Himalayan Water Security: The Challenges for South and Southeast Asia

The scramble for control of natural resources to support economic and population growth, combined with the uncertain effects of climate change on the Tibetan Plateau, is raising tensions in Asia over Himalayan water resources.

Ten of the region’s largest and longest rivers (the Amu Darya, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween, Tarim, Yangtze, and Yellow) originate in the Himalayas. These rivers help provide water, food, and energy for nearly 4 billion people in China and across South and Southeast Asia—nearly half of the world’s population. However, depletion and diversion of these transborder resources to meet growing industrial, agricultural, and urban demands have the potential to trigger far-reaching economic, social, and environmental challenges.

The lack of comprehensive and effective regional frameworks for cooperation hinders sustainable management of these waterways. China, which controls the headwaters of these rivers, has an enormous need for Himalayan water to satisfy economic and energy demands but has little incentive to participate in formal water-sharing and water-management agreements with its neighbors. China’s dam-building and water-diversion projects are a source of major concern to the countries downstream, which often complain about Beijing’s lack of transparency and reluctance to share information. Although managing water-sharing relations with China might be the most prominent challenge, cooperation is not much easier at the middle and lower reaches of the rivers. Collaboration in South and Southeast Asia is frequently frustrated by competing national interests, economic priorities, political disputes, and weak regional organizations. In addition to the environmental impacts of man-made diversion projects and unsustainable freshwater usage, there is also inadequate cooperation on scientific research to understand and prepare for the effects of climate change on the region’s water supplies.

This Asia Policy roundtable contains seven essays that discuss the challenges and implications of water security in Asia and recommend steps that both upstream and downstream countries could take to better manage the region’s shared water resources.

Asia’s Unstable Water Tower: The Politics, Economics, and Ecology of Himalayan Water Projects
Kenneth Pomeranz

China’s Upstream Advantage in the Great Himalayan Watershed
Jennifer L. Turner, Susan Chan Shifflett, and Robert Batten

Melting the Geopolitical Ice in South Asia
Robert G. Wirsing

Himalayan Water Security: A South Asian Perspective
Tushaar Shah and Mark Giordano

Hydropower Dams on the Mekong: Old Dreams, New Dangers
Richard P. Cronin

Climate Change and Water Security in the Himalayan Region
Richard Matthew

Securing the Himalayas as the Water Tower of Asia: An Environmental Perspective
Jayanta Bandyopadhyay

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As I have been arguing for a number of years South Asia needs to re-negotiate the Indus Water Treaty to encompass Afghainstan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan before the region starts to suffer from water insecurity and the effects of climate change. Editor