Spending Billions Preparing For Hot Wars When Water Wars Are Looming – Analysis


By Kalinga Seneviratne

Since the pandemic, governments have been spending billions on arming themselves for imagined hot wars when billions of dollars are needed to mitigate a global water crisis that needs the building of sustainable water infrastructure and management regimes.

Presenting a series of articles from researchers in the Asia-Pacific region, Reece Hooker, Contents Manager of the 360info news service, warned: “Tensions around access to and management of water are heightening all over the world. Finding ways to de-escalate and innovate is a matter of life and death”.

“As we face a future where some parts of the world will be chronically short of water, so too comes the increased risk that groups will be drawn into conflict and wars over access to and sovereignty over water,” he added.

While the UN marked the annual World Water Day on March 23, there were looming water conflicts across Asia, with Vietnam complaining about the low water flows downstream on the Mekong River impacting their farming heartland in the Mekong Delta due to dams being built upstream in China, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.

Similar issues are looming on the Brahmaputra River, which flows through China, Bangladesh, and India. The small island state of Singapore, which depends on most of its water from Malaysia, said about two decades ago that when Malaysia threatened to cut off supply over a pricing dispute, this would be considered an “act of war.” Tensions over water pricing are brewing again between the two Southeast Asian neighbours.

Singapore’s attempt to wean itself away from dependency on Malaysian water through a high-tech path of establishing water desalination and recycling plants has not fully succeeded so far.

“Building tensions between Singapore and Malaysia over its water agreement are setting the two on a collision course over scarcity and sustainability,” notes TamilSalvi Mari of Taylor’s University in Kuala Lumpur.

Under an agreement signed during the British colonial era in 1927, Malaysia pumps some 960 million litres of water daily from its Johor River through a pipeline across the causeway separating the two countries. This agreement is supposed to last until 2061, but since the dawn of the 21st century, Malaysia has felt that it is getting a raw deal from the price Singapore pays for its water, and they want to renegotiate the deal, with the latest flare-up in November last year.

“The Malaysia-Singapore water agreement has big implications for Malaysian sovereignty, particularly the southern state of Johor,” argues Mari in a commentary published by 360info. “The agreement restricts Malaysia’s control over its own water supply, granting Singapore a stipulated amount of water at a fixed price (and) the pricing mechanism in the agreement has been contentious, with Singapore purchasing water at a much lower rate than the market price”.

While India spends billions of dollars in high-tech armaments supposedly to defend itself from China, Pakistan and terrorists, it is giving lesser priority to a looming water crisis that could doom millions of their citizens. It could even trigger a civil rights movement, where the poor, especially the lower castes, are denied access to safe water.

“The right to safe drinking water is recognised as a fundamental human right in India,” says Prakash Kashwan, chair of Environment Justice Concentration at Brandeis University in Boston. “(But) how water is allocated and distributed comes down to a question of policy and governance, where it tends to follow the contours of socially determined inequalities.”

The 2018 annual report of the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) noted that although India uses the world’s most groundwater, it ranks 120 out of 122 countries in Global Water Quality.

“Social inequities in India and other parts of South Asia directly impact access to water, how it is allocated, distributed and consumed. Climate change, along with oppressive and discriminatory social practices, makes a bad situation worse”, argues Kashwan. “Who owns land and resources becomes critical to who can access water. This question is determined along lines of caste, class and gender inequalities”.

In a commentary published by 360.info, Kashwan argues that more than throwing money at a problem, it is a socio-political problem that needs attention.  “Groundwater access becomes the preserve of the upper castes through the building of tube wells on private land, a form of access based on casteist social structures that limit land ownership among the lower castes. This socio-economic status determines access to water and who uses more of the groundwater commons.”

China could be at the centre of future water conflicts in Asia because 16 major rivers originate in China that supply fresh water to nearly 3 billion people in 14 Asian countries—more than a third of the world’s population. Many of these originate in the Himalayan Tibetan mountains, and China is often dubbed by its critics as an “upstream bully” at the top of Asia’s “water tower”.

These rivers could be the trigger for water wars of the future. However, they could also be platforms for building peaceful, sustainable Asian communities. It will depend to a large extent on “how China could use transboundary water management as a springboard for regional peace and cooperation”, argues Fengshi Wu, Associate Professor in Political Science and International Relations at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.“Its success will depend not just on navigating diplomacy with many neighbouring states, but also on the unpredictable course of the US-China rivalry”.

Wu points out that transnational water management, like other non-traditional security policy areas such as refugee and irregular migration, lacks a designated regulatory agency or unified legal-political framework. “Disputes and collaborations are handled individually, depending on the specific geopolitical factors, without cross-referencing,” she notes.

Since establishing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, India has frequently accused China of interfering in India-Pakistan water disputes.  Governments in the Mekong River corridor have allowed environmentalists to protest against China-funded dams along the Mekong. The Xayaburi dam in Laos and the Sanakham dam project in Thailand are cases in point.

“At the international level, China’s involvement in multilateral water and environmental cooperation remained extremely limited until the 2000s”, says Wu, and points out as a sign of progress the setting up of the Lancang Mekong Cooperation Organisation in 2017 by China to manage upstream geopolitical issues.

However, China’s critics have pointed out that China should cooperate with the Japan-funded Mekong River Commission (MRC) rather than set up its own and roping in most of the members of the MRC.

“Since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, transboundary water and environmental resource management related to Southeast Asia, Central Asia and parts of South Asia has been quickly streamlined, repackaged and integrated into multifaceted, large-scale projects of development, clean energy and capacity building,” notes Wu.

Thus, compared with traditional intergovernmental cooperation and negotiations, “these may be more incremental initiatives,” argues Wu, “aimed at building new foundations and consensus for long-term cooperation”.

Meanwhile, with India’s 150 primary reservoirs at 38% of their total capacity and places like Bengaluru—India’s Silicon Valley—grappling with a shortfall of 500 million litres of water a day, India’s opposition politicians have called for the water crisis to be a major election issue as India goes to the polls in April.

“Water management requires a holistic approach beyond mere rainwater harvesting. It demands community-led initiatives aided by government agencies employing remote sensing to identify optimal locations for such structures. Communities must understand their water resources to make informed decisions on usage,” said Shashi Shikhar, former secretary of the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, at a ‘Water for Peace” forum held in Mumbai marking the ‘Word Water Day’.


IDN-InDepthNews offers news analyses and viewpoints on topics that impact the world and its peoples. IDN-InDepthNews serves as the flagship of the International Press Syndicate Group

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