It has often been said that water is “blue gold” and the next resource wars will be fought, not over oil, but over water. Maude Barlow, senior advisor to the United Nations on water issues, wrote that the way in which we view water “will in large part determine whether our future is peaceful or perilous.”
The British nonprofit International Alert released a report identifying forty-six countries where water and climate stresses could ignite violent conflict by 2025, prompting the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to affirm, “The consequences for humanity are grave. Water scarcity threatens economic and social gains and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict.”
There is no doubt that the world’s supply of drinkable fresh water is threatened. An astounding one billion people do not have access to safe drinking water today and that number is likely to reach 2.8 billion in only two decades. Will these challenges result in an all-out “water war”? Likely not, experts say. But conflict is stirring and the battle for control over the world’s dwindling freshwater resources has already begun with international giants like the US, Israel and China flexing their muscles.
China’s Hands on Asia’s Tap
Fifty years since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and sixty years since the Chinese invaded, thousands have lent their support to the “Free Tibet” movement, but many would be surprised to know that much more than religious and political freedom hang in the balance. The Tibetan plateau is the faucet for much of Asia’s drinking water. Major rivers drain from the icy mountains to help quench the farms, homes and factories of China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Incredibly, the countries affected contain 85 percent of the people in Asia and nearly half the population of the entire globe.
Not only does China hold incredible power with its hand on the tap for so many people, but increasingly the rivers originating in the plateau are threatened by record levels of water pollution from industrial activities including deforestation, mining and manufacturing. And that’s not even the worst of the problem: as the Keith Schneider and C.T. Pope wrote for Circle of Blue, a warming climate is causing glaciers in the region to recede faster than anywhere else in the world.
“Water has emerged as a key issue that could determine whether Asia is headed toward mutually beneficial cooperation or deleterious interstate competition,” wrote Brahma Chellaney for the Japan Times.