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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.
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.