Executive Summary: On September 17, 1999, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) held a one-day seminar entitled “Water and Conflict in Asia?”  The purpose of the seminar was to assess the current and future water security situation in the Asia-Pacific Region and to identify factors that would likely influence water security in the future.  The panel examined the interstate security dimensions posed by freshwater disputes, focusing on two case studies: India-Bangladesh and the Mekong Delta Region.  The seminar was divided into 4 sessions: (1) Water Security: Defining the Issues; (2) Factors that Influence Water Security; (3) Water Security and International Relations (with reference to case studies); and (4) Policy Solutions to Promote Water Security.  The following is a brief overview of some key findings:

The Global Availability of Freshwater is Dwindling: more than 97% of the world's water is salt water in the oceans and seas, leaving less than 3% as freshwater, much of which is contained in the polar ice caps, glaciers, deep aquifers or soil moisture.  Thus only about 1% of the world’s freshwater is readily available for human consumption.  Furthermore, the distribution of water throughout the world is not equitable for a variety of geographical and economic reasons.  A continuing per capita decline of freshwater availability in the next 30 years could very well lead to societal collapse in certain areas.

Environmental Change in the Future Could Threaten Water Supplies: climate change is the major unknown variable in discussions of water security.  If predictions regarding sea-level rise are accurate, this could lead to flooding of river deltas and underwater aquifers with salt water.  Climate change could also lead to more severe droughts, like we have seen recently in Asia, which are attributable to the 'El Nino' weather phenomenon.

Increasingly the International Community Views "Access to Water" as a Fundamental Human Right: water is essential to human health and it cannot be separated from notions of human rights.  Millions more die of water-related problems than from interstate conflict.

Agricultural Water Demand Has a Major Impact on Water Security: the primary use of water throughout the world is for agriculture.  As more food will be needed in the future, due to global population growth, there will be greater demands placed on the world's water supply.  About 70% of the additional food supply in the next 25-30 years will come from irrigated lands.

Water Security and Domestic Politics are often Intertwined: water can often emerge as an issue in the relations between nation-states.  Water treaties and agreements often come about because of the existing political environment.  But the politics of water is not limited to the international sphere; domestic politics often plays a major role in water security.  Farmers may operate within a particular political environment and their access to water supplies may be governed by political factors.

Water Can be a Source of Inter-state Conflict: water may result in conflict in a number of ways.  First, water may spark conflict between states.  This can also occur when one state uses a threat of cutting off water supplies to another state (i.e. Malaysia against Singapore).  Conflict may also result when smaller states deal with larger states, which happen to be the source of major water supplies (i.e., Bangladesh and India).  Conflict can also occur when certain states refuse to cooperate or participate in regional mechanisms/organizations designed to assure water security for all parties (i.e. China's refusal to negotiate multilaterally regarding the Mekong Delta).


Water security is emerging as an increasingly important and vital issue for the Asia-Pacific region.  Perhaps no other resource—other than oxygen—is so intricately linked to human health and survival.  However, as the region’s population growth continues to surge, the demand for water is increasing substantially, without a concomitant increase in water resources.  Many Asian countries are beginning to experience moderate to severe water shortages, brought on by the simultaneous effects of agricultural growth, industrialization, and urbanization.  In recent years, moreover, evidence indicates that water security is becoming increasingly affected by erratic weather patterns, most notably the El Nino and La Nina weather phenomena. Several countries in the region, including Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, have experienced droughts of such severity that they have caused food shortages and have threatened the long-term food supply.  In the future, climate change may produce even more erratic weather and result in similar crises.  Another concern in the region is growing competition over shared water resources.  Singapore, for example, is highly dependent on (and vulnerable to) Malaysia for its water supplies.  Many nations, such as those in the Mekong Delta region, share water resources and depend on mutual cooperation.  In South Asia, conflict over freshwater has strained relations between India and Bangladesh, as well as India and Pakistan.  In the future, diminishing and degraded freshwater resources could lead to internal instability in many nations, and possibly even spark interstate conflict.

To explore this complex issue, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) held a one-day seminar on September 17, 1999 entitled “Water and Conflict in Asia.”  The purpose of the seminar was to assess the current and future water security situation in the Asia-Pacific region and to identify factors that would likely influence water security in the future.  In particular, the panel focused on two case studies:  India-Bangladesh and the Mekong Region.  The seminar also explored linkages between water security and traditional national security and national sovereignty.  The seminar was divided into four sessions:  (1) Current Global Outlook for Water Security; (2) Analyzing the Factors that Contribute to Water Security; (3) Analyzing Water Security Case Studies (from an interstate perspective):  India-Bangladesh and the Mekong Region; (4) Policy Solutions.  This report serves simultaneously as a seminar report and a research survey to explore the current and potential reality of water security problems in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Water Security:  Access vs. Availability

The world’s freshwater supply is finite.  Most of the world’s water—about 97.5 percent—exists as salt water in the oceans and seas.  Of the world’s 2.5 percent of freshwater, roughly 99 percent is either trapped in glaciers and ice caps, held as soil moisture, or located in water tables too deep to access.  Thus, only about one percent of the world’s total freshwater supply is readily available for consumption by humans, animals and for irrigation.  With regard to water supplies, experts currently distinguish between the problems of “water stress” vs. “water scarcity”.  Water stress occurs when a country’s annual water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic meters per person.  When these levels reach between 1,700 and 1,000 cubic meters per person, occasional water shortages are likely to occur.  However, when water supplies drop below 1,000 cubic meters per person, the country faces water scarcity which can threaten food production, undermine economic development, and harm ecosystems.[1]  Today, more than 31 countries around the world, representing about 8% of the world population, are facing chronic freshwater shortages (thus reaching the scarcity stage), and this number will likely grow to 45 countries by the year 2025.

When analyzing freshwater and its relationship to human consumption, it is useful to delineate two concepts:  availability vs. access.  Availability refers to the physical presence of adequate water supplies, whereas access refers to the ability of people within a particular country or region to actually receive or gain access to clean freshwater.  Obviously, these are two distinct types of problems, although they can both be present in a region experiencing water stress or water scarcity.  Availability may be more dependent on physical or environmental factors (i.e., the geography of a particular country or climate change, etc.), whereas access may be more dependent on social or political factors (i.e. how much of a country’s agricultural sector is dependent on irrigation, or how effective a country’s municipal water supply is, etc.).  Thus, when we ask the question—are we facing a water crisis?—we should actually be framing the question to reflect the problem of availability vs. the problem of access.

The Availability Issue:  Is Asia Running Out of Freshwater?

In Asia, water shortages—both in the form of stress and scarcity—are emerging as a major social and economic threat, especially in China and India.  In China, although freshwater resources are abundant, they are distributed unevenly and hence unavailable to many regions of the country.  The amount of rainfall in China ranges from 200 mm in inland desert areas up to 2000 mm along the southern tropical coast.[2]  Water shortages in China’s urban areas are especially serious.  Of the country’s 640 major cities, more than 300 face water shortages.  Clean water is, moreover, becoming increasingly scarce because of an increase in domestic and industrial effluents.  Every year in China, thousands of tons of pollutants from agricultural, industrial and municipal sources are dumped into the nation’s rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, a trend that is common throughout the region.  The economic consequences of water shortages in China are significant:  water shortages in cities cause a loss of an estimated 120 billion yuan (US$11.2 billion) in industrial output each year.  The cost to human health of water pollution has been estimated to be as high as 41.73 billion yuan (US$3.9 billion) per year.[3]

India is experiencing similar shortages.  In 1998, a government minister warned that per capita availability of freshwater was declining due to rapid population growth and industrialization.  The minister told the Indian parliament that the per capita availability of freshwater in 2025 is expected to be 1,500 cubic meters per year, as compared to 2,200 cubic meters in 1997 and 5,300 cubic meters in 1955.[4]  Many of the seminar participants noted that water scarcity is likely to worsen in Asia in the years ahead.  This will have a huge negative impact on food security, as Asian agriculture is already heavily reliant on irrigation, with much of the anticipated increases in food production likely to be dependent on even higher levels of irrigation and irrigation efficiency.

The Access Issue:  Does Asia’s Population have Access to Safe Freshwater?

Water shortages are often described in terms of a lack of availability, but in fact, as many experts assert, the fact that people do not have safe drinking water is often an issue of access.  As Sandra Postel has argued, “It’s a problem of inadequate government investment, of political will, of making it a priority to meet the basic water needs of the poor.  It’s a solvable problem, if we decide to do it.”[5]  One participant argued strongly that access to clean and safe drinking water should be an entitlement for the entire population; this does not necessary mean that it must be free.  But there should be an assumption in the international community that water is essential and should be available for everyone.

In general, the question of access to safe freshwater largely depends on the level of development of a particular country.  Industrialized countries in the region—for example, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan—clearly have fewer problems with providing their populations with access to safe freshwater.  Less developed countries—China and India, for example—face much greater challenges in this regard.  At this stage, the seminar considered the challenge for providing water to populations of less developed countries, especially the poorest segments of these populations.  Several seminar participants noted that water is an essential human rights issue; without it, no other human right would be meaningful.  Thus, it was argued that assurance of adequate water supplies is implied in international human rights law.  In developed countries, access to water is considered an entitlement; this mentality does not necessarily prevail in developing countries where access to safe drinking water is often a luxury, sometimes available only to the affluent.  The problem in many developing countries is that water systems are frequently created as a result of local political considerations, not out of any large-scale strategic vision.  Thus, market forces often do not govern the pricing of water; rather, it is subject to local political pressures.  In this sense, as one participant noted, water is a “political commodity.”

 Factors that Influence Water Security

There are many factors that influence the availability of water and access to it.  This session of the seminar attempted to identify and focus on some of the key factors that determine whether a particular nation, or region, has water security.  Among the questions raised were:  what are the determinants of water security?  Which factors are most important?  How is water security related to food security?  The following were noted as being critical determinants of water security in the region.


One issue that consistently emerged is the impact of growing food demand on global water supplies.  Experts are warning that food production will likely be seriously constrained by freshwater shortages in the next century.  As one expert has noted:  “the need for irrigation water is likely to be greater than currently anticipated, and the available supply of it less than anticipated.”[6]  This is because agriculture is extremely dependent on an adequate freshwater supply.  The Green Revolution resulted in increased crop yields, but achieved these yields largely through extensive irrigation and with increased reliance on freshwater.  In fact, almost 70% of the world’s freshwater supply is devoted to agriculture, and thus is unavailable for other uses.  In Asia, this reliance is even more significant because an estimated 35 to 40 percent of the region’s cultivated land is irrigated and this area produces over 60 percent of Asia’s total agricultural output.[7]

Thus, in Asia it is clear that the growing demand for food is a significant factor determining the supply of available freshwater.  In China, for instance, it is commonly accepted that, with growing population demands, food production will need to be increased dramatically.  About 70% of the additional food supply in China during the next 25-30 years is expected to come from irrigated lands.  Because irrigation is expensive—partly attributable to its inefficiency—it will be very difficult to maintain adequate water supplies in the future.  About half of the water that is used for irrigation is lost to seepage and evaporation.  Irrigation is also a major concern for many other Asian countries; six Asian countries (China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) have in excess of 30 percent of their total cropland under irrigation.[8]  Irrigation can be a powerful tool for expanding crop yields, but it can also be extremely dangerous when mismanaged.  For example, mismanaging water resources can result in the erosion, waterlogging, and salinization of the soil, which in turn makes the soil less able to produce crops.  Poorly managed irrigation can also result in water pollution and water-borne diseases.[9]


Aside from agriculture, another factor that influences the state of water security in a particular country is its degree of industrialization.  Industries account for roughly 25% of the world’s water use and that number is much higher in industrial countries (as high as 50-80%).  In developing countries, the percentage tends to hover around 10-30 percent.[10]  Industrial activity requires massive amounts of freshwater for such activities as boiling, cleaning, air conditioning, cooling, processing, transportation, and energy production.[11]  As developing countries industrialize, they must use ever-greater quantities of water.

The positive side of this trend is that water used in industrial processes can be recycled, since—unlike in agriculture—very little of it is actually consumed.  In developed industrial countries, the primary impetus for water recycling is compliance with pollution laws.  Since it is often more economical to comply with pollution laws by recycling water, less is wasted. [12]  Unfortunately such trends are not as apparent in poorer developing countries where few governments provide industry with incentives to adopt more efficient water-use practices.  Consequently, although the amount of water being used for industrial purposes is decreasing in the developed world, it is actually increasing in poorer, developing countries.  This further strains freshwater resources in countries already facing rapid urbanization.[13]

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors (such as pollution or climate change) can also influence water security for a particular nation or region.  Many countries throughout the world routinely dump human and industrial waste into their rivers and lakes.  In developing countries, roughly 90-95% of all domestic sewage and 75% of all industrial waste are discharged into surface waters without any treatment.[14]  In many parts of Asia, pollution is a major culprit behind the dwindling availability of freshwater.  In South Korea, for example, more than 300 factories along the Naktong River illegally discharged toxic wastes directly into the river.[15]  In China, nearly three-fourths of the nation’s rivers are so badly polluted that they no longer support fish life.[16]  Meanwhile, all of India’s 14 major rivers are polluted, primarily because they transport 50 million cubic meters of untreated sewage into India’s coastal waters every year.  New Delhi alone is responsible for dumping more than 200 million liters of raw sewage and 20 million liters of industrial wastes into the Yamuna River as it passes through the city on its way to the Ganges.[17]  The same trend can be seen in many Southeast Asian countries.  In Malaysia and Thailand, pollutants in those nations’ rivers—such as pathogens, heavy metals, and various poisons from industry and agriculture--regularly exceed government standards by 30 to 100 times.[18]

Another potential environmental threat to water security in Asia is global warming and climate change.  Changing weather patterns could result in droughts in areas accustomed to plentiful rainfall and vice versa.  In 1997, for instance, unusual weather patterns resulting from the El Nino weather phenomenon left many Southeast Asian countries with little rainfall.  Thailand, for example, saw very little rainfall during the May-to-November rainy season.[19]  In the Philippines, drought conditions sparked more than 200,000 families in Mindanao to pour into cities in search of food supplies.  Indonesian officials asserted in 1998 that the drought would result in a reduction of the country’s rice-planting areas by 4.13 per cent.[20]  Similarly, a prolonged drought in Papua New Guinea that same year resulted in widespread food shortages, which in turn prompted neighboring countries—such as Australia—to offer food aid.[21]

Land degradation is another environmental variable that can influence the availability of water.  As countries experience greater urbanization or deforestation, less land is available to absorb and hold water.  Degraded land usually has reduced vegetative cover and the soil is less able to hold water; consequently, rainfall likely results in flash runoff.  This leads to reduced seepage and aquifer recharge.[22]  In India, land degradation has resulted in reduced aquifer recharge, even in areas that receive large amounts of annual rainfall.  As a result, many village authorities in high rainfall regions in India petition the central government for drought relief.[23]  Similar trends can be seen in China.  In Beijing, water tables beneath the city are dropping by a rate of roughly 1-2 meters a year, and a third of the city’s wells have reportedly dried up.  Moreover, in recent years, more than 100 Chinese cities in northern and coastal regions have experienced severe water shortages.[24]

Deforestation is yet another challenge to water security in Asia.  Deforestation is rife in Asia currently—overall, Asia’s forest cover is shrinking by 1 percent a year.[25]  In Indonesia, forests are shrinking at a rate of between 600,000 and 1.3 million hectares per year, for a variety of reasons, including illegal logging and the conversion of forests to large-scale commercial agriculture and timber plantations.[26]  In Cambodia, forests covered over 70% of the country in the late 1960s; now only about half are still in existence.[27]  Similar trends can be seen in Thailand where between 1961 and 1988, forest cover shrank from 55% of the country’s land area to 28%.[28]  Deforestation is a major factor in water security because “tropical forests protect fragile soils from temperature and rainfall extremes.”[29]  Moreover, if trees are removed, it can create a cycle of flooding and drought that results in extreme soil erosion and, in the most extreme cases, desertification.[30]

Demographic Factors

When looking at future scenarios involving water, it is important to consider human population growth.  At the beginning of the 20th century, the world’s population was roughly 1.6 billion people, but by 1990 it had increased to around 5.3 billion—an increase of 330 percent.[31]   Currently, the world’s population is increasing by around 80 million per year and is expected to reach 8.5 billion by the year 2025.  Roughly half of this population will live in Asia—although Asian countries only occupy about 16 percent of the world’s total land surface.   Population growth in Asia is seen as a major challenge for water security in the region.

Related to population growth is the growing trend of urbanization, a phenomenon that is especially apparent in Asia.  Among other things, urbanization is expected to shift water out of agriculture to supply drinking water for growing cities.[32]  In China, growing industrialization and urbanization are requiring increased amounts of water, the same water that would have gone to agriculture.  Roughly half of China’s cultivated land is irrigated; as demand for water rises, the country will need to deploy water-saving and waste-treatment technology.[33]

Conservation Factors

Many seminar participants agreed that a key factor in water security is the degree of wastage that occurs.  If water were used more efficiently—in agricultural, industrial, and municipal settings—it could help insure water security.  In many irrigation systems, as little as 37% of the water used is actually absorbed by crops; the remainder is lost through evaporation, seepage or runoff.[34]  According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than 10 to 20% of the water used for agricultural purposes could be saved if more efficient irrigation methods were utilized. In Pakistan, for instance, if the efficiency of the irrigation system could be increased by 10%, the water saved could irrigate another 2 million hectares.[35]

Water in urban areas is also wasted.  In developed countries, experts calculate that about 10% of water is lost due to leaks in municipal water networks; in developing countries, this number could be as high as 60%.[36]  One participant argued for encouraging greater water-use efficiency by privatizing urban water supply and waste management, increasing service fees, transferring government responsibilities to beneficiaries or customers, and removing all subsidies from all water related services.[37]

Freshwater as a Security Concern

In the post Cold War era, the definition of security is being expanded to include a host of non-traditional issues such as environmental degradation and transnational crime.  Food, or more specifically a shortage of food, is acknowledged as a serious security concern in many Asian nations.  With burgeoning populations, poverty, and little hope of dramatically expanding agricultural activities, the sustainability of food supplies is becoming a key security concern for government officials.  Similarly, in some quarters the availability of clean freshwater is increasingly being characterized as a security issue.

One could argue that perhaps water security really is not a security concern in and of itself, or that it should fall under the larger rubric of “environmental security” or “resource depletion”.  Nevertheless, regardless of how it is defined, it was the consensus of the seminar that freshwater scarcity poses a very serious, complex and potentially wide-ranging threat to regional stability.  This threat could manifest itself in a number of different ways, such as directly in the form of violent conflicts over freshwater resources, or indirectly, by causing large-scale migration and food shortages.  It was also recognized that to fully appreciate the complexity of the water security issue, it has to be viewed on three basic levels.

Human Security

Freshwater can become a security issue when it is linked to so-called “human security,” which encompasses a variety of issues that have an impact on human health and well-being.  From this perspective, water is a clear security problem if one considers the large number of human deaths that occur as a result of unsafe or inadequate water.  Approximately 25,000 people die every day from water related diseases.  In Bangladesh, it is estimated that three-quarters of all diseases are linked to unsafe water and inadequate sanitation facilities.  Experts estimate that about 60% of all infant mortality throughout the world is tied to infectious and parasitic diseases, most of them related to water.[38]  Diarrheal diseases, moreover, are prevalent in countries with inadequate sewage treatment.  An estimated 4 billion people per year contract diarrheal disease, and among that number approximately 3-4 million die annually, and most of these people are young children.[39]  Unsanitary water is clearly a major health threat for millions in the developing world.

Regarding the inclusion of freshwater as a security issue under the banner of “human security,” one participant noted that conflict could be divided between acute conflict and structural conflict, since “conflict is fundamentally an incompatibility of interests.”  Acute conflict—violence whether among individuals or among states—obviously results in human casualties; on the other hand, structural conflict also results in human carnage and can in fact, be much larger in scale.  The problem of access to water is a structural conflict problem that results in thousands of deaths every day.  If security is defined, at least partly, by number of  deaths, then clearly water is a security issue.

Internal Security and Governance

The specific impact of freshwater on intra-state security is far more complex and less easily ascertained.  Although the potential for conflicts among countries over shared water resources receives much attention in the popular media, its impacts within nation-states are far more insidious and indirect.  Water insecurity constrains economic development and contributes to a host of corrosive social behaviors that can, in turn, produce violence within societies.[40]  Freshwater scarcity, often causally related with other factors, such as poverty, population growth, infrastructure problems, environmental degradation, can escalate the aforementioned “human security” problem into a national security issue.  Water security can be the catalyst for large-scale migration and ethnic conflicts, which ultimately, in more dire situations, can result in a decline in effective governance, potentially leading to a “failed state.”

International Security

Most of the participants tended to agree that disputes among nations solely over freshwater resources are not likely to spark violent conflict.  Nevertheless, there was an understanding that water security issues can have a destabilizing effect on regional and international security.  Spawned by globalization, the increasing economic and political interdependence of nations ultimately means greater potential for spillover of problems.  Ethnic unrest, mass migration, and declining economic conditions, fanned by freshwater scarcity, are not likely to be confined neatly within a country’s borders.  Additionally, the same factors that undermine the domestic effectiveness of a government systematically erode its ability to interact on an international level.  This can have an adverse affect on negotiation and implementation of a wide variety of international agreements that range from collective security to economic and global environmental issues.

Water is increasingly viewed as a strategic resource, one that is to be protected and valued.  Consequently, when one or more countries share water resources, the potential for disputes or conflicts is always present.  Although no nation has yet gone to war over water, this potential scenario could unfold given the right conditions.  As one study has suggested, “a set of factors including demographics, rising demand resulting from improved living standards, the predominance of upstream over downstream—the first-served control the flow of rivers—may stoke smoldering conflicts.”[41]        

Political conflict between nation-states over access to water rights is partly the result of unsettled questions in international law.  Four major approaches to water rights include:  absolute sovereignty, prior appropriation (acquired and historical), riparian, and equitable utilization.  The first two, absolute sovereignty and prior appropriation, tend to benefit upstream states at the expense of all other parties.  For example, under principles of absolute sovereignty (also known as the “Harmon Doctrine”), a state can do what it pleases with its water resources regardless of any impact on a neighboring state.  This is similar to the prior appropriation doctrine (“first in time, first in right”) that was common in the western United States during the early 1800s.  Under this doctrine, the upstream party has first rights to the water; only if it doesn’t use them, do other parties have a chance to determine usage.

Obviously the above principles appeal to upstream nations, and particularly to strong and powerful upstream nations.  As one Chinese expression puts it: “upstream doesn’t suffer.”  However, more equitable approaches to water rights are encapsulated in principles such as riparian rights and equitable utilization.  Equitable utilization tends to benefit both upstream and downstream states and is especially beneficial to a weaker country that happens to be a downstream state.  In fact, as one participant noted, even strong upstream countries have, in practice, tended to compromise with weaker downstream neighbors in order to promote some degree of equitable utilization of water resources.[42]

To examine the role of water in international relations, the seminar considered two case studies: India-Bangladesh and the Mekong Delta region.


For many years, India and Bangladesh have exchanged sharp accusations over shared river resources.  In 1993, tensions between India and Bangladesh boiled over when the dry-season flow of the Ganges River reached severely low levels, and resulted in crop losses in Bangladesh.  Later in October 1995, Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia delivered an address to the United Nations in which she called India’s diversion of river water near the border “a gross violation of human rights and justice.”[43]  India’s establishment of the “Farrakka Barrage” on the Ganges near the border with Bangladesh has also sparked conflict and disagreement between the two nations.  India’s purpose in building the barrage was to divert water to the Calcutta port, but Bangladesh contends that such diversion has resulted in falling water tables and greater water salinity downstream for Bangladesh.  Dhaka has even proposed an alternative Ganges Barrage to solve the problems created by the first barrage.[44]

Water disputes between India and Bangladesh, as the presenter noted, have been subsumed under the overall difficult relations that have persisted between the two nations.  As would be expected, the two nations see the dispute from different perspectives.  According to the Bangladeshi view of the dispute, there was a “unilateral diversion” of the waters of the Ganga by India at the Farakka barrage which was detrimental to Bangladesh.  Consequently, according to the Bangladesh perspective, the resulting reductions in flows had severe adverse effects on Bangladesh and the policy reflected a classic case of a more powerful country disregarding the legitimate interests of a smaller and weaker neighbor.  This particular view is prevalent throughout Bangladesh and has become a significant issue in the nation’s electoral politics.

India, on the other hand, subscribes to a very different view of the issue.  Among Indian bureaucrats, there has been a perception that Bangladesh was extremely rigid and unreasonable regarding this issue and had greatly over-stated its water needs.  Another problem was rooted in India’s federal structure:  individual Indian states tended to view the Indian central government as overly generous toward Bangladesh, at their expense.  In any case, from a political perspective, the water dispute between India and Bangladesh has contributed to a deterioration of relations between the two nations.  Bangladesh has pleaded with India for a “minimum guarantee” agreement (with regard to the water flow).  Nevertheless, the two countries were able to reach an agreement in 1996 when the “Treaty on the Sharing of the Waters of the Ganga” was signed.  Although some political parties on both sides were dissatisfied with the treaty, it was generally accepted by most political leaders (although in India, several states, including Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, have complained that their interests have not been properly taken into account).

Since the treaty was signed, India has been relatively satisfied with the outcome; Bangladesh, however, continues to have a number of problems with it, primarily attributable to perceptions that the quantity of water actually received does not match expectations brought about by the treaty.  Tensions between Bangladesh and India may appear to be sparked by conflict over water, but as one participant noted, “it is not always a case of conflicts over water resources leading to a worsening of political relations, though that does happen on occasion; it is more often a case of a difficult political relationship rendering the water issue more intractable.”[45]

Mekong Delta Region

If recent agreements between India and Bangladesh on water-sharing can be seen as a success, then the Mekong Delta region would probably reflect the realpolitic dimension of water conflict.  The Mekong River, considered the 10th largest in the world river in terms of volumes of water, runs for approximately 2600 miles from its origins in Qinghai Province, China through Yunnan and southward through or by Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.  In China, the river is very rugged and drops a total of 5,000 meters from its source to the Lao border.  At that point, the river descends at a more gentle grade as it meanders toward the South China Sea in southern Vietnam.

Many millions of people are dependent on the Mekong River (and the larger Mekong basin) for agricultural and fishing purposes.  Thailand and Laos are interested in the river’s potential in producing hydro-electricity.  Laos, moreover, sees the river as critical for its agricultural interests.  Similarly, Cambodia and Vietnam rely on the Mekong for agriculture and, moreover, Cambodia is particularly dependent on the river for its valuable fishing industry.  The Mekong also provides critical transportation corridors.

Since 1957 when the Mekong Committee was established, there have been various regional initiatives to develop the basin.  However, some earlier efforts were derailed by war in Indochina.  Later, an “Agreement on Cooperation for Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin Agreement” established the Mekong River Commission which first met in Hanoi in 1995.   A year earlier, the Quadripartite Economic Cooperation plan (QEC), which was composed of Myanmar, Thailand, China and Laos, established guidelines for freedom of navigation of the upper reaches of the Mekong in an effort to foster transportation and tourism.

Other regional efforts to support development of the Mekong include those initiated by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and ASEAN. In recent years, the ADB has supported the development of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), composed of all six riparian states, with a particular emphasis on trade, transportation, energy, human resource development, etc.  As for ASEAN, the ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Corporation was established and is being coordinated by Malaysia (with China serving in an observer status).

Despite these numerous ambitious plans, developing the Mekong Subregion has faced numerous obstacles.  First, there has been a lack of adequate coordination among the various international agencies and national programs.  Funding constraints have also presented a challenge; the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) is expected to require US$40 billion over the next 25 years.  Moreover, development plans have been derailed, at least temporarily, by Southeast Asia’s economic crisis.  Finally, there are numerous tensions among various social and economic groups over what should be done with the water.  Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), for example, have varied and often contradictory agendas for the region.

The presenter on this issue was much less sanguine about the possibility for cooperation among the major parties that border the Mekong River.  China plays a major role in this region, but it still refuses to join regional organizations.  China has a number of strategic interests; first, China is interested in transportation and using the Mekong River for transportation.  Secondly, China is eager to have access to the Indian Ocean and badly wants an outlet.  In 1995, China refused to sign the regional agreement, stating that “whatever action it takes to exploit the Mekong’s potential is purely an internal matter.”[46]


Access to clean, safe, freshwater is recognized universally as one of the most basic and vital needs of humanity.  Yet with the world population projected to increase to nearly 9 billion over the next few decades, bringing with it the associated need for greater food production and industry, it stands to reason that shortages of clean freshwater can potentially have broad and far-reaching security implications.

At its most fundamental level, freshwater security is a human security problem.  The health of millions of people is already jeopardized by shortages and pollution of freshwater supplies, particularly in poor developing nations.  Nonetheless in the larger context, this so-called human security issue has the potential to affect more traditional concepts of security, with consequences beyond local, provincial, and national borders.  Although most agree that the possibility that sovereign nations will engage in direct conflict over freshwater resources is unlikely (in the short term), water insecurity can indirectly affect events that have a direct bearing on regional and international security.

Clean freshwater is not only essential for human life, but also for economic development and agriculture.  Consequently, a severe reduction in water resources can damage a nation’s economy and food supply.  Such a scenario could potentially lead to social unrest and exacerbate existing ethnic, racial and societal conflicts.  A parallel problem is that these same economic and social problems may systematically erode a government’s ability to deal with them.  In extreme cases governance itself may be undermined, resulting in internal chaos and national collapse.  The international “spill over” effects of such outcome—such as mass refugee outflows—would be destabilizing for neighboring countries.

As the supply of freshwater diminishes throughout the world, many experts see the need for a “blue revolution” (similar to what the “green revolution” was for food).  Such a revolution is necessary, according to these experts, in order to arrest the continued trend of dwindling freshwater resources and its consequences.  Reliance on technical solutions—such as desalination, water transport by tankers and other non-conventional solutions—are likely to provide only limited solutions.  The costs of these solutions are generally prohibitive and they do little to address the major water needs of the next 25 years.[47]

In short, there needs to be recognition that water insecurity (in the form of water stress or water scarcity) is not an isolated problem.  Its effects can extend to human, national, regional and international security.   Consequently, governments in the Asia-Pacific region should encourage and promote more effective conservation efforts, greater environmental awareness, and the recognition that all people have a basic need and right to clean freshwater.

This report was prepared by Paul J. Smith, Research Fellow, and  Lt Col Charles H. Gross, Military Instructor, of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.  For more information, please contact them  at 808-971-8976 and 808-971-8936, respectively.

[1] “Solutions for a Water-Short World,” Population Reports (vol. 26, no. 1) September 1, 1998.

[2] Bert L. Kramer, “Factors that Influence Water Security,” paper prepared for the “Water and Conflict Seminar,” held at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii (17 September 1999).

[3] World Resources 1998-99: A Guide to the Global Environment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[4] “Freshwater Availability Going Down in India,” Deutsche Press-Agentur, July 22, 1998.

[5] Jim Motavalli and Elaine Robbins, “The Coming Age of Water Scarcity,” E, Sep/Oct 1998.

[6] Sandra L. Postel, “Water for Food Production: Will there be Enough in 2025?” Bioscience, August 1998.

[7] Bert L. Kramer, “Factors that Influence Water Security,” Paper presented to the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies Seminar on “Water and Conflict in Asia” (Honolulu, September 17, 1999).

[8] Bert L. Kramer, “Factors that Influence Water Security,” Paper Presented to the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) Seminar on Water and Conflict in Asia; Honolulu, September 17, 1999.

[9] William Bender and Margaret Smith, “Population, Food, and Nutrition,” Population Bulletin, vol. 51, no. 4 (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 1997).

[10] Sandra Postel, Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), p. 136.

[11] Kent Hughes, “The Strategic Importance of Water,” Parameters, Spring 1997.

[12] Sandra Postel, Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), p. 137.

[13] Ibid, p. 143.

[14] “Solutions for a Water-Short World,” Population Reports (vol. 26, no. 1) September 1, 1998.

[15] Sandra Postel, Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), p. 143.

[16] “Solutions for a Water-Short World,” Population Reports (vol. 26, no. 1) September 1, 1998.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Doungsuda Fungladda, “Water Shortage in Thailand Threatens Stability in Farm Sector,” The Nikkei Weekly, February 15, 1999, p. 20.

[20] Gary Mead, “Drought Hits Rice Crop in Indonesia,” Financial Times, August 20, 1998, p. 26.

[21] “One in Four Hit by Drought,” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, January 8, 1998.

[22] Sandra Postel, Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), p. 35.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Emerging Asia: Changes and Challenges (Manila: Asian Development Bank, 1997).

[26] Charles Victor Barber, “Forest Resource Scarcity and Social Conflict in Indonesia,” Environment, May 1998.

[27] “Cambodia Trade: Disappearing Trees,” EIU ViewsWire (Economist Intelligence Unit), February 24, 1997.

[28] “Thailand: Demographic and Social Trends,” EIU Country Forecasts (Economist Intelligence Unit), March 7, 1997.

[29] Alan Dupont, The Environment and Security in Pacific Asia (Adelphi Paper, 1998), Chapter 5 on “Water Scarcity”, p. 62.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Bert L. Kramer, “Factors that Influence Water Security,” paper prepared for the “Water and Conflict Seminar,” held at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii (17 September 1999).

[32] Sandra L. Postel, “Water for Food Production: Will there be Enough in 2025?” Bioscience, August 1998.

[33] Frederick Cook, “Grain Galore: China’s Focus on Grain Production,” The China Business Review Vol. 24, No. 5 (September 19, 1997), p. 8.

[34] Kent H. Butts, “The Strategic Importance of Water,” Parameters, Spring 1997.

[35] Emerging Asia: Changes and Challenges (Manila: Asian Development Bank, 1997).

[36] France Bequette, “Water: Will There be Enough? Fresh or Drinking Water,” UNESCO Courier, June 1998, p. 42.

[37] Bert L. Kramer, “Factors that Influence Water Security,” paper prepared for the “Water and Conflict Seminar,” held at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii (17 September 1999).

[38] “Solutions for a Water-Short World,” Population Reports (vol. 26, no. 1) September 1, 1998.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Thomas F. Homer-Dixon, “environment, Scarcity, and Violence”, Princeton University Press, 1999, pp.69.

[41]  France Bequette, “Water: Will there be Enough? Fresh or Drinking Water,” UNESCO Courier, June, 1998, p. 42.  

[42] James E. Nickum, “Some Factors that Influence Water Security, and Some that Don’t,” paper prepared for the “Water and Conflict Seminar,” held at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii (17 September 1999).

[43] Sandra Postel, Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), p. xxiii.

[44] Rajendra Dahal, “Development-Nepal: South Asian Mega-Projects Spark Water Quarrels,” Inter Press Service, June 16, 1998.

[45] Ramaswamy R. Iyer, “Ganga Waters: Dispute and Resolution,” paper prepared for the “Water and Conflict in Asia Seminar,” held at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii (17 September 1999).

[46] Alan Dupont, The Environment and Security in Pacific Asia (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1998).

[47] Bert L. Kramer, “Factors that Influence Water Security,” paper prepared for the “Water and Conflict Seminar,” held at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, Hawaii (17 September 1999).