Commentary

Water: The New Source of International Conflict?

in Program

By Amy Zeng – Rapid industrialization in India and China has led to phenomenal economic growth. Yet this growth miracle is unsustainable due to ecological instability. A case in point is the issue of water security, which has several dimensions: competing uses, degradation of quality, and scarcity. In the past, the competition for water has triggered social tensions and conflicts between water-use sectors and provinces, but water disputes may increasingly manifest itself in an interstate dimension.  

Water is arguably one of humanity’s most valuable resources and has come under increased demand due to rapid population growth and economic growth. While high population growth is a global phenomenon, it is particularly pronounced in developing countries. Since 1900, the population of the world has increased fourfold, whereas water consumption has increased nine-fold. Population growth has resulted in higher aggregate levels of consumption and economic growth has led to higher per capita growth of food consumption and diversification of diet. The livestock industry is highly water intensive and meat and dairy consumption is rising fastest in the developing world.

Groundwater, the dominant resource for drinking water, is in competition for its use by affluent urban dwellers. The rapid economic growth of developing countries has led to the emergence of an urban, upper-middle class with a higher disposable income and, consequently, a demand for a higher quality of life. They have the financial resources to engage in luxurious, water-intensive activities, such as taking multiples baths, owning swimming pools, and playing golf.

As a result of the increasing demands for water, the supply of groundwater is under a volatile state. Water is being over-withdrawn, leading to falling water tables and the drying up of aquifers and wells. This is significant because groundwater is a non-renewable, mined resource that takes centuries to replenish itself. Gurgaon, India, a city 30 kilometers from New Delhi, is experiencing rapid industrialization and urban development at an unsustainable rate. It is using 186.10 million cubic meters of ground water a year as opposed to the recommended 59.85 million cubic meters, without supplementing with recharge back into the wells. At the current rate of groundwater depletion, Gurgaon could lose its entire drinking reservoirs in the next ten years.

With the guiding principle that economic growth reigns supreme, the advent of fast paced industrialization in India and China has led to the degradation of water quality. During this period of rapid economic growth, many environmental problems have emerged owing to minimal concern for efficient utilization of resources and sustainable development. Highly polluted water in both countries is due to several factors of industrialization: air and soil pollution, irresponsible land practices, and rapid and unplanned urban growth. These results are the failure of the government to regulate industry and water management.

Access to clean water should be a human right, but a third of China’s population don’t have access to water that is clean enough for regular use. Up to 300 million people are drinking contaminated water every day, and 190 million are suffering from water-related illnesses each year. Studies have shown that exposure to chemicals in drinking water may significantly contribute to chronic disease. Liver and stomach cancers are three to seven times higher in polluted rural areas of China compared to cleaner areas, and are the leading causes of cancer mortality in rural China.

As a result of the polluted waterways, food and livelihood security have been threatened. In China’s eastern province of Anhui, farmers and fishermen depend on the runoff from the large paper mill to irrigate their land and serve as a breeding ground for aquaculture, but the polluted water has led to barren fields, killed their fish, and made many of the locals sick.

Given India’s historically high rainfall variability, climate change will further exacerbate the issue of water scarcity. India has highly seasonal water availability, with 50% of precipitation falling in just 15 days and over 90% of river flows in just four months. Owing to the climatic variations, drought is a commonplace occurrence in India, with 25 years of widespread drought recorded over the past 123 years. Failed or delayed rains lead to water scarcity, which is intensified by the lack of water infrastructure. With the rise in average global temperatures, melting glaciers will initially increase flood risk and then strongly reduce water supplies, eventually threatening one-sixth of the world’s population, predominantly in the Indian sub-continent and parts of China.

Water can cause conflict: inequities in water access and distribution have triggered social tensions and civil unrest in India and China. Government policies have reduced water supply to the rural areas in favor of the urban dwellers during times of water shortage. The poor are the most vulnerable in times of crisis because they cannot afford to make the same coping investments as the middle class. For example, when authorities decided to tap the water source of Falla, a rural Indian village, to supply water to the neighboring town, a violent conflict broke out. Hundreds of farmers protested against the authorities’ actions, which resulted in the death of three farmers.

At the interstate level, among the states of the Indian Union, water conflict is pervasive since 90% of the land area of India is drained by inter-state rivers. The government has not set clear water entitlements between States and there is no dependable estimate of water availability over time. At the international level, the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna River System has been a source of tension between India and Bangladesh, and the Indus River System has been a source of tension between Pakistan and India. With increasing demands of water for industrial, domestic, and irrigation use, water disputes have increased.

Water has rarely been the main impetus in international conflicts, rather one of a number of factors. However, in a world running increasingly dry, and with large portions of the world’s population subject to uneven water distribution, water is likely to be at the forefront of international disputes in the future.


Amy Zeng is with the Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges Project at the Stimson Center.

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