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Asia's potential water fights, Alan Boyd, Tuesday, April 1, 2003


As many as 57 river basins in Asia are viewed as potential flashpoints for conflict between riparian neighbors as population and development pressures strain dwindling water resources. A landmark study released last week by two United Nations agencies and the U.S.-based Oregon State University warned that cooperation over shared waters was "inconsistent or absent." Compiled as part of the third World Water Forum, which ended in Kyoto last month, the Atlas of International Freshwater Agreements identifies conflict over drinking water, intensive irrigation, fisheries and hydropower. While there is a long history of the negotiated settlement of disputes, 158 of the world's 263 international basins, including most of those in Asia, lack a feasible cooperative management framework.

"We have found that cooperation between countries over the past 50 years has outnumbered conflicts by more than 2:1. But things can go wrong," said Professor Aaron T Wolf of Oregon State University. There have been only 37 incidents worldwide involving water resources since 1948 that led to actual violence, and 30 of these were confined to Israel and one or more its neighbors. However, tensions are rising in less-developed regions — especially in Asia and Africa — as economic development feathers the growth of intensive agriculture and imposes severe population pressures. International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has predicted that 2.7 billion people, or one-third of the world's projected population, will not have access to enough water by 2025.

Irrigation and other forms of farm use will have to increase by 15-20% in the next 25 years to maintain food security, while water consumption needs to be reduced by 10% to protect natural watercourses. "If current trends continue, the shortage of water will extend well beyond the semi-arid and arid regions. Expanding demand for water will drain some of the world's major rivers, leaving them dry throughout most of the year," said Professor Frank Rijsberman, the IWMI director general. "Urban centers will experience severe water shortages. But the rural poor will suffer the most serious consequences." Drier basins in Central Asia are among those most at risk. The IWMI also lists Cambodia and Bhutan as nations with an acute vulnerability to water shortages: their populations already subsist on an average of less than 10 liters a day.

Climatic changes linked to global warming, including shorter rainy seasons and longer droughts, will affect other areas during coming decades, provoking new economic, social and health crises. In a foretaste of the climatic upheaval that may be to come, Afghanistan has recorded an unusually severe drought in the past year, and much of Southeast Asia has been afflicted by intense flooding. The countries suffering the worst shortages are likely to be those that are already near the bottom of the socioeconomic scale, partly because there has not been enough development of storage facilities. Vietnam, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea and Cambodia have Asia's most inadequate water management, according to an index compiled by the World Panel on Financing Water Infrastructure. All face formidable investment challenges due to a low availability of water resources, insufficient storage capacity and deteriorating of environmental conditions.

About 20% of Asians have no easy access to water, many located in economically important urban areas that will experience a doubling of their populations during over the next 25 years. "To meet the needs of a larger world population, the area of irrigated land will have to increase by 22%, and water withdrawals by 14%," reported the infrastructure panel. Compounding the problem of water quantity is one of quality: 19% of Asians do not have safe drinking water, and 52% lack sanitation facilities, even though the overall supplies may be adequate.

Bangladesh and India generally have enough water, but 47% of children in both countries are suffering from malnutrition or are exposed to infections, according to the United Nations Children's Fund. Child malnutrition and hygiene levels are also critically low in North Korea (60%), Afghanistan (48%), Nepal (47%) and Cambodia (46%). Meeting supply shortages and improving quality standards is expected to consume the bulk of development funds in the next quarter-century. But it may not be as simple as harnessing more water. While hydropower might offer a solution to supply shortages and help mitigate the effects of flooding, dams are often opposed on environmental grounds, while governments are on uncertain legal ground if they target multilateral basins.

Only 30% of hydropower potential has been exploited in Asia, compared with 70% in Europe and North America and 40% in South America, reflecting the ambiguous status of shared river resources. Even China, with its autocratic system of government and relatively extensive access to capital, has utilized only 20% of available storage potential, though it has recently pushed ahead with a string of dams in the Mekong basin. There have been attempts to set up a workable management system, most notably with the establishment of the Indus Water Commission between India and Pakistan in 1960 and the Mekong River Committee in 1957. However, the mandate of multilateral agencies is often limited to negotiating navigation or fishing rights, raising doubts over their ability — or even willingness — to enter the sensitive realm of water-sharing rights.

At a basin level, the U.N.-University of Oregon study found that few treaties had adequate reference to "water-quality management, monitoring and evaluation, conflict resolution, public participation and flexible allocation methods." "As a result, most existing international water agreements continue to lack the tools necessary to promote long-term holistic water management," the study reported. Notable exceptions include a 1996 water-sharing treaty between India and Bangladesh on the Ganga/Ganges rivers at Farakka and two treaties between India and Nepal in 1959 and 1966 that also touched on hydropower and irrigation. Agreements are also in force for the Amur, An Nahr Al Kabir, Aral, Asi/Orontes, Atrakn, Fly, Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna, Har Us Nur, Indus, Jenisej/Yenisey, Jordan, Kura-Araks, Lake Ubsa-Nur, Mekong, Ob, Oral/Ural and Pu Lun T'o basins.

Communiques have been exchanged for the Fenney, Helmand, Ili/Kunes Hem, Karnaphuli, Nahr El Kebir, Sepik and Tigris- Euphrates-Shatt al Arab basins, but there are no specific undertakings on sharing water. A modest 20% of basin agreements are viewed as offering sufficient safeguards: most are flawed because they involve only some of the affected riparian nations, thus creating tensions with those left out.

South and Southeast Asia, with five and 18 river basins respectively, have recorded the highest incidence of water disputes, though none went beyond an outburst of political rhetoric. The U.N.-University of Oregon study listed 231 incidents in South Asia and 134 in Southeast Asia, while East Asia had 66 "events." In contrast, Africa and the Middle East had 531 incidents.

Paradoxically, volatile regions are also more likely to seek a peaceful solution. There have been 237 interactions in South Asia as a result of disputes, 371 in Southeast Asia and 84 in East Asia. But four of the six most disputed basins on a worldwide basis are located either in Asia or the Middle East: Ganges-Brahmaputra- Meghna, Jordan, Tigris-Euphrates and the Mekong.

Globally, the United Nations General Assembly has sought to establish a multilateral basis for arbitration through the wordy 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. However, it failed to achieve an equitable formula for sharing water and has been criticized as vague and contradictory. Ratified by a mere 12 countries, the convention has never been activated. As development strains become more apparent, lobbying is underway for other international organizations to assume a monitoring role that transcend the patchwork of ineffective basin agreements.

"They should perhaps act as the water equivalent of marriage guidance counselors, amicably resolving differences between countries and communities who may be straying apart, or act as go- between for those who are flirting with cooperation but are too coy, too unsure, maybe even too distrustful about how to proceed," said United Nations Environment Program director Klaus Toepfer. April 1, 2003


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