Water, Power, and Competition in Asia


Asian Survey, Vol. 54, Number 4, pp. 621–650. ISSN0004-4687, electronic ISSN1533-838X. (Copyright 2014 by the Regents of the University of California.)

ABSTRACT: At a time when Asia is at a defining moment in its history, water stress has emerged as one of its most serious challenges. Water shortages have not only stirred geopolitical tensions by intensifying competition over the resources of shared rivers and aquifers, but they also threaten Asia’s continued economic rise.

KEYWORDS: Water stress, hydropolitics, dam racing, hydro-hegemony, Harmon Doctrine

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (2013) and Water: Asia’s New Battleground (2012), which won the Asia Society’s 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award. Email: < bc@live.in>.

THE FUTURE OF OUR WORLD WILL BE determined by several factors. One critical factor is adequate access to natural resources. The sharpening geopolitical competition over natural resources has already turned some strategic resources into engines of power struggle. Water, mineral ores, and fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas are resources of the greatest strategic import. They hold the key to human development and, in the case of water, to human survival.

Food production is closely intertwined with water and energy, whereas water and energy are closely connected with each other. Water is essential for energy extraction, processing, and production, while energy is vital to treat, distribute, and supply water. Moreover, water is intimately linked with climate change. Human-induced changes in the hydrological cycle contribute to climate variation, and global warming, in turn, affects water resources, creating a vicious circle in the process.

Access to potable water is becoming a major issue across large parts of the world because of rapid demographic and economic expansion. Lifestyle and dietary changes have spurred increasing per-capita water consumption in the form of industrial and agricultural products. Freshwater, although a renewable resource, is a finite commodity whose quantity has virtually remained the same since the dawn of civilization.  In fact, less than 1% of the world’s water is usable because 97.5% of it is ocean salt water while another 1.6% is locked up in polar icecaps, glaciers, and permafrost.

Asia is attracting international attention more than ever before, in large part because of its reemergence on the global stage after a two-century decline. Asia is now the world’s largest creditor and main economic locomotive. Asia’s rise, however, has been accompanied by an insatiable appetite for natural resources. This has set off a sharpening resource competition between Asian economies within Asia and far beyond in other continents.

Although able to secure fossil fuels, mineral ores, and timber from distant lands, Asian economies cannot import the most critical resource for their socioeconomic development—water. Water is essentially local and prohibitively expensive to ship across seas. To compound the continent’s challenges, some of the world’s worst water pollution and shortages are found in Asia, promoting environmental degradation and creating a potential for conflict over shared waters.

A little-known fact is that Asia, not Africa, is the world’s most water-stressed continent. Water stress is internationally defined as the per capita availability of less than 1,700 cubic meters per year. Not only is Asia’s per capita water availability the lowest of any continent, but its water stress has also been exacerbated by its dramatic economic rise. The rapid economic growth, coupled with breakneck urbanization and the changing lifestyles of Asians, has made an already difficult water situation worse. Much of the world’s coming expansion of urban population is projected to take place in Asia, with the portion of the global population living in urban areas expected to jump from slightly over half in 2011 to more than two-thirds in 2050.[1] Asia’s rapid urbanization is driving increased water demand both for municipal supply and for the industrial and agricultural products in demand in cities.

This essay analyzes how shared water has become an instrument of power in interstate relations in Asia, stoking underlying tensions, fostering competition, exacerbating impacts on ecosystems, and impeding broader regional collaboration. It examines cases of both upriver and downriver hydro-hegemony, which is water-resource capture or control at the basin level achieved through coercive or diplomatic means by exploiting and reinforcing regional power asymmetries. And it analyzes the security-related water trends in Asia, now the center of global water challenges. In doing so, the essay opens a window to the nature of interstate water competition and conflict, its wider impacts, and its management.


Natural-resource constraints in Asia raise troubling questions about the region’s future growth trajectory. Asian economies facing a domestic resource crunch are being forced increasingly to rely on imported mineral ores, timber, and fossil fuels, bringing international supplies under pressure and triggering price volatility. Yet Asia, paradoxically, remains the world’s economic locomotive. Its growing resource constraints raise the issue of whether it can continue to spearhead global economic growth in the coming years.

Asia’s rise has fueled an insatiable appetite for resources it does not have. Unlike North America and Europe, which are well endowed with natural capital, Asia is the world’s most resource-poor continent in per-capita terms. Its resources are also unevenly spread. Its energy resources, for example, are largely concentrated in the desert lands of Central and West Asia, while its water resources are concentrated in the mountainous hinterlands, yet 95% of Asians live in the plains or coastal regions. Even as resource-wealthy countries such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, and Russia enjoy commodity-export booms, Asia’s resource struggle has brought it to a treacherous point of growing external dependency, geopolitical tensions, and environmental degradation.

Asia’s overexploitation of its own natural resources has spurred an environmental crisis, which, in turn, is furthering regional climate change. Asia thus confronts three interlinked crises—a resource crisis, an environmental crisis, and a climate crisis—that threaten its future. From Asian cities dominating the list of the world’s most-polluted cities to many urban areas reeling under serious water shortages, Asia faces increasing resource-related stresses. Meanwhile, sharpening Asian resource competition has aggravated disputes over resource-rich territories, including in the East and South China Seas and southern and central Asia.


All the important Asian economies are in or near conditions of water stress.China supports 19% of the world’s population on its territory with a 6.7% share of global water resources. The situation in India is grimmer: It has 17.8% of the global population but just 4.3% of the world’s water.[2]

A World Bank estimate placed the economic cost of water-resource degradation and depletion for China at 2.3% of gross domestic product (GDP), including 1% stemming from the direct impact of rampant water pollution. The health and non-health impacts of both air and water pollution in China were estimated at US$100 billion a year, or about 5.8% of GDP.[3] China, with a per capita annual availability of 2,060 cubic meters in 2013, is not yet in the category of water-stressed states, a list that includes a number of other Asian economies. Water-scarce India and South Korea, for example, are seeing a greater impact nationally than China, with water shortages already beginning to reshape their economies, including the location of industries.

Asia’s yearly per capita freshwater availability (2,816 cubic meters) is not even half the global average of 6,079 cubic meters.[4] Yet Asia has experienced the world’s most rapid growth in freshwater withdrawals from rivers, lakes, and aquifers in the period since it began rising economically. One international report, detailing the resulting steep declines in water availability for development in a number of Asian states since 1980, had this warning about the regional water situation: “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.”[5]

Asia’s rate of utilization of freshwater already exceeds its renewable stocks. By digging deeper wells, further damming rivers, and transferring surface water across some basins, Asia is using tomorrow’s water to meet today’s needs, thereby accelerating environmental degradation. State policies, including the provision of irrigation subsidies as well as subsidized electricity and diesel fuel to farmers, have unwittingly contributed to water-resource depletion and environmental degradation.

The fact that Asia has one of the lowest levels of water efficiency and productivity in the world makes a bad situation worse. With water stress projected to cover two-thirds of the global population by the end of the next decade, up from about 50% today, the majority of the world’s people living in water-related despair will continue to be in Asia.


Asian economies are already facing a new problem on the food front at a time when agriculture’s appropriation of the bulk of the water resources is coming under challenge from expanding cities and industries. Growth in crop yields and overall food production in Asia is now beginning to lag behind demand. Rising prosperity and changing diets, including an increased preference for animal-based protein, are compounding Asia’s food challenges.

While new technologies, including genetic engineering, can serve as tools to enhance agricultural productivity, a way has not yet been found to reduce the dependence of crops on large amounts of water, except by installing expensive micro-irrigation systems. Unlike the large conglomerates that own much of the cropland in North America and Europe, most farmers in Asia have small acreage, limiting their capacity to invest in new technologies and irrigation systems.

The fast-rising Asian consumption of meat has by itself turned into a major driver of water stress. After all, production of meat is as much as 10 times more water-intensive than plant-based calories and proteins.[6] In a reflection of the larger Asian trend, meat consumption quadrupled between 1980 and 2010 in China. The ecological footprint of Asia’s increasing livestock population is compounding environmental and resource stresses. The only silver lining for India in an otherwise dismal water situation is the fact that a sizable percentage of its population remains vegetarian.

Asia needs to grow more food with less water. To be sure, the region has come a long way in addressing its food needs. Up to the 1960s, it was troubled by food shortages and recurrent famines. Then, on the back of an unparalleled expansion of irrigation, Asia emerged as a net food exporter in just one generation, opening the door to its economic rise. The total irrigated cropland in Asia doubled between 1960 and 2000 alone. Now, Asia boasts 72% of the world’s total acreage equipped for irrigation, with irrigation mostly concentrated in its most populous subregions.[7]

The irrigation-spurred farming boom, however, has come at a high price. Asia channels 82% of its water resources for agricultural use.[8] This level is not sustainable. With the world’s most rapid industrialization and urbanization, Asia is witnessing the fastest increase in water demand from its industries and municipalities. It thus must make major water savings in agriculture to quench the thirst of its booming industries and expanding cities. This challenge is compounded by the slowing growth in crop yields at a time when Asian food demand, for the first time in decades, is outstripping supply.


How Asian states manage their resource challenges will shape their security and economic trajectories in the coming years. For example, the biggest enemies of alleviating economic poverty are water poverty and energy poverty. Water and energy poverty keep the poor chained to economic poverty. Asia needs an energy-technology revolution that can deliver cheap, reliable power to those mired in energy poverty and help clean up polluted or brackish waters, chemically treat and recycle wastewater, and make ocean water potable. Otherwise, water pollution—largely an intrastate challenge at present—is likely to assume transboundary dimensions and compound inter-country tensions and discord.


Asia’s water resources are largely transnational, making inter-country cooperation and collaboration essential. Yet the vast majority of the 57 transnational river basins in continental Asia have no water-sharing arrangement or any other cooperative mechanism. This troubling reality has to be seen in the context of the strained political relations in several Asian subregions.

The river basins in the Asian continent that have a treaty-based sharing arrangement currently in place are the Al-Asi/Orontes (Lebanon-Syria), Araks-Atrek (Iran-Russia), El-Kaber (Lebanon-Syria), Euphrates (Iraq-Syria), Gandhak (India-Nepal), Ganges (Bangladesh-India), Indus (India-Pakistan), Jordan (Israel-Jordan), and Mahakali (India-Nepal). Arrangements in some of these basins, such as the Gandhak, Jordan, and Mahakali, do not incorporate a formula dividing the shared waters between the parties but rather center on specific water withdrawals, transfers, or rights of utilization. An important arrangement in the Mekong Basin—limited to the lower riparian nations—is centered on the sustainable management of water resources but without any water sharing.

The only treaties in Asia with specific sharing formulas on cross-border river flows are the ones between India and its two downriver neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In addition, the Soviet-era water arrangements in Central Asia continue to hold, even if tenuously, through an interim agreement signed in February 1992. Such is the competition over scarce water resources that even sharing arrangements are not free of rancor and discord.

Central Asia

Consider the water discord among the five so-called “stans” of Central Asia. The interim agreement, signed shortly after these states gained independence, defined on an ad hoc basis the principles to govern the sharing of the waters of the region’s two main rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. Soviet Central Asia’s internal rivers became international watercourses following the independence of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The post-Soviet agreement, while stipulating that the principles would continue until the parties had worked out a new water-sharing arrangement, set up an Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC) to help develop a new but still-illusive regional water management system.

In the Syr Darya River Basin, where the total annual flows aggregate to 36.57 billion cubic meters, the share of Kazakhstan—located farthest downriver—was set to be no less than 10 billion cubic meters downstream of the Chardara Reservoir. Uzbekistan, however, is the main consumer of the waters of both the Syr Darya and the region’s largest river, the Amu Darya, whose average yearly flows total 78.46 billion cubic meters. In 1996, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan reached a water-allocation accord between themselves to supplement the five-nation 1992 interim agreement.

The fact, however, is that rising nationalism and competition over water resources in parched Central Asia has impeded the development of a regional alternative to the Soviet-era water management system. The old system survives largely due to the threat of force. The three lower but militarily powerful riparians—Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan—wield the threat of force against the small and weak Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which are the sources of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, respectively. Most of the water flows in these two lifelines of Central Asia are generated in the mountainous parts of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.


More broadly, Asia’s water map stands out for the unique riparian status that China enjoys. China is the source of rivers for a dozen countries. No other country in the world serves as the riverhead for so many countries. This makes China the central driver of inter-riparian relations in Asia.

Yet China also stands out for not having a single water-sharing arrangement or cooperation treaty with any co-riparian state. Its refusal to accede to the Mekong Agreement of 1995, for example, has stunted the development of a genuine basin community. By building mega-dams and reservoirs in its borderlands, China is working to unilaterally re-engineer the flows of major rivers that are the lifeblood for the lower riparian states.

To be sure, China trumpets several bilateral water agreements. But none is about water sharing or institutionalized cooperation on shared resources. Some accords are commercial contracts to sell hydrological data to given downstream nations. Others center on joint research initiatives, flood-control projects, hydropower development, fishing, navigation, river islands, hydrologic work, border demarcation, environmental principles, “good-neighborliness and friendly cooperation,” or nonbinding memorandums of understanding.[9] By fobbing off such accords as water agreements, China creates a false impression that it has cooperative riparian relations. In fact, it is to deflect attention from its unwillingness to enter into water sharing or institutionalized cooperation to sustainably manage common rivers that Beijing even advertises the accords it has signed on sharing flow statistics with co-riparian states. These agreements are merely contracts to sell hydrological data, which some other upstream countries provide free to downriver states.

The plain fact is that China rejects the very concept of water sharing. It also asserts a general principle that standing and flowing waters are subject to the full sovereignty of the state where they are located. It thus claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters on its side of the international boundary, including the right to divert as much shared water as it wishes for its legitimate needs.

This principle was embodied in the now-discredited “Harmon Doctrine” in the U.S. more than a century ago. This doctrine is named after U.S. Attorney General Judson Harmon, who put forth the argument that the U.S. owed no obligations under international law to Mexico on shared water resources and was effectively free to divert as much of the shared waters as it wished for U.S. needs.[10]  Yet, despite this thesis, the U.S. went on to conclude water-sharing agreements with Mexico between 1906 and 1944.

China, in rejecting the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (which lays down rules on shared water resources and constitutes the first move to establish an international water law), placed on record its assertion of absolute territorial sovereignty over the waters within its borders: “The text did not reflect the principle of territorial sovereignty of a watercourse state. Such a state had indisputable sovereignty over a watercourse which flowed through its territory.”[11] This indicates that the Harmon Doctrine may be dead in the country of its birth but is alive and kicking in China.

In this light, it is hardly a surprise that water has become a new divide in China’s relations with riparian neighbors. This divide has become apparent as Beijing has increasingly shifted its dam-building focus from the dam-saturated internal rivers to international rivers, most of which originate on the water-rich Tibetan Plateau. Only three important transnational rivers—the Amur, the Irtysh, and the Ili (or Yili), which flow to Russia or Kazakhstan—originate in China outside the Tibetan plateau, whose wealth of water and mineral resources is a big factor in its political subjugation. China’s water disputes with neighbors extend even to North Korea, with which it has yet to settle issues relating to Lake Chonji and two border rivers, the Yalu and the Tumen.

China’s rush to build more dams promises to roil inter-riparian relations, fostering greater water competition and impeding the already slow progress toward regional cooperation and integration. By erecting dams, barrages, and other water diversion structures in its borderlands, China is setting up an extensive upstream infrastructure, thereby spurring growing unease and concern in downriver countries. Getting China on board has thus become critical to shape water for peace in Asia.

More fundamentally, the absence of water institutions in the bulk of transnational basins in Asia is hardly conducive for water peace because it increases the geopolitical risks from the sharpening resource competition and unchecked environmental degradation. These risks are accentuated by the lack of an overarching Asian security architecture and by weak regional consultation mechanisms. Asia is the only continent other than Africa where regional integration has yet to take off, largely because Asian political and cultural diversity has hindered institution building.

Integrated management of transnational water resources through interstate collaboration is essential to prevent their degradation, depletion, and pollution. Only robust water institutions, with rule-based cooperation and sharing, can create the right incentives for nations to sustainably manage and conserve water supplies and to refrain from actions at the expense or injury of a downriver state. When cooperative arrangements are absent in any basin, there is a strong incentive for an upper riparian to try to capture water resources before they flow out of its national borders.


Just as the scramble for energy resources has defined Asian geopolitics in recent decades, the struggle for water seems set to define many inter-country relationships in the coming years. At a time when territorial disputes and separatist struggles in Asia increasingly are being driven by resource issues, water indeed is becoming the new oil. But unlike oil—dependence on which can be reduced by tapping other sources of energy—there is no substitute for water.

In what can be described as tacit hydrological warfare, the resources of transnational rivers, aquifers, and lakes have become the target of rival appropriation plans. The fusion between national identity and river or groundwater basins creates a sense of ownership and propels efforts to control water resources, even if they are internationally shared. Driving the rival appropriation plans and the accompanying water nationalism is the notion that sharing waters is a zero-sum game. This, in turn, has given rise to environmentally questionable ideas with transboundary implications—from China’s Western Route to divert river waters from the Tibetan plateau to its parched north and northwest, to India’s embryonic National River Linking Project that proposes to connect rivers across India to alleviate floods and shortages. China’s Western Route plan is the third phase of its South-North Water Transfer (or Diversion) Project (Nanshui Beidiao Gongcheng), whose first two phases involving internal rivers—the Eastern Route and the Central Route—are already complete or nearing completion.

The danger that riparian disputes could escalate to overt conflict looms large on the Asian horizon, with important implications for Asia’s continued rapid economic growth and water security. Water-rich areas, ominously, are at the center of geopolitical tensions in Asia. They range from Kashmir and Tibet to the Golan Heights and the West Bank. Such areas not only boast water wealth but also are strategically located.

Take Central Asia’s Fergana Valley, whose control is divided among Kyrgyzstan (which holds almost two-thirds), Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The ethnic fault lines that run through the Fergana Valley—a minefield of ethnic animosities—are the source of periodic clashes among the Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. The 2010 bloody riots in the Fergana Valley, which left several hundred Uzbek citizens of Kyrgyzstan dead, were sparked in part by local ethnic Kyrgyz fear that Uzbekistan wanted to absorb the water-rich Kyrgyz part.[12]

There is a similar tripartite political split over water-rich Kashmir. India controls about 45% of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan 35%, and China the remaining 20%. Because the largest rivers flow to Pakistan from the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, many Pakistanis—especially the military generals and their longstanding allies, the mullahs—have linked the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan’s water security. However, only one of the six Indus-system rivers originates in Indian Kashmir; three have their source in India’s Himachal Pradesh state and two in Chinese-ruled Tibet.

Even the Pakistani-held portion of Kashmir, paradoxically, has assumed water-related significance for Pakistan’s unity and social harmony because the upstream Pakistani construction of giant dams on the Indus has created a deep divide between the downriver Sind and Baluchistan provinces and the upriver Punjab, which has appropriated the bulk of the river waters through hydroengineering structures, located largely in Pakistani Kashmir. This large-scale upstream diversion has reduced the Indus system’s farthest downstream flows to a trickle, turning the Indus Delta into a saline marsh and inviting saltwater intrusion from the Arabian Sea into a once-fertile land.

However, to deflect attention from their water appropriation, the Punjabi elites that rule Pakistan have sought to scapegoat India, an increasingly water-stressed country that reserved more than 80% of the Indus basin waters for Pakistan under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. This pact remains the world’s most generous water-sharing arrangement, under which India agreed to keep for itself only a 19.48% share of the waters. (The volume of waters earmarked for Pakistan—by way of comparison—is over 90 times greater than the 1.85 billion cubic meters the U.S. is required to release to Mexico under a 1944 treaty with that country.) India is wracked by increasingly bitter domestic water-sharing disputes that have defied settlement through judicial arbitration.

Significantly, South Asia is the only region, other than North America, where inter-riparian relations are governed by bilateral treaty arrangements, which involve India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan. There are also project-specific water agreements between Bhutan and India. Yet water has emerged as a divisive issue in this region in both the inter-country and intra-country context, with dam building at the center of tensions and recriminations on the subcontinent. The India-Pakistan water relationship remains rife with disputes.

Pakistan, for example, invoked the Indus treaty’s dispute settlement provisions in recent years to take two Indian hydropower projects separately for international adjudication. India has embarked on several dam projects in its part of Kashmir to address chronic electricity shortages there. While railing against the modestly sized run-of-the-river Indian dams, Pakistan has stirred local grassroots protests at home by embarking on much larger, storage-type dams such as the 4,500-megawatt Bhasha Dam (also known as Diamer-Bhasha) and the 7,000-megawatt Bunji Dam. While storage-type hydropower plants impound large volumes of water, run-of-the-river projects are located so as to use a river’s natural flow energy and elevation drop to generate electricity without the aid of a large reservoir and dam.

Pakistan’s new dams are centered in Pakistani Kashmir’s northernmost Gilgit and Baltistan areas, where the Pakistan Army and Sunni jihadist groups have sought to suppress a long-simmering rebellion against Pakistani rule by the local Shiite Muslims. China’s growing role in dam building and other strategic projects in Gilgit-Baltistan, along with the entry of Chinese military units to guard such construction sites, has made the situation there more complex and unsettled, as underscored by the June 2013 killing of nine foreign tourists, including three Chinese, by gunmen.

Kashmir, like other water-rich regions, is a key crossroads in the international geopolitical rivalry, with the Islamic insurrection in the Indian-administered part adding to the India-Pakistan tensions. Tibet is firmly under China’s rule, while the Golan Heights (the source of the Jordan River’s headwaters) and the aquifer-controlling West Bank remain under Israel’s control since their capture in the 1967 Six-Day War. However, Kashmir, like the Fergana Valley, remains a divided and contested territory, with Pakistan averse to accepting the territorial status quo. For the foreseeable future, all the water-rich regions extending up to the traditional Kurdish homeland, which straddles the Tigris-Euphrates basin, are likely to stay potential flashpoints for water conflict in Asia because they seem ripe for further geopolitical jousting.

In fact, like arms racing, “dam racing” has emerged as a geopolitical concern in Asia, where the world’s fastest economic growth is being accompanied by the world’s fastest increase in military spending and the world’s fiercest competition for natural resources. As riparian neighbors compete to capture the water of shared rivers by building dams, reservoirs, barrages, irrigation networks, and other structures, distrust and discord have begun to roil relations between upstream and downstream states.

Asia is already the world’s most dam-dotted continent: It has more dams than the rest of the world combined. China, the world’s biggest dam builder, alone has slightly more than half of the approximately 50,000 large dams on the planet.[13] China’s dam-building zeal began in the Mao Zedong era but picked up momentum after Deng Xiaoping emerged as the paramount leader in 1978. A succession of engineer-presidents in China—Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping—have supported grand water-diversion projects, including the Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Diversion Project.

The numerous new dam projects in China and elsewhere show that the damming of rivers remains an important priority for Asian policymakers. In the West, the building of large dams has largely petered out; the rate of decommissioning of dams indeed has overtaken the pace of building new ones in several developed countries. According to international projections for the next 10 years, the total number of dams in developed countries is likely to remain about the same. Much of the dam building in the developing world, in terms of aggregate storage-capacity buildup, is expected to be concentrated in Asia. Dam building on transnational rivers, however, is already stoking inter-riparian tensions in Asia.


Water disputes in Asia center on four distinct zones: China and its neighbors; India and its neighbors; the countries of continental Southeast Asia; and the five “stans” of Central Asia. The dam-building competition involves even the lower riparian states because it is often driven by the doctrine of prior appropriation, which legitimizes the principle “First in time, first in right.” Under this doctrine of customary international water law, the first user of river waters (whether an upstream or downstream state) acquires a priority right to the continued utilization of river waters, as long as those resources are diverted for “beneficial” applications, including irrigation, industrial or mining purposes, electric power generation, and municipal supply.

In the interstate context, water can be turned into an instrument of power through resource capture and control or by upholding inequitable utilization patterns. This usually necessitates either the construction of hydroengineering structures to reengineer transboundary flows or the perpetuation of unfair, pre-independence arrangements in the name of protecting “historical rights.” The latter could involve implicit threats of use of force. Dam building, by intensifying water disputes and tensions across Asia, carries implications for regional stability.

The ability to fashion water into an instrument of control or manipulation, of course, hinges on regional power equations. Only militarily and economically powerful states can normally shape water into a possible political weapon, irrespective of whether they are located upstream or downstream. But if one party, even if lacking matching military and economic prowess, has sufficient capability and political will to mount an effective or strong challenge against a co-basin state, it crimps the latter’s potential to use water as a weapon. Generally, downstream states have a tendency to be alarmist on an upper riparian’s damming of a shared river. When the upper riparian is the preeminent regional power, it may have little incentive to enter into a water-sharing treaty with a downriver state, although the United States and India have concluded such pacts with weaker neighbors.

Central Asia

Central Asia serves as a good example of how water can be wielded as an instrument of power through downstream control, including through threat of force. The regional water competition pits the upstream interests of energy-poor Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan against those of the larger and stronger countries that are the main water consumers: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. The three hydrocarbon-rich countries not only use the bulk of the region’s renewable water resources—estimated at 263 billion cubic meters per year—but also insist that their leonine share is protected under the norm of “historical rights.”

The Central Asian downstream states, with their military might, have the capacity to prevent the upstream countries from building any new hydroengineering projects that could materially alter transboundary flows. This power has blocked the emergence of an equitable successor regime to the region’s Soviet-era water-management system, which integrated water, energy, and agriculture under a federally run and highly centralized regional arrangement. The region’s artificial political frontiers, which bear little resemblance to natural or ethnic fault lines, have also compounded water-sharing issues. The regional water competition indeed is fraught with major ethnic-rivalry dimensions. The intersection between ethnic identity and water insecurity in Central Asia has fostered deep-seated ill will among communities and occasionally spawned violent conflict.

The continued downstream production of cotton, a highly water-intensive crop, through intensive irrigation has exacerbated the regional water discord. In fact, the curse of cotton from the Soviet era has been an important contributor to the degradation of water and land resources in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. It has also led to the extensive retreat of the Aral Sea, which has shrunk to about one-fourth of its original size because of heavy extractions for irrigation from its principal sources, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya.[14]

In this tricky and risky situation, Uzbekistan, with 45% of the Central Asian population, consumes more than half the region’s water supply and uses threats of military reprisals against upstream states to shield its appropriation of the dominant share of water resources. It remains embroiled in bitter water rows with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan over their dam-building proposals to boost energy production. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan contend that such dam building is imperative because the main water-consuming states located downstream are unwilling to supply them with hydrocarbons at concessional rates, as was the practice in the Soviet era. However, Uzbekistan’s implicit military threats have stymied their plans to build large new hydroelectric stations and become renewable-energy exporters. The threats have compelled Tajikistan, for example, not to press ahead with plans to resume work on unfinished Soviet-era hydropower projects, including one on the Vakhsh River that was intended to be the world’s highest dam.


China, however, serves as the best example of upstream water hegemony in Asia—and indeed the wider world. It has established a hydro-hegemony unparalleled on any continent by annexing in 1951 the Tibetan Plateau, the starting place of major international rivers. Another sprawling territory Beijing forcibly absorbed, Xinjiang, is the source of the transnational Irtysh and Ili Rivers. Given that China is at the geographical hub of Asia, sharing land or sea frontiers with 20 countries, no rules-based regional order can emerge without its participation in institutionalized cooperation. This challenge is most striking on transboundary rivers.

The Tibetan Plateau is central in Asia's water map

The Tibetan Plateau is central in Asia’s water map

Not content with the large number of dams, reservoirs, barrages, and irrigation networks it has already built, the Chinese government in early 2013 unveiled plans to build new cascades of dams, many of them on major rivers flowing to other countries. The decision by China’s State Council to ride roughshod over downstream countries’ concerns and proceed unilaterally showed that the main issue facing Asia is not readiness to accommodate China’s rise but the need to persuade its leaders to institutionalize cooperation with neighboring countries.

Most of China’s dams serve multiple functions, including generating electric power and supplying water for manufacturing, mining, irrigation, and households. Dam building in downstream countries, although stoking interstate disputes too, pales in comparison with the extent of China’s dam building. For example, China’s latest dam on the Mekong River, the 5,850-megawatt Nuozhadu, can alone generate more electricity than the combined installed hydropower capacity in the lower-Mekong countries at present. The 330-megawatt Indian dam project on the Kishenganga (Neelum) stream that prompted Pakistan to invoke international arbitration proceedings under the Indus Treaty in 2010 is of a size that Chinese dam builders would scoff at, considering it uneconomical as a stand-alone project unconnected to a cascade of dams. In fact, the largest dam India has built since independence, the 2,000-megawatt Tehri on the Bhagirathi River, is not large by Chinese standards. Tehri is capable of producing barely one-tenth of the electricity generated by China’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s biggest.

By ramping up the size of its dams, China now not only boasts the world’s largest number of mega-dams, but it has also emerged as the biggest global producer of hydropower, with an installed generating capacity of nearly 230 gigawatts. The serious environmental and social problems spawned by the Three Gorges Dam—which officially uprooted 1.7 million Chinese—have failed to dampen China’s hyperactive dam building.

In its 2013 actions, China’s State Council, seeking to boost the country’s hydropower capacity by another 120 gigawatts, identified 54 new dams—in addition to the ones currently under construction—as “key construction projects” in a revised energy-sector plan up to 2015. Most of the new dams are planned in the biodiversity-rich southwest, where natural ecosystems and indigenous cultures are increasingly threatened. Among the slew of newly approved dam projects are five on the Salween and three each on the Brahmaputra and the Mekong. China has already built six mega-dams on the Mekong, the lifeblood for continental Southeast Asia.

The new damming plans threaten both the Salween River’s Grand Canyon—a UNESCO World Heritage site—and the pristine, environmentally sensitive upstream areas through which the Brahmaputra and the Mekong flow. These three international rivers originate on the Tibetan plateau, whose bounteous water resources have become a magnet for Chinese planners. The Salween, which runs through Yunnan Province into Myanmar and along the Thai border for a stretch before draining into the Andaman Sea, will cease to be Asia’s last largely free-flowing river once work is completed on the giant 4,200-megawatt Songta Dam in Tibet.

The State Council decision reversed the suspension of dam building on the Salween announced by Premier Wen Jiabao in 2004, after an international uproar over the start of multiple megaprojects in the National Nature Reserves, adjacent to a world heritage area—a stunning canyon region through which the Salween, the Mekong, and the Jinsha flow in parallel. The decision to resume work on dams along the rim of the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Area was consistent with the pattern established elsewhere, including the Yangtze: China temporarily suspends a controversial plan after major protests in order to let public passions cool and to buy time, before resurrecting the same plan.

China’s new dam projects on the Brahmaputra, the main river running through northeastern India and eastern Bangladesh, have meanwhile prompted the Indian government to advise China to “ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed” by the upstream works. Water has emerged as a new divide in Sino-Indian relations. Then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally proposed to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in separate meetings in the spring of 2013 that the two countries enter into a water treaty or establish an intergovernmental institution to define mutual rights and responsibilities on shared rivers. Both Xi and Li, however, spurned the proposal. The Indian assumption that booming bilateral trade would make Beijing more amenable to solving the border and water disputes with India has clearly been belied.

Indeed, China is damming not just the Brahmaputra, on which it has already completed several dams, but also other rivers in Tibet that flow into India. It has built a dam each on the Indus and the Sutlej and unveiled plans to erect a cascade of dams on the Arun River, which helps augment downstream Ganges flows and is thus critical for India to meet its water-sharing treaty obligations vis-à-vis Bangladesh. The flash floods that ravaged India’s Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh states between 2000 and 2005 were linked to the unannounced releases from rain-swollen Chinese dams and barrages.

The Brahmaputra is a huge attraction for China’s dam program because this river’s cross-border annual discharge of 165.4 billion cubic meters into India is greater than the combined transboundary flows of the three key rivers running from the Tibetan plateau to Southeast Asia—the Mekong, the Salween, and the Irrawaddy. An officially blessed book published in 2005, Tibet’s Waters Will Save China, openly championed the northward rerouting of the mighty Brahmaputra, although it is unclear whether this idea is technically feasible.[15] As China gradually moves its dam building on the Brahmaputra from the upper reaches to the river’s lower water-rich Great Bend—the area where the Brahmaputra makes a U-turn around the Himalayas to enter India, forming the world’s longest and steepest canyon in the process—it is expected to embark on Mekong-style mega-dams.

More fundamentally, China’s new focus on building dams in its southwest carries transnational safety concerns because this is an earthquake-prone region. Indeed, some Chinese scientists blamed the massive 2008 earthquake that struck the Tibetan Plateau’s eastern rim, killing 87,000 people, mainly in Sichuan Province, on the newly constructed Zipingpu Dam, located beside a seismic fault.[16] The weight of the water impounded in the 156-meter-high dam’s massive reservoir was said to have triggered severe tectonic stresses, or what scientists call reservoir-triggered seismicity (RTS). China’s southwest is an area of high seismic activity because it sits on the fault line where the Indian Plate collides against the Eurasian Plate.

To be sure, China, despite its riparian dominance in Asia, faces important water challenges internally. Although China’s average renewable water resources are 2,051 cubic meters per capita annually, the figure is just 700 cubic meters in its water-stressed north, home to nearly half the country’s population.[17] The intrastate disparity in water availability is compounded by the fact that the largely parched north serves as the country’s agricultural and industrial heartland. This has contributed to serious surface-water pollution and the steady depletion of groundwater resources in the north.

Yet such is its fixation on supply-side measures that China is to spend a staggering $290 billion under its current five-year plan on water-related infrastructure projects, including dams.[18] At a time when dam building has run into growing grassroots opposition in Asian democracies like Japan, South Korea, and India, China will remain the nucleus of the world’s dam projects. Significantly, China is also the global leader in exporting dams.

While the dams China is building in Africa and Latin America are largely designed to supply the energy for its mineral-resource extraction and processing, many of the dam projects in Southeast Asia financed and undertaken by Chinese state-run firms are intended to generate electricity for export to China’s own market. Indeed, China is demonstrating that it has no qualms about building dams in disputed territories, such as Pakistan-administered Kashmir, or in areas torn by ethnic separatism, like northern Myanmar. At home, by embarking on a series of dams in its ethnic-minority-populated borderlands, China is seeking to appropriate river waters before they cross its frontiers, thereby exacerbating ethnic tensions through the submergence of land and displacement of residents.

China’s overseas dam projects have drawn attention to their mounting environmental and human costs. For example, work on the Myitsone Dam—the biggest of the seven dam projects in Myanmar sponsored by China to import electricity—instigated new disputes and fighting, ending a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and government forces, before authorities shocked Beijing by suspending the project in late 2011. The bold action set the stage for Myanmar’s own transformation from military rule and a virtual Chinese client state to a country that has opened its doors to political and economic reform, attracting global investors and the first-ever visit by a U.S. president. The question haunting Chinese policymakers today is, “Who lost Burma?”

As for China’s dam projects at home, the countries likely to bear the brunt of the Chinese thirst for power and control over transboundary waters are those located farthest downstream on rivers like the Brahmaputra, the Mekong, and the Ili: Bangladesh, whose future is threatened by climate and environmental change; Vietnam, a rice bowl of Asia; and Kazakhstan, which boasts 17,000 natural lakes but whose own overexploitation of water resources has already dried up 8,000 small lakes.[19]

Whereas the Brahmaputra is the largest source of freshwater for Bangladesh, Vietnam is located downstream on two rivers flowing in from the edge of the Tibetan plateau: the Red River, the main watercourse of northern Vietnam; and the Mekong, the principal river of southern Vietnam. China’s water appropriations from the Ili threaten to turn Kazakhstan’s largest lake—Balkhash, spread over 18,000 square kilometers—into another Aral Sea, which has become the symbol of human-made environmental disaster. Diversion of water for irrigation from the Ili Basin already “has led to ecological problems in the region, notably the drying up of small lakes.”[20]

At a time when upstream Chinese dams have helped stir popular passions in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, the U.S. has sought to diplomatically cash in on downstream concerns by launching the Lower Mekong Initiative, or LMI. The U.S.-sponsored LMI—seeking to promote integrated cooperation among Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam in the areas of environment, education, health, and infrastructure—emphasizes sustainable hydropower development and natural resource management, including improving institutional capacity to address connected transnational issues. The LMI, however, cannot obscure the imperative to build institutionalized cooperative arrangements involving all the Mekong basin states, including China. One U.S. official has urged Beijing to overcome its loathing of institutionalized water cooperation and join the Mekong River Commission, which was set up in 1995 to foster integrated and sustainable management of basin resources.[21]

The situation in the basin has also been roiled by Laotian and Cambodian plans to build dams on the Mekong, including with Chinese financial and technical aid. Laos, which wants to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia by selling electricity to its neighbors, has courted regional controversy by starting work on the 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi (Sayabouly) Dam and unveiling a plan to build the smaller 260-megawatt Don Sahong Dam near its iconic Khone Falls area in the south, just before the river enters Cambodia. Environmentalists have warned that the Xayaburi Dam, which Laos began constructing over its neighbors’ objections, posed a potential threat to the survival of the wild population of the Mekong giant catfish.


Another zone of water discord centers on India, which has multiple riparian identities. It is the uppermost riparian on some rivers that originate on its territory, such as the Chenab and the Jhelum, which flow to Pakistan, and the Teesta, which drains a part of northern Bangladesh. India is the mid-riparian on the Brahmaputra and the main Indus stream. And India is the lowermost riparian on the rivers that begin in Tibet and flow southward via Nepal to empty into the Ganges Basin, such as the Karnali, the Gandak, and the Kosi (Arun). Besides India, few other states in Asia fall in all the three categories—upper, middle, and lower riparian. Indeed, such is India’s geographical spread that it has a direct stake in all the important river basins in South Asia.

Because of its mottled riparian status, India is potentially affected by water-related actions of states located upstream—China, Nepal, and Bhutan—while its own actions can carry a cross-border impact on Pakistan or Bangladesh. No nation is more vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of transboundary flows than India because it alone receives nearly half of all river waters that leave Chinese territory. A total of 718 billion cubic meters of surface water flows out of Chinese territory yearly, of which 48.33% runs directly into India.[22] (Some additional Tibetan waters also flow to India via Nepal.) Bangladesh, on the other hand, has one of the world’s highest dependency ratios with regard to cross-border inflows, receiving 91.3% of its water from India, although a sizable portion of that water originates in Tibet.

India confronts a deepening water crisis, which is more acute than China’s. Yet India’s per capita capacity to store water for dry-season release (200 cubic meters yearly) is one of the world’s lowest; indeed, it is 11 times lower than China’s (2,200 cubic meters).[23] The 2030 Water Resources Group—a consortium of private social-sector organizations providing insights into worldwide water issues—has a dire warning for India: the country is likely to face a 50% deficit between water demand and supply by 2030.[24] India’s own agencies say it must nearly double its annual grain production to more than 450 million tons by 2050 to meet the demands of increasing prosperity and a growing population, or risk becoming a major food importer—a development that will disrupt the already tight international food markets.[25] The growing water shortages also threaten to slow Indian economic growth and fuel social tensions.

With water increasingly at the center of interprovincial feuds in India, the country’s Supreme Court has struggled for years to settle water-related lawsuits, with several of the parties returning to litigate on new grounds. Plans for large water projects in India, meanwhile, have run into stiff opposition from influential nongovernment organizations (NGOs), so that it has become increasingly difficult to build a large dam, blighting the promise of hydropower. Proof of this was the federal government’s 2010 decision to abandon three dam projects on the Bhagirathi River, a Ganges tributary, including one that was already half-built, with authorities having spent $139 million on construction work and ordered equipment worth $288 million.

Yet, seeking to exercise the right of prior appropriation on transnational rivers, the Indian government has since 2012 approved the construction of several dams for electric-power generation in the Himalayan states of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Jammu and Kashmir. They include the Tawang (800 megawatt), Tato (700 megawatt), Subansiri Upper (1,800 megawatt), and Teesta (520 megawatt) projects. Cost and time overruns are common problems in every dam project in India. But given the growing grassroots power of NGOs in blocking dam building, it is unclear which of the newly approved projects will be completed and in what time frame.

In truth, India demonstrates that dams and democracy normally don’t go well together. Whereas China continues to build giant dams and reroute rivers, trumpeting these projects as symbols of its engineering prowess, the public pressures generated by India’s democracy act as a brake on ambitious water projects that displace many people or flood vast areas. For example, while India’s river-linking plan remains in the realm of fantasy, China’s similar program began transferring water domestically through the Eastern Route by 2013.

Still, given the growing gap between Asian water demand and supply, water disputes are almost as rife between India and its neighbors as they are between China and its neighbors. There are, however, two key differences. One, India has water pacts with all its riparian neighbors other than China. And two, its water-sharing treaties with Bangladesh and Pakistan contain dispute-settlement mechanisms.

The Indus Treaty, according to a 2011 majority staff report prepared for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is “considered the world’s most successful water treaty, having remained relatively intact for 50 years and having withstood four Indo-Pakistani wars.”[26] Yet this treaty has not been able to stop bilateral water disputes from surfacing and embittering relations. The treaty, however, contains elaborate provisions to resolve differences or disputes through the appointment of a neutral international expert or a court of arbitration. These mechanisms help to moderate disagreements, ensuring that they do not escalate to conflict.

Still, the reality is that water shortages have become acute in Pakistan, which maintains one of Asia’s highest population-growth rates. The total quantum of cross-border flows into Pakistan from India has not materially changed over the years, in spite of genuine concerns over the impact of global warming. The inflows include an average of 167.2 billion cubic meters yearly from the three large rivers reserved for Pakistan under the Indus Treaty, plus 11.1 billion cubic meters in bonus waters that run across the border from the three smaller rivers set aside for India’s use. So, Pakistan’s effective share, according to the U.N., adds up to 85.9% of the 207.6 billion cubic meters in total yearly flows of the six Indus-system rivers.[27] In other words, Pakistan’s share of transboundary waters is greater than that of Egypt, another state located farthest downstream on a major international river system.

But with Pakistan’s per capita water availability falling in proportion to its population expansion, the country has since the 1980s gone from being a water-sufficient country to becoming a water-stressed one. It is now headed toward acute water scarcity. India’s own portion of the Indus Basin is reeling under growing water stress, with the deficit between water supply and demand estimated at 52%.[28] Both Pakistan and India thus face difficult choices on water that are likely to be compounded by climate change, including the accelerated thawing of glaciers—a significant source of meltwaters for the major rivers, particularly the Indus and the Brahmaputra.[29]  Dealing with the challenges demands greater bilateral water cooperation, which hinges on improved India-Pakistan relations.

Low-lying Bangladesh, for its part, has too much water during the annual four-month monsoon, when large parts of the deltaic country become inundated, and too little in the dry season, which runs from early spring to early summer. Bangladesh’s annual per capita water availability averages 8,252 cubic meters—or more than five times that of India—but the major interseasonal variations, which are larger than that in any other South Asian country, and the limited storage capacity of its aquifers, make its water situation difficult.

India’s 1996 Ganges water-sharing treaty with Bangladesh, which ended protracted acrimony over the diversion of water by India’s Farakka Barrage, guarantees the downstream state specific cross-border flows in the critical dry season—a new principle in international water relations. This provision means that even if the river’s flows were to diminish due to reasons beyond India’s control—such as climate change or the planned Chinese damming of a key Ganges tributary, the Arun (also known as the Kosi) that contributes significantly to downstream Ganges water levels—India would still be obligated to supply Bangladesh with 34,060 cubic feet of water per second of time (cusecs) on average in the dry season, as stipulated by the treaty. Bangladesh’s share of downstream flows is about 50%.

The Ganges Treaty, by and large, has been smoothly implemented, but new disagreements have flared over smaller river basins shared by Bangladesh and India, especially over New Delhi’s proposed revival of a long-dormant multipurpose dam project, Tipaimukh, in remote Manipur State bordering Myanmar. Located 210 kilometers upstream from the Bangladesh border on the Barak River and designed to control floods, improve river navigation, and generate 1,500 megawatts of hydropower, the Tipaimukh Dam had been held up for years by grassroots concerns on the Indian side over displacement and submergence. To help resolve bilateral differences over this plan, India has arranged tours for Bangladeshi officials and lawmakers to the project site and supplied the design and other technical details.

Separately, Bangladesh wants India to reserve for it about half of the waters of the Teesta River, which originates in the Himalayan Indian state of Sikkim and ultimately merges with the Brahmaputra in the Bangladeshi delta. The draft text of the proposed Teesta Treaty has been under discussion since at least 2010, and the two countries would have signed the agreement in 2013 but for the opposition of the government of India’s West Bengal State, for whose northern part the Teesta serves as the lifeline. Many believe that it is only a matter of time before this agreement is signed, a development that will end the long global absence of a new water-sharing treaty since 2002, when Syria and Lebanon agreed on a sharing formula on their small border river El-Kaber.

Two other South Asian states, Nepal and Bhutan, sit on vast untapped Himalayan hydropower reserves. Nepal, which remains in danger of becoming a failed state, holds up to 83,000 megawatts of potential hydropower reserves, yet it produces less than 1,000 megawatts of electricity for its 32 million citizens from all sources of energy and actually imports power from India. Several water treaties underpin the India-Nepal relationship, but the pacts have been particularly controversial in upstream Nepal, where many seem to believe that they are loaded in India’s favor. The two neighbors thus have made slow progress on bilateral water collaboration, with Nepal recently turning to China for dam construction. The Bhutan-India water relationship, by contrast, has flourished through joint, small-scale hydropower projects, with electricity exports swelling Bhutanese coffers.

If the already difficult water situation on the Indian subcontinent is to be prevented from deteriorating, much greater interstate and intrastate cooperation is needed. This is one of the world’s most-densely populated and thirstiest regions. Yet it is wracked by complex water challenges that are set to become more difficult due to demographic and economic expansion and global warming. This region has virtually the same land area as Central Asia, but a population that is more than 18 times larger. Its water resources are barely six times greater than those of Central Asia. In global terms, the countries of South Asia account for about 22% of the world’s population, but make do with barely 8.3% of the global water resources.[30]


The situation in Asia—the hub of global water challenges—shows that water can be fashioned into a hidden political weapon by various means, including the denial or delayed transfer of hydrological data, and that a powerful state can wield the water weapon irrespective of whether it is located upstream or downstream. In a diplomatic or economic sense, water wars are already being waged between riparian neighbors in several of Asia’s subregions. With a number of Asian nations jockeying to control transnational water resources, even as they demand transparency and the sharing of information about their neighbors’ hydroengineering projects, sharpening water competition could provoke greater tensions and conflict.

Such competition actually underscores Asia’s broader challenges, which threaten its continued rise. To be sure, the ongoing global power shifts are primarily linked to Asia’s economic rise, the speed and scale of which have been phenomenal. But Asia faces major constraints. It must cope with entrenched territorial and maritime disputes; harmful historical legacies that weigh down its most important interstate relationships; increasingly fervent nationalism; growing religious extremism; and sharpening competition over water, energy, and other resources.

Moreover, Asia’s political integration lags behind its economic integration and, to compound matters, it has no overarching security framework. One central concern is that, unlike Europe’s bloody wars of the first half of the 20th century, which made war there unthinkable until the advent of the Ukraine crisis recently, the wars in Asia in the second half of the 20th century only accentuated bitter rivalries. Several interstate wars have been fought in Asia since 1950, when both the Korean War and the annexation of Tibet started, without resolving the underlying disputes. Given the significant role that natural resources have historically played in global strategic relations—including instigating conflict—Asia’s increasingly murky resource geopolitics threatens to exacerbate existing interstate tensions.

Water-sharing disputes have become common across Asia. Measures taken by one nation or province to augment its water supply or storage capacity often threaten to adversely affect downstream basins, thereby stoking political or ethnic tensions. 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. Attempts to set up water-intensive energy or manufacturing plants in already water-stressed areas have provoked strong local protests, including violent confrontations with police.

Today, it has become virtually impossible to set up nuclear power plants along freshwater bodies in Asia, the center of the so-called global nuclear renaissance. These water-guzzling plants perforce have to be erected along coastlines so that they can rely on seawater for their operations. Yet the 2011 Fukushima disaster has served as a warning of the vulnerability of seaside nuclear facilities to extreme weather events, which are likely to become more common in an increasingly global-warming-driven environment. Meanwhile, the proliferation of new dam projects highlights the continuing Asian efforts to engineer potential solutions to the water crisis via traditional supply-side approaches when the imperative is instead to adopt smart water management.

Against this background, the big question is: how can the struggle for water be prevented from becoming a tipping point for overt conflict? Strategic competition over natural resources will continue to shape Asia’s security dynamics, yet the associated risks could be moderated if Asia’s leaders were to establish norms and institutions aimed at building rules-based cooperation. Unfortunately, little progress has been made in this direction, as underlined by the absence of institutionalized cooperation in the vast majority of transnational river basins.

Averting water wars demands rule-based cooperation, water sharing, uninterrupted data flow, and dispute-settlement mechanisms. Transparency, collaboration, and sharing are the building blocks of water peace. Asia also needs new market mechanisms, public-private partnerships, innovative practices and technologies, conservation, and astute management to advance adaptation and affordable solutions and thereby open the path to a more sustainable and peaceful environment to safeguard its continued rise.

Asian economies must focus on three specific areas to mitigate their water crisis. One is achieving greater water-use efficiency and productivity, especially by controlling profligate agricultural practices. Another is using new clean-water technologies to open up nontraditional supply sources, including desalinated ocean and brackish water and recycled wastewater. The third is expanding and enhancing water infrastructure to correct regional and seasonal imbalances in water availability, and to harvest rainwater, which can be an additional supply source to help ease shortages. Improving water-supply management calls for abandoning the business-as-usual outlook and embracing unconventional approaches.

Renewed efforts are also needed to try and co-opt China in basin-level institutions. Without China’s active participation in water institutions, it will not be possible to transform Asian competition into cooperation. Only water institutions involving all important co-riparians can make headway to regulate inter-country competition, help balance the rights and obligations of co-basin states, and promote sustainable practices. If China were to accept rule-based cooperation, it would have to strike a balance between its right to harness transnational water resources for its development and a corresponding obligation (embedded in customary international law and the 1997 United Nations Convention) not to cause palpable harm to any co-riparian state.

A balance between rights and obligations indeed is at the heart of how to achieve harmonious, rule-based relations between co-basin states. To be sure, any water arrangement’s comparative benefits and burdens should be such that the advantages outweigh the duties and responsibilities, or else the state that sees itself as a loser may walk out of discussions or fail to comply with its obligations. China must be persuaded that its diplomatic and economic interests would be better served by joining forward-looking institutionalized cooperation. Beijing will need considerable convincing, of course, if it is to participate in any basin-level framework centered on compromise, coordination, and collaboration. If China insists on staying on its current unilateralist course, the risk is not only that it will define and implement its water interests in ways irreconcilable with those of its co-riparian states, but also that prospects for a rule-based order in Asia could perish forever.

The dirty little secret about bilateral or multilateral water cooperation in any basin is that it is really more about politics than about law. Without improved inter-country relations and better trust, Asia’s hydropolitics will remain grating. Strained political relations in most of Asia’s subregions make an Asia-wide security structure or more effective resource cooperation difficult to achieve. Connected with this is the overarching challenge for Asian countries to eliminate the baggage of history that is preventing them from charting a more stable and peaceful future. Unassuaged historical grievances have constricted diplomatic space for building political accommodation and reconciliation. Asian states must find ways to overcome their histories of antagonism to build cooperation. As a Russian proverb warns, “Forget the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes.”


[1] United Nations, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision (New York: UN, April 2012).

[2] Brahma Chellaney, Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), p. 273.

[3] World Bank, Cost of Pollution in China: Economic Estimates of Physical Damages (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2007), <http://goo.gl/OTXc1>.

[4] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Aquastat online database. Figures for 2011, http://goo.gl/Q9PNcJ.

[5] United Nations, The State of the Environment in Asia and the Pacific 2005 (Bangkok: United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 2006), pp. 57-58.

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

[7] FAO, Aquastat online database.

[8] Ibid.

[9] For a list of agreements China advertises, see Annex I in Patricia Wouters and Huiping Chen, “China’s ‘Soft-Path’ to Transboundary Water Cooperation Examined in the Light of Two UN Global Water Conventions—Exploring the ‘Chinese Way’,” The Journal of Water Law 22:6 (2011), pp. 246-47.

[10] U.S. Attorney General Opinions, 21 Op. Att’y Gen. 274 (1895) (‘‘Harmon Opinion’’). Attorney General Judson Harmon wrote in 1895 that ‘‘the fundamental principle of international law is the absolute sovereignty of every nation, as against all others, within its own territory.’’ Hon. Judson Harmon to the Secretary of State, December 12, 1895, in E. C. Brandenburg, ed., Official Opinions: The Attorneys-General of the United States, Advising the President and Heads of Departments,vol. 21 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1898), p. 281.

[11] Statement of Chinese envoy Gao Feng at the United Nations General Assembly, May 21, 1997, in “General Assembly Adopts Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses,” United Nations Press Release, GA/9248, <http://goo.gl/12DqY>.

[12] Michael Schwirtz and Ellen Barry, “Russia Weighs Pleas to Step in as Uzbeks Flee Kyrgyzstan,” New York Times, June 14, 2010.

[13] Chellaney, Water, Peace, and War, p. 233. Also see International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), “Register of Dams,” < http://goo.gl/BqMsPM>.

[14] Philip Micklin, “The Aral Sea Disaster,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 35 (May 2007), pp. 47–72.

[15] Li Ling, Xizang Zhi Shui Jiu Zhongguo: Da Xi Xian Zai Zao Zhongguo Zhan Lue Nei Mu Xiang Lu [Tibet’s Waters Will Save China], in Mandarin (Beijing: Zhongguo Chang’an chu ban she, November 2005), book sponsored by the Ministry of Water Resources.

[16]Shemin Ge, Mian Liu, Ning Lu, Jonathan W. Godt, and Gang Luo, “Did the Zipingpu Reservoir Trigger the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake?” Geophysical Research Letters 36 (2009). Also see Richard Kerr and Richard Stone, “A Human Trigger for the Great Quake of Sichuan,” Science, 323, no. 5912 (January 16, 2009); Sharon La Franiere, “Possible Link Between Dam and China Quake,” New York Times, February 6, 2009; and Jordan Lite, “Great China Earthquake May Have Been Man-Made,” Scientific American, February 3, 2009.

[17] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Country Fact-Sheet: China, Aquastat, 2014, <http://goo.gl/Oull20>.

[18] Leslie Hook, “China: High and Dry,” Financial Times, May 14, 2013.

[19] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Irrigation in the Countries of the Former Soviet Union in Figures, FAO Water Report No. 15 (Rome: FAO, 1997).

[20] FAO, Irrigation in the Countries of the Former Soviet Union.

[21] Joshua Lipes, “China Should Join Mekong Commission: U.S. Official,” Radio Free Asia, January 9, 2014, <http://goo.gl/sMOZzg>.

[22] FAO, Aquastat online database.

[23] Chellaney, Water, Peace, and War, p. 287.

[24] 2030 Water Resources Group (Barilla Group, Coca-Cola Company, International Finance Corporation, McKinsey & Company, Nestlé S.A., New Holland Agriculture, SABMiller PLC, Standard Chartered Bank, and Syngenta AG), Charting Our Water Future (New York: 2030 Water Resources Group, 2009), p. 10.

[25] Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development, Integrated Water Resource Development: A Plan for Action, vol. 1 (New Delhi: Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development, Ministry of Water Resources, 1999); National Water Development Agency, Indian Ministry of Water Resources, “The Need,” <http://goo.gl/bIuvm>.

[26] United States Senate, Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia’s Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, A Majority Staff Report, Prepared for the Use of the Committee on Foreign Relations (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, February 22, 2011), p. 7.

[27] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Irrigation in Southern and Eastern Asia in Figures, Water Report 37 (Rome: FAO, 2012). The figure does not include the waters of the Kabul River, which flows from Afghanistan to join the main Indus stream in Pakistan.

[28] 2030 Water Resources Group, Charting Our Water Future, p. 56.


Walter W. Immerzeel, Ludovicus P. H. van Beek, and Marc F. P. Bierkens, “Climate Change Will Affect the Asian Water Towers,” Science 328:5983 (June 11, 2010), pp. 1384–85.

[30] FAO, Aquastat online database.

Asian Survey, Vol. 54, Number 4, pp. 621–650. ISSN0004-4687, electronic ISSN1533-838X.

Copyright 2014 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintInfo.asp. DOI: 10.1525/AS.2014.54.4.621.