Warwick ASEAN Conference

Thirsty for Conflict: Water Scarcity in Southeast Asia

Water scarcity and its tragic consequences are hastily enveloping the world. Already, over two billion people are living in countries with high water stress. By 2030-2040, the United Nations predicts that one in four children will live under extreme water scarcity, and between 24-700 million people will become displaced because of water. Water is likely to be one of the leading causes of war, geopolitical tensions, humanitarian, environmental, and economic crises in the second half of this very century. In our closed water system, we only have so much fresh water accessible to us. Yet, with a rising global population, an ever-growing demand for water and the burning of natural resources to accommodate all of us, dividing up water peaceably and sustainably between countries and those who need it most will be no easy feat.

Placing a microscope on Southeast Asia:

Placing a microscope on Southeast Asia, water scarcity will be disproportionally catastrophic for economic and human development in the region, with millions dependent on a single lake or river. Although over half of the global population will live in water-scarce areas by 2050, 73% of the affected people live in Asia. To add, despite Asia using the least amount of water each day per capita, they are withdrawing the highest percentage from freshwater sources, standing at 20%. What is more, with 80% of this water withdrawal going into agriculture, it is impossible not to question the economic fragility of some of the lesser developed countries that are more dependent on crops and farming.

Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink:

The words ‘water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink’ apply not just to the woes of an Ancient Mariner but to a region stricken by water stress despite being abundantly surrounded by oceans. It is undeniable that tensions will rise in the foreseeable future. In fact, we don’t even have to wait 40 years to see this unfold, as the seeds of discontent and conflict are noticeable today.

To locate these tensions, we need to look no further than the Mekong river basin. Flowing through eight countries, 60 million people living in 5 countries in the Lower Mekong Basin depend on the river for their food and incomes. Yet, a mixture of water politics and harsher drought seasons increase the risk associated with dependency. For instance, in July 2019, the Mekong’s water levels were the lowest they have been in 100 years, making people increasingly vulnerable with matters only set to get worse. 

China’s upstream privileges:

In the case of any trans-boundary river, we have a situation of upstream privileges and downstream threats. Due to the river source coming from the Tibetan Plateau and then flowing through Yunnan Province, China has the comparative advantage of being able to use the river to its own ends. With six mega-dams built and plans for many more, the regional hegemon is fully exploiting its upstream advantages to the detriment of those below. For instance, Laos was only able to plant rice on 40% of its arable land this year due to Jinghong Dam in Yunnan Province discharging only half of its usual amount. The Lao government may feel no choice but to push forward more dam projects to protect their water access, creating a downward spiral where states below suffer even more. Resultantly, Richard Cronin of the Stimson Centre describes the Mekong river tensions as being ‘right up there with the South China Sea as a longer-term threat to peace and stability in the region.’

The Mekong, one of the most vital but contentious areas in the region

ASEAN and a rules-based water management system:

Southeast Asia, however, can still create a rules-based water management system where multilateral negotiations, funding for infrastructure, and rising tensions can be facilitated and addressed. ASEAN seems like the ideal candidate to fill this role. The shared idea of ‘one identity, one vision’ is the perfect reason for cooperation between the states along the Mekong river. To act on this, the ASEAN-Mekong Basin Development Cooperation, which has been dormant for over twenty years proceeding the Asian Financial Crisis, needs to be hastily injected with strategic vision and funding if tensions are to be subdued.

Admittedly, this can only come about if the BDC, or a revised version, has an executive with equal representation for all states, especially an equal platform given to the least developed countries within the regional bloc. In the long term, however, every state stands to gain from an organized and sustainably used river basin that will ensure future development, trade, and security within the region.

Technological innovations and transfers:

New initiatives by ASEAN could allow for funding and technological transfer coming from more developed countries in the region. Singapore is a case in point. Through technological innovations such as building desalination plants and reservoirs of treated sewage water, the state has found ways of gleaning a steady supply of freshwater and becoming less dependent on Malaysia for its water. In our technological age, our natural environment does not have to limit us in our quest for water supplies. Thus, it is possible to ditch the murky hydro-politics of the present. Yet, this becomes sky high thinking when we look at how the Chinese government has so far given no indication that it is amenable to negotiate joint management of the Mekong. Without China admitting that the Mekong is not theirs to keep, solutions continue to be rooted in the hypothetical talk of academics, journalists, and individuals.

Singapore’s “NEWater” process recycles used water into ultra-clean, high-grade reclaimed water, and now accounts for up to 40% of the country’s fresh water supply
(Image by PUB Singapore)

Water scarcity is speedily rising the ranks, becoming one of the most contentious issues in international relations. Yet, facilitating technological innovation, regional cooperation, and bilateral discussions in forty years will be too late. Southeast Asia has the blueprints for solutions within arm’s reach, and it needs to act fast to bring China to the table. Without participation from China, it seems that the thirst for conflict will be far from quenched.


Cover Illustration by Levi XU on Unsplash

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