Geopolitical risks of Asia's trans-boundary rivers

Date: 
February 21, 2012
Transboundary rivers and geopolitical rsik

Sophie le Clue from China Water Risk explores increasing tensions in South and Southeast Asia arising from trans-boundary rivers that have their source on the Tibetan Plateau. The key factors are:

- China owns the headwaters of at least 10 major rivers but has no formal water-sharing agreements with its neighbors;

- Water scarcity and stress is increasing political tension in the region;

- The full extent of dam impacts has not assessed, despite escalating building programs.

Asia’s lifeblood

The Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, extends an impressive 2.5 million km2 constituting what is euphemistically known as the roof of the world.  Often referred to as the Third Pole, the Plateau is home to the largest freshwater reserves outside the north and south poles. It is also the source of some of Asia’s main river arteries, which from west to east  include the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween,  Mekong, Yellow and Yangtze.

With the exception of the Yellow and Yangtze, these rivers are trans-boundary [i], in some instances, such as the Mekong, crossing several countries as they descend from the Plateau eventually discharging into the Bay of Bengal, Andaman and South China Seas.  In combination, they are a major source of fresh water for the following countries:  Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Major rivers sourced in Tibet

Credit: Michael Buckley - www.MeltdowninTibet.com

Trans-boundary rivers are a source of political tension globally and this region, replete with water resources, is no exception.  To put this in context, about 40 percent of the world’s population relies on shared water resources [ii] and, with regard to China, over a third of the country is an international river basin, with 18 shared rivers [iii].

Description of key rivers

Setting the scene: the security landscape

Water scarcity in many countries has raised the thorny issue of water security [iv]. In Asia, Pakistan has been identified as at extreme water security risk, while China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Cambodia are considered as high risk, according to a 2010 index by Maplecroft. The Index identifies risks across supply chains, operations and investments of multinational companies and is calculated by measuring the four key areas : i) access to improved drinking water and sanitation; ii) the availability of renewable water and the reliance on external supplies; iii) the relationship between available water and supply demands; and iv)  the water dependency of each country’s economy.

This should come as no surprise. Put simply, the global population is projected to increase by nearly 50 percent in just 40 years, a sobering thought as water crises emerge globally, and inequitable access to water causes disease and death of millions every year. There is, after all, no substitute for water and by 2025 water scarcity is expected to affect more than 1.8 billion people, millions across the Asia region.

Renowned water experts such as Peter Gleick talk of reaching “Peak Water” or more accurately “Peak Ecological Water” [v], a worrying concept that Gleick suggests signals an end to any cheap and easy access to this essential resource.