Water Problems in Asia




Executive Summary: On September 17, 1999, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) held a one-day seminar entitled “Water and Conflict in Asia?”  The purpose of the seminar was to assess the current and future water security situation in the Asia-Pacific Region and to identify factors that would likely influence water security in the future.  The panel examined the interstate security dimensions posed by freshwater disputes, focusing on two case studies: India-Bangladesh and the Mekong Delta Region.  The seminar was divided into 4 sessions:

 (1) Water Security: Defining the Issues;

(2) Factors that Influence Water Security;

 (3) Water Security and International Relations (with reference to case studies); and

(4) Policy Solutions to Promote Water Security.  The following is a brief overview of some key findings:

The Global Availability of Freshwater is Dwindlingmore than 97% of the world's water is salt water in the oceans and seas, leaving less than 3% as freshwater, much of which is contained in the polar ice caps, glaciers, deep aquifers or soil moisture.  Thus only about 1% of the world’s freshwater is readily available for human consumption.  Furthermore, the distribution of water throughout the world is not equitable for a variety of geographical and economic reasons.  A continuing per capita decline of freshwater availability in the next 30 years could very well lead to societal collapse in certain areas.

Environmental Change in the Future Could Threaten Water Supplies: climate change is the major unknown variable in discussions of water security.  If predictions regarding sea-level rise are accurate, this could lead to flooding of river deltas and underwater aquifers with salt water.  Climate change could also lead to more severe droughts, like we have seen recently in Asia, which are attributable to the 'El Nino' weather phenomenon.

Increasingly the International Community Views "Access to Water" as a Fundamental Human Right: water is essential to human health and it cannot be separated from notions of human rights.  Millions more die of water-related problems than from interstate conflict.

Agricultural Water Demand Has a Major Impact on Water Security: the primary use of water throughout the world is for agriculture.  As more food will be needed in the future, due to global population growth, there will be greater demands placed on the world's water supply.  About 70% of the additional food supply in the next 25-30 years will come from irrigated lands.

Water Security and Domestic Politics are often Intertwined: water can often emerge as an issue in the relations between nation-states.  Water treaties and agreements often come about because of the existing political environment.  But the politics of water is not limited to the international sphere; domestic politics often plays a major role in water security.  Farmers may operate within a particular political environment and their access to water supplies may be governed by political factors.

Water Can be a Source of Inter-state Conflict: water may result in conflict in a number of ways.  First, water may spark conflict between states.  This can also occur when one state uses a threat of cutting off water supplies to another state (i.e. Malaysia against Singapore).  Conflict may also result when smaller states deal with larger states, which happen to be the source of major water supplies (i.e., Bangladesh and India).  Conflict can also occur when certain states refuse to cooperate or participate in regional mechanisms/organizations designed to assure water security for all parties (i.e. China's refusal to negotiate multilaterally regarding the Mekong Delta).

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