Features | Environment | Society | Southeast Asia

Water, the Great Regional Threat

Asia meets in Thailand to discuss water, as the threat to water security mounts.

Luke Hunt

For decades, long-range forecasters have been predicting that water – and a lack of it – loomed as the biggest threat to regional security. Booming populations, food security, the occasional drought and competition among neighboring countries for dwindling resources made for a pessimistic outlook.

Much of this was pushed down the policy totem pole over the last decade as religion and long standing territorial disputes remerged to challenge Asian diplomats. However, the 2nd Asia-Pacific Water Summit in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand attempted to put water firmly back on the agenda.

The usually calm Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah was unusually frank in warning the summit that Asian nations needed to spend about US$380 billion on water and sanitation systems by 2020 if full water security was to be realized.

He described the undertaking as vital and warned water and competing interests "… could lead to international disputes." His comments were echoed by Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra who warned “there could be a fight over resources.”

More than 1,300 delegates from 40 countries across the Asia-Pacific met amid tight security and threats of protests by civil society groups arguing governments were doing too little, too late. Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi was anything but conciliatory, describing protestors as “garbage” and warning they would be arrested.

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Protestors argued that water-related projects ignored public needs and were too focused on the construction of infrastructure, where billions of dollars spent on dams had enriched politicians, businessmen and contractors but done little for ordinary citizens.

The Asian Development Bank has warned that almost two-thirds of the region’s population has no access to piped clean drinking water in the home, despite the record economic growth of the past 20 years. Bad management was largely to blame.

Delegates said the answers were in resource sharing and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina noted that the water-sharing treaty between her country and neighboring India over access to the Ganges, the most sacred of rivers for Hindus, was a prime example that has worked.

She also warned that conflict could only be prevented by the “… judicious management of access to water resources.”

Nine leaders attending the conference set aside their differences and signed the Chiang Mai Declaration, which essentially reiterated a previous standing commitment to prevent water-related disasters that cause loss of life, economic and social damage.

The nine were Thailand, Brunei, South Korea, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Georgia, Tajikistan and Vanuatu.

The Chiang Mai Declaration is not legally binding. “It is an expression of intention to place importance on water management and in inter-country collaboration for the managing of water resources for mutual benefit, as well as for environmental and economic integrity.”

This fell far short of the concerted and united effort needed to resolve water issues. The public conviviality among leaders – as expected on such occasions – meant long-standing diplomatic rows over control of inland river systems were never addressed.

Heated arguments between Uzbekistan and its neighbors Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which want to build two of the world's biggest hydro-electric power stations, have dominated their relationship over recent years. Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon used the conference to defend his country's right to exploit its own natural resources, including the completion of the Rogun Hydro Power Plant on the Vakhsh River, which has infuriated Uzbeks who fear their downstream agricultural industries, cotton in particular, will be ruined.

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Other delegations were silent. Vietnam and Cambodia had bitterly opposed construction of the Xayaburi Dam across the mainstream of the Mekong River by a Thai construction company, which has gone ahead despite independent analysis warning of depleted fish catches.

Thai companies — Ch Karnchang Public Company, which will construct the US$3.5 billion dam and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, which will buy and sell electricity from the dam – intend to profit handsomely. And another ten dams are planned for Laos alone.

Cambodia has also released its own plans for dam construction, including the Lower Sesan Two across major tributaries of the Mekong River. Mainstream dams are also planned and observers say it was for this reason the Cambodian government had ceased its criticism of Xayaburi.

Other issues were left untouched. Singapore relies on Malaysia for much of its fresh water and has sought to resolve its long-standing differences in recent years. For others like the Philippines and Indonesia, excessive rain and flooding have a long and deadly history.

Yingluck said water was essential for economic growth and lives, however, she chose her words carefully, adding the eco system remained off-balance, causing frequent and damaging natural disasters. 

As such, the Thai prime minister came across as a vocal supporter for dam construction, saying that restoring the environment and having an effective water management system in place, as a means of controlling water levels, was required.

"We have experience that the cost of investment and planning to prevent natural disasters will be lower than the cost of addressing problems and recovery again and again," she said. "Therefore, we should work together to promote water security by addressing the problems at its roots."

Thailand was initially slated to host water summit two years ago, but it was postponed amid record flooding that left more than 800 dead, shut down the country and prompted Bangkok to find some answers to its long-clogged waterways.

This included a US$12 billion water management plan, a series of floodways, dikes and water-retention areas designed to avert a repeat of the disastrous 2011 floods.

The Chiang Mai water summit did help put water and its potential to cause friction among neighbors back on the agenda – the first summit was held way back in Japan in 2007 — particularly among the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

ASEAN is perhaps the fastest growing trading bloc in the world, with plans to establish a single ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the end of 2015.

“With all this talk about the ASEAN community, and regional development, you can’t forget about water.  No water, no development — it’s as simple as that,” said regional political analyst Ray Leos from Pannasastra University in Phnom Penh.

“You’ve got a burgeoning population, rapid urbanization, climate change, and increased agricultural demand — all these things are putting severe pressure on water supplies.”

But he also added for least developing countries, whether it’s Cambodia, Bangladesh or East Timor, agriculture and access to water remained the key for development and “a water crisis could put a monkey wrench into their plans to accelerate economic growth.”

Whether a future water crisis can be averted is debatable and finding the US$380 billion needed to secure water supplies by 2020 could prove little more than a pipe dream. If so, then the worst fears of this summit could become a reality and the Chiang Mai Declaration would be worth little.

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Luke Hunt is Southeast Asia correspondent for The Diplomat and a journalist of more than 25 years experience.