Academic journal article Parameters

China, India, and War over Water

Academic journal article Parameters

China, India, and War over Water

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article examines the likelihood of water insecurity causing war between China and India. Water insecurity itself will not likely lead to armed conflict. But when coupled with other international and domestic factors, it could increase the likelihood of war. China's water scarcity and its widening north-south water gap have increased pressure to execute controversial water diversion plans. These plans will threaten India, especially since the Brahmaputra River flows through a disputed area. These factors, plus changing domestic conditions in China, may increase the likelihood of war.

Over the past decade, numerous analysts and scholars have speculated about the likelihood of India and China going to war over water. Some maintain a future "water war" will occur--and others call such fears overblown. (1) These arguments focus on how water is unevenly distributed and how China's upstream behaviors, such as its damming activities, could instigate conflict with its downstream neighbor.

To determine if water scarcity could cause military conflict between these two states, an extensive analysis of factors affecting relations between India and China, as well as domestic conditions within China, are needed. Such analyses suggest water scarcity itself will not likely lead to war. However, coupled with other factors such as increasing water scarcity in China, linkages between water scarcity and national sovereignty, and decreasing political stability in the upstream state, war may become more likely.

The glaciers in China's Tibet are melting at a faster rate, and coupled with growing water scarcity and a widening north-south regional water gap, China will face increasing pressure to implement a controversial upstream water diversion plan in its western provinces. This plan will threaten India since the downstream portion of the Brahmaputra River flows through a disputed area with strong implications for national sovereignty. Both states will then increase their security postures in an already heavily militarized border region. As China's economic growth continues its downward trajectory, popular nationalism will threaten the Chinese Communist Party's ability to pursue a foreign policy uninfluenced by populism and public opinion. The likely net result: a likely water war between the two states.

Water Scarcity and Conflict

The idea of water security has gained traction over the years, and is defined as "the availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems, and production, coupled with an acceptable amount of water-related risks to people, environment, and economies." This idea includes the negative effects of having too little water, or "water scarcity," and damage from having too much water such as floods, contamination, erosion, and epidemics. (2) This article focuses on the scarcity component of water insecurity and assesses six driving factors that make it more likely China and India will fight over water in the future. But, first, let us discuss how water scarcity is related to conflict.

People can survive plague, war, and natural catastrophes, but they cannot survive without water. Unfortunately, fresh water is an increasingly scarce and precious resource. Less than 2.5 percent of all water on earth is fresh water, and more than half of it is trapped in polar ice and high-altitude glaciers around the world. This precious-little amount is declining due to increasing consumption, pollution, and climate change. "Global per capita freshwater availability has unstoppably declined for more than a century, plummeting more than 60 percent since 1950 alone." (3)

At the turn of the millennium in 2000, more than one billion people could not access clean drinking water. (4) According to a recent article co-authored by the chair of the Department of Water Engineering at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and a water scarcity expert from the Johns Hopkins Water Institute, approximately 66 percent of the world's population, or more than four billion people, live in areas under severe water scarcity. …

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