River Rivalries: The Politicization of Water in Asia

By He, Tianhao | Harvard International Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

River Rivalries: The Politicization of Water in Asia


He, Tianhao, Harvard International Review


Lurking beneath the mosaic of geopolitical tensions in Asia is a wellspring of conflict over one of humanity's most fundamental needs: water. For the 1.3 billion people living in southwest China and the northern reaches of Southeast Asia, rivers are fixtures of local economies and cultures. In recent years, demand for water has skyrocketed due to the region's relentless economic development and population expansion, while supply is expected to dwindle over the next few decades due to the effects of changing climate patterns.

Compounding this dire scarcity, water is being increasingly politicized due to die transnational nature of these major rivers. Since accessible water resources arc integral to life in general and the region's agricultural economies specifically, disputes over fair usage of these shared rivers have become critical challenges in regional diplomacy. More than ever, the policies and politics of countries in this region are being woven together in an inextricable web of dependency. In some ways, these river conflicts are manifestations of the region's foreign policy dynamics in another form. Though some fear that these river conflicts may turn into armed conflicts, certain international treaties have provided a sustainable framework for water management that serve as a glimmer of hope for conflict resolution in a region that is perpetually plagued with hostility.

Strategically, China has a distinct advantage in terms of water resources because eight of the region's major rivers originate in the Tibetan Plateau of the western part of the country. These rivers, in turn, serve 1.8 billion people ranging from Pakistan to Vietnam. The crucial clement in these river conflicts is the power dynamic between upstream and downstream countries. Many countries like China and India have pursued aggressive programs of dam construction on these rivers to harness hydroelectric power and to manage water levels during flooding seasons. These policies have rippling effects downstream because riparian countries that share the river fear reductions in their water supply due to upstream manipulation.

Within the next five years, China plans to meet fifteen percent of its energy consumption needs from alternative energy sources, and so hydroelectric generation is a top policy priority. The Mekong River alone supplies water to 325 million people living in China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. China has already built three major dams on the Mekong River, which in turn have the potential to send ripples of side effects downstream. By altering water levels, these projects can disrupt rice production and fuel local resentment as far downstream as Vietnam's IViekong delta region. Public opinion in many of the Mekong River's basin countries pins China as a scapegoat for economic and agricultural problems. In 1995, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam established the Mekong River Commission to facilitate policy collaboration on transnational water usage. Strikingly, China is not a member, though it has been receptive to dialogue. Another river basin in which China has played a polarizing role is the Brahmaputra, which originates in the Tibetan Plateau and flows through Assam in India before entering Bangladesh. In November 2010, China began construction on the Zangmu Dam on the Brahmaputra, which is estimated to cost US$1.2 billion. India fears that China might eventually try to divert the Brahmaputra towards its eastern provinces, thereby cutting off one of India's essential water sources. Though there has been much debate as to the technical feasibility of such an endeavor, the possibility of this type of upstream manipulation has continued to foment uneasiness between the two economic powers. …

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