparian neighbours in Southeast and South Asia are bound by water pacts that they have negotiated between themselves, China does not have a single water treaty with any coriparian country.

For example, it is a dialogue partner but not a member of the Mekong River Commission, suggesting a desire to listen to discussions among other basin states without agreeing to abide by the commission’s rules or taking on legal obligations by becoming a party to the 1995 Mekong Treaty. Moreover, while promoting multilateralism on the world stage, China has given the cold shoulder to multilateral cooperation among river-basin states. The lower Mekong countries view China’s strategy as an attempt to divide and conquer. It is hardly a surprise, then, that China is at the centre of much of the current water-related tension in Asia.

Although China publicly favours bilateral initiatives over multilateral institutions in addressing water issues, it has not shown any real enthusiasm for meaningful bilateral action. As a result, water has become a new political issue in the country’s relations with neighbours such as India, Kazakhstan, Nepal and Russia. China deflects attention from its refusal to share water, or to enter into institutionalized cooperation to manage common rivers sustainably, by promoting the accords it has signed on sharing flow statistics with riparian neighbours. These are not agreements to cooperate on shared resources, but rather commercial accords to sell hydrological data that other upstream countries provide free to downriver states.

Beyond China, there are water tensions between India and Pakistan, among the Central Asian nations, between Turkey and its downriver neighbours, and between Israel and the Palestinians. But given China’s unique riparian position and role, it will not be possible to transform Asian water competition into cooperation without its active participation.

Internal water disputes are also rife across the continent. The lopsided availability of water within some Asian nations (abundant in some areas but deficient in others) has given rise to plans for mega-dam projects or grand diversion structures, which have run into stiff grassroots opposition over issues of population displacement and submergence of land. To compound matters, governmental or commercial decisions on where to set up new manufacturing or energy plants are increasingly being influenced by local availability of adequate water resources.

Where availability is already low, a decision to establish a new plant often triggers local protests because it is likely to spur greater competition over scarce water resources. It has become virtually impossible to site nuclear power plants along freshwater bodies in water-scarce Asia, the centre of the so-called global nuclear renaissance. These water-guzzling plants must instead be built on coastlines where they can rely on seawater for their operations. Yet, Fukushima has served as a warning of the vulnerability of coastal nuclear facilities to extreme events, which are likely to become more common as the climate changes.

Water conflict within nations, especially those that are multi-ethnic and culturally diverse, often assumes ethnic or sectarian dimensions, accentuating internal security challenges. Such intrastate water disputes rarely get the kind of international attention that interstate discords do, but as the internal conflicts in Yemen and Afghanistan show, recurrent drought and water scarcity can poison inter-ethnic or inter-sectarian relations and trigger bloodletting. Endemic local conflicts over water in some drought-ridden areas in Asia have even led villagers to engage security guards to protect their sources of freshwater, such as wells or water trucks. Asia’s experiences over the past quarter century show that internal water conflicts tend to be more damaging and violent than disputes between countries.

Containing the risks

To underpin strategic stability, protect continued economic growth, promote environmental sustainability and prevent the struggle for water resources from tipping into overt conflict, Asian states must invest more in institutionalized cooperation on transboundary basin resources. Water has emerged as a test case of Asia’s ability to build cooperation rather than competition over a critical resource.

National dependency on waters from transnational rivers or aquifers is widespread across Asia. China is an exception: with less than 1% of its water resources dependent on cross-border inflow (one of the lowest rates in the world) it is happily placed. There are at least 57 transnational river basins in Asia, and most lack any kind of cooperative institution. The exact number of transnational groundwater basins is unknown as no scientific assessment has been undertaken.

Yet some of the shared aquifer systems have already become targets of rival appropriation plans and political tensions, for example al-Disi, which straddles the Saudi Arabian–Jordanian border. The existence of inter-country water agreements can be deceptive: most such accords in Asia relate to more mundane issues than sharing waters or sustainably managing transboundary basin resources. Commercial contracts, joint research or flood-control projects, use of river islands, hydropower development, and non-binding memoranda of understanding masquerade as water agreements.

In fact, only four of the transnational river basins in Asia are subject to treaties covering water sharing or other institutionalized cooperation. These are the Mekong (where the non-participation of China, the dominant upper riparian nation, has stunted development of a genuine basin community), the Ganges (between Bangladesh and India), the Indus (between India and Pakistan, with the greatest guaranteed cross-border flows of any treaty regime in the world) and the Jordan (a four-nation basin whose resources are the subject of a treaty arrangement restricted to Israel and Jordan).

The only treaties that incorporate a sharing formula on cross-border river flows are those covering the Indus and Ganges. But even these are far from perfect and often rife with dispute, especially in the Indus basin. They nevertheless serve useful purposes. In fact, all four Asian treaties demonstrate that inter-country basin arrangements can be concluded even among rival states and that such arrangements can survive political tensions and conflicts.

One imperative is to build Asian norms over shared transnational basin resources, using as a guide the codification of the principles of customary water law by the United Nations Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, even though this 1997 convention’s entry into force still seems distant. The only real way to avert or manage water disputes in Asia is to build basin arrangements involving all riparian neighbours. If a dominant riparian state refuses to join, such institutional arrangements will be ineffective. The arrangements must be centred on transparency, information sharing, equitable distribution of benefits, dispute settlement, pollution control, joint projects and a mutual commitment to refrain from any projects that would materially diminish transboundary flows.

Water institutions, by facilitating constructive dialogue and structured cooperation, help stem the risk that disputes over water sharing or water quality could escalate to open conflict. Building such regimes is never easy, given the complex physical, geopolitical and economic factors at play, including mismatched levels of economic development and the unilateral harnessing of shared waters by one or more coriparian states. Their legal, institutional and consultative mechanisms are designed not only to forestall interstate competition and conflict, but also to ensure that national water policies serve as a catalyst for social progress and economic growth through a stake in the integrated management of basin resources. Such cooperative arrangements can actually help improve water quality and availability.

Asia has little choice but to improve its water efficiency and productivity levels. Improvements in efficiency of water use in agriculture, energy and industry have stagnated at 1% or less per year for two decades.[13] Greater investment is also needed to upgrade and maintain the water-supply infrastructure; losses from leaks amount to up to 29 billion m3 of treated water a year, valued conservatively at $9 billion.[14]

Asia’s water crisis is opening opportunities for investment and technological innovation in two main areas. One is securing higher water efficiency and productivity gains, including through micro-irrigation systems and industrial water-use efficiency. The other area is clean-water technologies, including wastewater treatment and recycling, desalination, and cleaning up contaminated or brackish water. These technologies hold the key to containing Asia’s mounting water challenges.

Given Asia’s exceptionally high water withdrawals for farming, savings will need to come primarily from water conservation and efficiency in agriculture so that more waters can be channelled to industries and cities. Asian states have little choice but to upgrade their old irrigation systems and promote drip-feed irrigation, which is yet to be widely adopted. This technology, which directs water flow straight to the root zone of plants, can help slash agricultural water consumption by 50–70% compared to gravity irrigation, and by 10–20% compared to sprinkler irrigation. Agricultural water productivity can also be increased through development of new grain varieties that are more tolerant of drought and flooding.

The Asian experience shows that the more populous a sub-region, a nation, or an area within a country, the greater are its water challenges, with water stress often being accompanied by a fall in water quality. But when water quality is maintained, the scarcity of water can be better managed. For example, Japan and South Korea have low per capita availability of freshwater compared with the global average, yet their good water quality overall better positions them to meet their national needs.

In cases where water quality and productivity have both appreciably increased, conditions of water stress tend to perceptibly lessen. South Korea’s per capita water availability is close to Pakistan’s, but it has done a much better job of building water quality and improving productivity. As a result, South Korea, while prone to the ravages of drought, does not face the serious crisis situation haunting Pakistan. There is, in fact, much scope to increase water quality and productivity in many Asian countries, including those with already high efficiency and quality standards, such as South Korea, Japan and Singapore.

Even if energy- and cost-efficient clean-water technologies become available, the cost of water is set to rise sharply in Asia, especially for businesses. Solar-powered desalination and wastewater recycling will help improve the situation, but the cost of supply is still bound to escalate because of additional infrastructure and maintenance needs. Desalination and wastewater-treatment technologies remain expensive as well as energy- and greenhouse-gas intensive.

* * *

Despite its rich history, ancient cultures and an ongoing economic renaissance, Asia is the only continent other than Africa where regional integration has yet to take hold. In fact, Asia’s political and cultural diversity has acted as a barrier to collaboration and integration. Consequently, Asia lacks institutions to avert or manage conflict, even as greater prosperity and rising nationalism are stoking territorial and resource disputes. Yet given that water now is a key factor in instigating global geopolitical change, the continent needs to be better integrated, with institutionalized collaboration on shared resources. Asia needs a new strategic approach to water centred on conservation, efficiency and productivity gains, and, more broadly, integrated resource management involving all states sharing a particular basin. The rivalries over water will test Asia’s ability to manage its resource problems.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the independent Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, a Fellow of the Norwegian Peace Institute and a trustee of the National Book Trust of India. This essay is adapted from the author’s newly released book, Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press).


[1]There are a variety of definitions of water scarcity and water stress. The most common define water stress as per capita water available for human use below 1,700 m3 per year, water scarcity below 1,000 m3 per year, and absolute scarcity below 500 m3 per year. See Amber Brown and Marty D. Matlock, A Review of Water Scarcity Indices and Methodologies, White Paper 106 (Tempe, AZ: The Sustainability Consortium, 2011),

[2]‘Coping with Water: Q&A with FAO Director-General Dr. Jacques Diouf’, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 22 March 2007. See also United Nations World Water Assessment Program, Water in a Changing World Report (Colombella: UN World Water Assessment Program, 2009); Jill Boberg, Liquid Assets: How Demographic Changes and Water Development Policies Affect Freshwater Resources (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2005); and Daniel Wild, Carl-Johan Francke, Pierin Menzli and Urs Schön, Water: A Market of the Future (Zurich: Sustainable Asset Management, 2007).

[3]UN Food and Agriculture Organization, ‘Freshwater Availability: Precipitation and Internal Renewable Water Resources (IRWR)’, Aquastat online table,, 2011.

[4]UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, The State of the Environment in Asia and the Pacific 2005 (Bangkok: UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 2006), pp. 57–8.

[5]FAO, Aquastat online database.

[6]UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in Asia and the Pacific (Bangkok: UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 2009), figure III-2, p. 63.


[8]A.Y. Hoekstra and A. K. Chapagain, Globalisation of Water: Sharing the Planet’s Freshwater Resources (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008); and FAO, Water Resources of the Near-East Region: A Review (Rome: FAO, 1997).

[9]International Water Management Institute and FAO, Revitalizing Asia’s Irrigation: To Sustainably Meet Tomorrow’s Food Needs (Colombo: International Water Management Institute, 2009), pp. 5, 9.

[10]UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, State of the Environment in Asia and the Pacific, p. 63.

[11]China’s Water Resources and Hydropower Planning and Design General Institute, Presentation at the ESCAP Ad Hoc Expert Group Meeting on Water-Use Efficiency Planning, Bangkok, 26–28 October 2004.

[12]International Commission on Large Dams, Intranet, online data; World Commission on Dams, ‘Dams and Water: Global Statistics’, online data.

[13]Arjun Thapan, Opening Remarks to the Conference ‘Water: Crisis and Choices — ADB and Partners Conference 2010’, Manila, 14 October 2010.


Citation: Brahma Chellaney (2012): Asia’s Worsening Water Crisis, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 54:2, 143-156
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