Ecology Meets WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA - Atlantic Council

 
Ecology Meets WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA - Atlantic Council
Ecology
      Meets
Geopolitics
WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA

                   by Peter Engelke and David Michel
Ecology Meets WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA - Atlantic Council
The Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security works to
develop sustainable, nonpartisan strategies to address
the most important security challenges facing the United
States and the world. The Center honors General Brent

                                                               Ecology
Scowcroft’s legacy of service and embodies his ethos of
nonpartisan commitment to the cause of security, support
for US leadership in cooperation with allies and partners,
and dedication to the mentorship of the next generation
of leaders.

                                                                   Meets
                                                             Geopolitics
Cover image: Riccardo Pravettoni/GRID Arendal                WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA
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The authors are solely responsible for its analysis and
recommendations. The Atlantic Council, its partners,
and funders do not determine, nor do they necessarily
endorse or advocate for, any of this report’s particular
conclusions.

© 2019 The Atlantic Council of the United States. All
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ISBN-13: 978-1-61977-583-1                                                     by Peter Engelke and David Michel
March 2019
Ecology Meets WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA - Atlantic Council
Contents                                                 Foreword
                 1     Foreword

                                                                                L
                 2     Executive Summary

                 9     Section I: Introduction                                               ife is difficult, if not impossible, without consistent access to clean water.
                                                                                             Yet unfortunately, too many societies around the world face life without it, a
                 13    Section II: Himalayan Asia’s Water Tower
                                                                                             bleak reality that for many threatens to become worse during this century.
                 24 Section III: Water and Geopolitics                                       Swiftly rising global demand for water, increasingly tight supplies of it, and
                                                                                             the stresses presented by a rapidly changing planet all are combining to
                 35 Section IV: Water and Security                                           push societies into new and uncomfortable territory. The risk is that water
                                                                                insecurity will lead to violent conflict within societies or across international boundaries.
                 40 Section V: Three Big Questions (and Some Recommendations)
                                                                                The nightmare scenario, indeed the one we all fear, is that such conflict will involve the
                 56 SPECIAL SECTION 1                                           world’s major powers.
                       Himalayan Asia’s Water Dynamics in Depth                   There are few regions in the world where water insecurity      US Water Partnership, the authors of this study embarked
                       57 By sector                                             has as much consequence as it does in Himalayan Asia, a          on an intensive exploration of the water security challenges
                       62 By region                                             term delineating the vast swath of the continent dominated       in Asia. Their research, which involved travel to the region,
                                                                                by Asia’s high mountain ranges and the rivers that flow from     expert interviews, and desk study, focuses on the intersec-
                                                                                them. Those mountains, including the Himalayas, produce          tion between Himalayan Asia’s changing ecology and the
                 74 SPECIAL SECTION 2
                                                                                much of the fresh water that nourishes billions of people        dynamic competition for geopolitical leadership among its
                       Hot Spots and Blind Spots                                across East, Southeast, South, and Central Asia. Rapid           major powers.
                       75 The Hydraulic Mission                                 population and economic growth in those regions are plac-           The Scowcroft Center’s mission is to develop non-partisan
                                                                                ing enormous stresses upon fresh water sources. Himalayan        strategies to address the most important security challenges
                       77 The Indus River
                                                                                Asia’s rivers in turn are experiencing complex hydrologi-        facing the United States and the world. These strategies are
                       80 The Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) River               cal changes arising from both direct and indirect human          informed by the Center’s strategic foresight and risks analysis
                       83 The Mekong (Lancang) River                            intervention. Geopolitical competition, including among          capability, which enables it to produce world-class, forward-
                       85 The Rogun Dam                                         distrusting nuclear-armed rivals, provides an unsettling back-   looking analyses of global and regional trends. This study is
                                                                                drop to Himalayan Asia’s water challenges.                       fully in keeping with the Center’s mission.
                                                                                  This study is the culmination of nearly two years’ work           I hope that you find this report to be as rewarding a read
                 88 Authors’ Bios                                               conducted by the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for         as I did, that it will help you better understand this complex
                                                                                Strategy and Security. Through a generous grant from the         topic, and that it will ultimately inspire you to help lead the
                 89 Acknowledgments and Disclaimer                              Smith Richardson Foundation, and in cooperation with the         way in finding solutions to this critical challenge.

                 90 Endnotes

                                                                                                                                                          Ambassador Paula J. Dobriansky
                                                                                                                                                          Former Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs (2001–2009);
                                                                                                                                                          Board Director and Member of the Executive Committee, Atlantic Council;
                                                                                                                                                          Vice Chairman of the National Executive Committee, US Water Partnership

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Ecology Meets WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA - Atlantic Council
Executive Summary

H
                 imalayan Asia is a shorthand term referring to the Asian countries that
                 depend on river water from the high mountain ranges of the Tibetan
                 Plateau. As the rivers produced by the Himalayas and other mountain
                 ranges on the Plateau are under increasingly serious pressure, water inse-
                 curity threatens much of the continent’s peace and security. Himalayan
                 Asia’s transboundary water dynamics threaten to erode interstate coop-
eration, including among the continent’s major powers, risk worsening geopolitical                                                                                Mountains in the Tian Shan
                                                                                                                                                                  range, Kyrgyzstan. The Tian
competition, and heighten the odds of domestic and interstate conflict. Yet there are viable                                                                      Shan range is one of several
                                                                                                                                                                  high-altitude mountain ranges
pathways for avoiding such outcomes, the most important of which treat water as a shared                                                                          within Asia’s water tower.

resource to be managed cooperatively.

Himalayan Asia: Water Overview                                         There are four regions in Himalayan Asia: East Asia, Central                                  On the supply side, the region’s high mountains are           growing challenge, as are changing sedimentation patterns.
At the center of Himalayan Asia are the Hindu Kush-                Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Because China controls                                   warming faster than the global average, producing greater           South Asia is beset by intense bilateral rivalries between
Himalayas, Pamir, Karakoram, and Tian Shan mountain                the Tibetan Plateau, it contains the headwaters of trans-                                      variability in water supply. On the demand side, Central         its major powers (India and Pakistan on the one hand, China
ranges. Often collectively referred to as Asia’s ‘water tower,’    boundary rivers that stretch across all four regions. These                                    Asia’s ecology has been under threat for decades, extending      and India on the other) as well as between the major and
these mountain ranges contain the world’s largest amount           rivers include the Indus, Brahmaputra (known as the Yarlung                                    back to the Soviet Union’s decimation of the Aral Sea.           minor powers. Unresolved border disputes, longstanding
of ice and snow outside of the two poles, and in turn are the      Tsangpo in China), Mekong (Lancang in China), Salween (Nu                                         The Central Asian republics live within a competitive         historic grievances, and geopolitical competition have led to
source of Asia’s most important rivers, including the Mekong,      in China), Irtysh, and Ili rivers.                                                             energy-versus-water tradeoff that the Soviets created.           the securitization of water.
Indus, Amu Darya, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Yellow,              Within East Asia, China has a limited water supply, a                                      Diplomatic agreements have not proven strong enough to              Southeast Asia is defined as all countries within the two
Yangtze, and Salween rivers. Billions of people living in China,   gargantuan water demand, and a severe internal water imbal-                                    overcome divergent national interests. There is little inter-    major transboundary river basins, the Salween and Mekong
India, Pakistan, and other Asian states depend on them for         ance between its drier, thirsty north and wetter south. On                                     est in tackling the Aral Sea’s fundamental problem, which is     basins, which are the most important sources of surface
their fresh water.                                                 the demand side, China’s booming economy and expanding                                         that the level of cotton production robs the lake of the water   fresh water in Southeast Asia (aside from the Irrawaddy
   Most of the water tower’s major rivers traverse multiple        population have placed its surface and groundwater sources                                     necessary to sustain itself.                                     River, which lies almost entirely in Myanmar).
countries, several across contested national boundaries. The       under extreme pressure. On the supply side, China has been                                        South Asia faces severe water-related challenges includ-         Southeast Asia’s water politics is about electricity versus
rivers face stresses arising from both water demand and            one of the world’s foremost devotees of gargantuan water                                       ing declining per capita water resources, large and growing      food. The Mekong and Salween rivers are among the world’s
supply. On the demand side, Asian water use is increasing,         projects. Water quality is a serious problem within China.                                     populations, a dependence on irrigated agriculture, low          most biologically productive. At the same time, both rivers
owing to rising population, greater agricultural production,           China, Russia, and Mongolia share the Amur River basin,                                    water use efficiencies, and poor water management.               are attractive for hydroelectric development, and several
increasing urbanization, rising industrial production, intensive   with much of the river’s main channel forming the boundary                                        South Asia’s transboundary water resources consist of two     governments are eyeing them for hydroelectric dam con-
dam-building, and much more. Many of the rivers face mul-          between Russia and China, a rarity for China in that it is not                                 major river systems, the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and           struction. The primary controversies involve dams that are
tiple such factors. The water tower and its rivers also face an    in a commanding upstream position. China supports more                                         Indus systems, plus large aquifers. These water resources        planned or under construction from Laos and Myanmar
uncertain supply-side threat arising from climate change. A        hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure along the Amur’s                                   are under increasing stress. Together, the six countries in      southward. The most controversial of these are in Laos.
                                                                                                                                      THOMAS DEPPENBUSCH/FLICKR
warmer climate is melting the water tower’s 54,000-plus gla-       main channel, which Russia has resisted to date.                                               South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal,        Multilateral instruments to manage transboundary river
ciers that are the source of its rivers. A warmer climate also         Central Asia, which includes Kazakhstan, Tajikistan,                                       and Bhutan) have a population of 1.8 billion people, many of     conflicts have proven largely ineffective. The Mekong River
will shift precipitation patterns. These changes, plus higher      Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, has a limited and                                    whom are poor, making food security a massive challenge.         Commission (MRC) has been unable to contain divergent
temperatures, will have significant impacts on agriculture,        variable water supply. The Syr Darya, Amu Darya, Irtysh, and                                   Agriculture faces competition from the energy sector and         national interests. In keeping with its reluctance to enter
settlements, fisheries, energy production, and more across         Ili rivers run through semi-arid landscapes before draining                                    cities. Water pollution is a major problem. Coastal flood-       multilateral forums not of its own making, China has refused
Himalayan Asia.                                                    into several internal lakes.                                                                   ing and saltwater intrusion into groundwater sources is a        to both become a member of the MRC and negotiate jointly

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Ecology Meets WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA - Atlantic Council
with Myanmar and Thailand concerning the Salween River. In         plans to dam the Brahmaputra’s tributary rivers in Arunachal                                         Broadly speaking, there are two sets of fears when it                Technology alone will not save the
2016, in what was widely interpreted as an attempt by China        Pradesh, a contested territory. India and China have no                                           comes to water and its relationship to security: the water              day, but new technologies will be
to increase its influence across Southeast Asia, it created the    formal mechanisms for resolving their disagreements over                                          wars hypothesis and the spillover hypothesis. The water wars
Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism, a regional organi-           the Brahmaputra/Yarlung Tsangpo.                                                                  hypothesis claims that as states exist in a zero-sum competi-
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             critical to help solve Himalayan Asia’s
zation designed to expand cooperation in the region.                  Hydro-diplomacy is central to the bilateral relationship                                       tion for scarce water resources, they are willing to go to war          water challenges.
                                                                   between India and Pakistan. The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT)                                         to prevent others from taking their share of transboundary
                                                                   has survived the many down periods in Indian-Pakistani                                            water resources. The water war narrative makes for compel-
Water and Geopolitics                                              relations intact. But the IWT falls well short of being compre-                                   ling reading, but there is no evidence of interstate water wars
in Himalayan Asia                                                  hensive and malleable enough to deal with novel challenges                                        during our own time or in the past, whether in Himalayan
Water contributes to Himalayan Asia’s complex geopolitics          such as climate-driven changes in Indus water levels. The                                         Asia or anywhere else.
while being subject to the continent’s many geopolitical divi-     deep wells of distrust and suspicion within both countries                                           The spillover hypothesis refers to the risk that increasing     risks—can help manage domestic resources and mitigate
sions. Hydrologically, China is upstream of nearly everyone        about the other’s motivations and behaviors continue to                                           water scarcity and/or variability will undermine domestic          one’s own risk exposure to transboundary stresses. And
else, giving it a commanding position. Other countries also        strain relations over the Indus.                                                                  stability, in turn spilling over into the international arena.     better management of domestic resources can help lessen
enjoy upstream positions (India, for example, is upstream of          In Central Asia, rivers are part of a complex geopolitical                                     The logical pathway is: rising water scarcity and variability      the potential impacts of vulnerabilities to international risks
Pakistan and Bangladesh). This hydrological asymmetry is           landscape consisting of suspicion-fueled rivalries and major                                      in water supply, combined with poor water governance,              while mitigating the domestic stresses that might generate
matched by geopolitical asymmetry, with China possessing           power competition for influence. The central disputes involve                                     creates domestic water insecurity, which causes a series of        spillover instability.
outsized power.                                                    the region’s most important rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu                                         destabilizing effects including rising food insecurity, migra-        Improved data and monitoring can improve tracking and
   China’s predominant diplomatic inclination is to refuse par-    Darya, pitting the three downstream republics (Kazakhstan,                                        tion, and rising subnational tensions among different groups       understanding of hydrological conditions. Although water
ticipation in multilateral forums surrounding transboundary        Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan) against their upstream neigh-                                       up to and including violence among those groups; ultimately,       data is often treated as a state secret, that condition is
water use, instead preferring bilateral economic diplomacy,        bors (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). Of Asia’s major powers,                                         these effects begin to spill over into the international sphere    swiftly being eroded given technological changes in remote
much through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Unfortunately,    Russia and China are currently the most active in influencing                                     through various pathways, including out-migration. Under           sensing and other areas. More broadly, civil society can help
the BRI’s overall lack of transparency makes it difficult to       Central Asian affairs.                                                                            the worst-case scenarios, water insecurity contributes to the      develop more effective subnational, national, and trans-
divine the role that water investments play in China’s plans.         Himalayan Asia’s many water disputes are made worse by                                         breakdown of vulnerable societies, resulting in civil conflict     boundary water management.
   China and India compete indirectly for influence among          low trust among riparian states. China, India, and Pakistan all                                   and its transmutation to surrounding states.                          At the international level, Himalayan Asia’s transboundary
their South and Southeast Asian neighbors, with transbound-        lay claim to overlapping pieces of territory running along the                                       As domestic water disputes and conflicts are already            water management regimes need strengthening. Instead
ary waters occasionally part of the mix. They share one            mountainous regions that the three countries share, and that                                      common in Himalayan Asia, one can forecast scenarios in            of trying to create new comprehensive basin-level treaties
critical river, the Brahmaputra River (the Yarlung Tsangpo         form important portions of their transboundary watersheds.                                        which water insecurity at the domestic level bleeds into the       from scratch, a better strategy might be to build from the
in China). India’s existential fear is that China will someday     These claims are part of emotionally fraught and historically                                     international one through blame-shifting processes (where          bottom up. Such efforts might focus on negotiating parts
divert the river northward. China also views India’s inten-        laden disputes. Overlaid against these worries are perceived                                      politicians blame outsiders, including foreign governments,        of the larger basin puzzle, for example through negotiating
tions through a national security lens, seeing threats in Indian   threats to their national sovereignty and territorial control. It                                 for water stresses) and grievance politics that brings water       a resolution to a controversial dam. Success would serve as
                                                                   is easier politically to define water problems as coming from                                     issues together with territorial control, ethnic and religious     a trust-building exercise that then would enable additional
                                                                   outside national boundaries. Invoking the external threat is                                      identity, and historical animosity.                                negotiations. Expanding hydro-diplomatic engagement
                                                                   a tried-and-true method for politicians to deflect away from                                                                                                         through better use of ‘Track 1.5,’ ‘Track 2,’ and ‘Track 3’
                                                                   domestic criticism, particularly in those parts of Himalayan                                                                                                         approaches has proven effective in building knowledge and
                                                                   Asia where such messaging finds ready audiences. These                                            Three Big Questions (and Some                                      trust within the Brahmaputra basin.
                                                                   motives are buttressed by utilitarian mindsets that predis-                                       Recommendations)
                                                                   pose national governments toward unilateral river use and
                                                                   away from joint river management.
                                                                                                                                                                     1   What are the risks of conflict over transboundary
                                                                                                                                                                         waters in Asia?
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        2    Will technology save the day?
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Technology alone will not save the day, but new tech-
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        nologies will be critical to help solve Himalayan Asia’s water
                                                                                                                                                                     Whereas interstate warfare over water is unlikely in the short     challenges.
                                                                   Water and Security in Himalayan Asia                                                              run, there is more risk of violent conflict over the longer run,      Desalination is a proven technology that can increase the
                                                                   Across much of Himalayan Asia, water has become part of a                                         given the intense supply-versus-demand squeeze underway.           supply of fresh water in coastal regions.
                                                                   geopolitical chess match, viewed as an asset to be protected                                      Experts believe there is considerable risk of domestic conflict       Although some countries such as Israel have overcome
                                                                   against encroachment by one’s international rivals and/or as                                      over water and fear that it will bleed outward into the inter-     water scarcity through desalination, replicating its experience
                                                                   a lever for influencing rival states. Securitization leads states                                 national arena, in the form of out-migration, blame-shifting       will be difficult, if not impossible, elsewhere. Despite decreas-
                                                                                                                                       ANDREW AND ANNEMARIE/FLICKR

                                                                   to adopt inflexible, hardline positions vis-à-vis their neigh-                                    of neighbors, and more. Absent hydro-diplomatic break-             ing costs, desalinated water remains expensive, making it
                                                                   bors while discouraging them from looking inward at their                                         throughs, there is a high risk that transboundary water will       useful for municipal drinking water and commercial and
The Yarlung Tsangpo River                                          own vulnerabilities. Securitization can play into the hands of                                    become an even greater source of tension and competition           industrial purposes in coastal areas, but not for agriculture.
flows through China. In                                            politicians who use their domestic constituencies’ fears and                                      among geopolitical rivals in Himalayan Asia.                       Desalination should be one piece of a comprehensive solu-
downstream India and
Bangladesh, the river is
                                                                   grievances against constructive solutions, via pointing to                                           Better governance at both the international and domes-          tion set for Asia’s water challenges.
known as the Brahmaputra.                                          their rivals’ water-threatening behavior, which is frequently                                     tic levels is essential. Sharing data and coordinating policy         There are promising agricultural technologies in existence,
                                                                   more imagined than real.                                                                          with a neighbor—for example on flood warnings and climate          in development, or on the horizon. As Asian agriculture is

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Ecology Meets WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA - Atlantic Council
the most heavily irrigated in the world, making it more water
efficient is imperative. Only a small fraction of all irrigated
land in Asia is fitted with drip irrigation technologies, as
                                                                  3    What should the United States do?
                                                                        The United States is the external superpower in the
                                                                  Asian geopolitical context. If the United States plays to
                                                                                                                                                                                                            the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI)
                                                                                                                                                                                                            to regularly update its Global Water Security assessment
                                                                                                                                                                                                            (ODNI cannot do so on its own, it must be directed to
smallholding farmers have proven reluctant to adopt and           its many strengths, it can maintain and even augment its                                                                                  conduct such assessments). Doing so would send the clear-
maintain them. Many water experts are excited by advances         leverage within Himalayan Asia. With an eye toward the big                                                                                est signal to United States’ partners and allies, and to US
in remote sensing technologies, which have enormous               picture, this report offers some recommendations:                                                                                         government departments and agencies, that water security
power to assist in agricultural production, including the more                                                                                                                                              is treated as a strategic priority at the highest level of the
efficient use of water, down to the farm level and in real           A. Define water’s place within the context of US strategic                                                                             US government. Water security is a non-partisan issue, and
time. Agricultural biotechnology also stands at the cusp of          interests in Asia                                                                                                                      easily could become a standard component of future strate-
breakthrough innovation. Advances in genomics and genetic         The first step is to create a coherent US government strat-                                                                               gic documents, including the NSS, across administrations.
engineering are allowing scientists to understand plant           egy toward Asia incorporating water as a pivotal element.
genetic patterns to improve crop performance yield. There         For the United States, an important part of the strategic                                                                                    B. Craft a compelling vision around water in Asia
is considerable optimism that seeds that perform well under       challenge is preventing water from contributing to both                                                                                   An important task will be to craft a compelling vision for
water scarcity or higher temperatures will be developed over      state fragility (the spillover hypothesis) and international                                                                              how the United States can assist Himalayan Asian states
the coming decades.                                               conflict (the water wars hypothesis). Both of those out-                                                                                  in solving their water challenges. A compelling vision
   Regarding the water-energy nexus, decoupling energy            comes would undermine every other US strategic objective                                                                                  about water, including how the United States can help solve
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        A Cambodian farmer
production from water use is critical. Scaling renewable          in Asia.                                                                                                                                  water-related challenges in Himalayan Asia, would pro-                                                     ploughs his field after
energy sources should be a centerpiece of Asian coun-                The US government should deepen its understanding of                                                                                   vide an opening for the United States to reassert its global                                                  flooding subsides.
tries’ energy strategies. Economic and financial trends are       the linkages between water and its strategic objectives, in                                                                               water leadership. A starting point would be to create or
increasingly important in driving the shift to renewables.        Himalayan Asia and elsewhere in the world, and articulate                                                                                 commission a high-level report specifying exactly how
China is driving much of the downward pressure on renew-          those linkages in its top-level documents. A clear objective                                                                              the US government and its partners should organize                Scientific Affairs, empowered with a long-range mission
able energy prices. There is also considerable risk that          should be the inclusion of water security into the National                                                                               its efforts around water to achieve its strategic goals           and equipped with interagency coordinating powers. Peer
long-run returns on big hydroelectric dam investments will        Security Strategy (NSS) and other strategy documents                                                                                      in Asia. That document should: describe how increased             positions, focused on global water security, ought to be
not pay off. From the climate side, for example, the risk is      at the highest levels of governance (e.g., the Quadrennial                                                                                water security contributes to societal resilience; emphasize      established within the US Department of Defense and
greater uncertainty on river water levels.                        Defense Review). A related objective would be to direct                                                                                   that water is critical to sustainable development, inclusive      National Security Council.
                                                                                                                                                                                                            prosperity, and cooperation in Himalayan Asia; stress that
                                                                                                                                                                                                            the United States can help Himalayan Asian states achieve           C. Work with key allies and partners around the vision
                                                                                                                                                                                                            water security through innovation, improved governance,           To make the connection between water and US national
                                                                                                                                                                                                            and enhanced cooperation; and articulate how the US               security, including the risks to US strategic goals in Asia,
Moving goods on the Mekong
River in Vietnam. The Mekong                                                                                                                                                                                government should organize itself to best fulfill America’s       the vision will need to be translated into thoughtful, well-
serves as a fishery, transportation                                                                                                                                                                         strategic goals.                                                  articulated, well-planned, and fully fundable plans that can
artery, irrigation source, and
power generator all at once.                                                                                                                                                                                   With regard to how the US government organizes itself          be implemented with allies and partners on the ground.
                                                                                                                                                                                                            to fulfill its goals, if the United States is to be taken seri-   Ideally, the US government would develop long-range

                                                                                                                                  THIS PAGE: DOCUMENTATION CENTER OF CAMBODIA (DC-CAM)/MAKARA OUCH/FLICKR
                                                                                                                                                                                                            ously as an honest broker in Himalayan Asia, it needs to          plans that would focus on a mix of policies and processes
                                                                                                                                                                                                            show that it can do the hard work of regional engage-             designed to increase societal resilience to water-related
                                                                                                                                                                                                            ment, with a commitment to transparent multilateral               shocks. Capacity building, development of best-practice
                                                                                                                                                                                                            diplomacy and building long-term regional dialogues               policies and infrastructural investment strategies, and
                                                                                                                                                                                                            and processes. In the water context, the US foreign ser-          diplomatic engagement on transboundary water resources
                                                                                                                                                                                                            vices do not have such a mission. That is one reason why          would all be included. One key is to expand the definition of
                                                                                                                                                                                                            water experts believe that water needs a more permanent           who qualifies as a partner. Subnational actors ranging from
                                                                                                                                                                                                            and visible presence within the US government’s foreign           civil society groups to businesses to provincial governments
                                                                                                                                                                                                            and security policy firmament. For several years, the US          to local farmers all are key to water-related outcomes.

                                                                                                                                  OPPOSITE PAGE: DANIEL MENNERICH/FLICKR;
                                                                                                                                                                                                            Agency for International Development (USAID) has had              While the US government’s foreign affairs departments and
                                                                                                                                                                                                            a global water coordinator and Office of Water, reflective        agencies engage subnational actors, the engagement is ad
                                                                                                                                                                                                            of the dominance of federal spending on water supply,             hoc. To improve, the US government should create a fully
                                                                                                                                                                                                            sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs. By contrast,             funded and staffed office for subnational engagement in
                                                                                                                                                                                                            funding for the government’s hydro-diplomatic activities is       the State Department to track interactions with subnational
                                                                                                                                                                                                            woeful. To partially correct this imbalance, a fully funded       actors, devise strategies for engagement, and coordinate
                                                                                                                                                                                                            and staffed water office and global water coordinator             the government’s diplomatic outreach.
                                                                                                                                                                                                            position should be created within the State Department’s            Another practical step would be to empower the US
                                                                                                                                                                                                            Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and              government’s scientific agencies to: fully engage at the

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                ECOLOGY MEET GEOPOLITICS WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA    7
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international level; ensure the international availability      Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD, an intergovern-
and distribution of their data; and develop partnerships        mental organization based in Kathmandu).
with national and international agencies, the private
sector, and civil society in the development of open               D. Protect Himalayan Asia’s water tower
source data tools that are tailored to end users includ-        The United States should support the protection of
ing non-profits, agricultural extension services, disaster
management agencies, and individuals (e.g., farmers).
                                                                Himalayan Asia’s water tower—the HKH ranges, their eco-
                                                                systems, and the rivers spawned by them. The water tower                                         SECTION I

                                                                                                                                                                 Introduction
The US government’s scientific organizations such as the        is the single indispensable feature of Asian geography, one
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA),           that serves the collective interests of billions of people.
US Geological Survey (USGS), and National Oceanic and              The Arctic Council is the appropriate model. The Arctic
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gather among the              Council is an intergovernmental forum whose eight
best and most comprehensive water data in the world. So         member states work cooperatively on common environ-
too do many of its private-sector firms. The challenge is       mental and scientific challenges facing the Arctic region.
to find ways to have that data be used on the ground by         Two of these member states are Russia and the United
people who make decisions about water use in Asia.              States, which despite being geopolitical adversaries have
   A related and important step would be to create an early     managed to cooperate on the Arctic.
warning system focused on predictions of water-related             The United States government should pick up this mantle
fragility. The US government should, in coordination with       and support processes leading to the creation of an inter-
academic analysts and international scientific organiza-        governmental forum for the environmental and scientific
tions, develop an early warning of potential water conflict     stewardship of Himalayan Asia’s water tower. Those pro-
hotspots in Asia and elsewhere in the world. The models         cesses should mirror the processes that led to the creation
here include the Famine Early Warning Systems Network           of the Arctic Council in 1996. A similar permanent, legally
(FEWSNET), a famine prediction service created in 1985          established and recognized intergovernmental forum, like
by USAID, and SERVIR-Himalaya, a Hindu Kush-Himalaya            the Arctic Council, could be created for Asia’s water tower. If
(HKH) satellite monitoring service created by the NASA          the US government were to lead such an effort, its best play
and USAID in cooperation with International Centre for          is to utilize its diplomatic strengths to bring other nation-
                                                                states, multilateral organizations, and civil society into a
                                                                consensus-building coalition for the creation of precursor
                                                                institutions and processes. Those institutions and processes
                                                                should follow the Arctic Council’s template.
                                                                   Given that the United States is not a riparian state, the
                                                                US government should support those multilateral, civil
                                                                society, and scientific organizations that wish to lead this
                                                                endeavor. The purpose of such a forum would be to facili-
                                                                tate collective knowledge building and policy development
                                                                among the HKH states. In advancing an HKH forum, the
                                                                United States should seek diplomatic support from other
                                                                Arctic Council states that also are active in advancing
                                                                hydro-diplomatic relations around the world, includ-
                                                                ing Sweden and Norway, plus Arctic Council observers
                                                                Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.
                                                                   One additional and simple recommendation is to create a
                                                                special representative for Himalayan affairs (or similar title)
                                                                to coordinate the US government’s efforts and facilitate the
                                                                creation of an Arctic Council-like forum for the HKH region.
                                                                                                                                  WENZEL PROKOSCH/GRID ARENDAL

                                                                This position should be placed within the Bureau of Oceans
                                                                and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, in
                                                                keeping with the Arctic Council’s institutional home at the
Asia’s water tower contains the
highest glacier and mountain in the                             State Department, and in keeping with the goal to estab-
world: the Khumbu Glacier leading to                            lish an HKH body focused on environmental protection and
the slopes of Mount Everest, Nepal.
                                                                scientific research.

8   ECOLOGY MEET GEOPOLITICS WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA                                                                                                                   9
Ecology Meets WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA - Atlantic Council
H
                 imalayan Asia is a shorthand term referring to the Asian countries that                                                                                       and China in South Asia), and by unsettled territorial disputes                                                                                          physical goods necessary for every human activity. Although
                                                                                                                                                                               in some the continent’s most important water-producing                                                                                                   two-thirds of the Earth is covered in water, the vast major-
                 depend on river water from the high mountain ranges of the Tibetan
                                                                                                                                                                               regions (especially in contested mountainous territories                                                                                                 ity—97.5 percent—is salt water. And only a small fraction of
                 Plateau. As the rivers produced by the Himalayas and other mountain                                                                                           between China, India, and Pakistan). All of these features of                                                                                            the remaining 2.5 percent of all water is available for human
                 ranges on the Plateau are under increasingly serious pressure, water inse-                                                                                    Asian geopolitics frequently lead to high levels of mistrust                                                                                             use in the form of surface water and groundwater (much of
                                                                                                                                                                               that both complicate the task of creating robust transbound-                                                                                             the world’s fresh water is at the Earth’s two poles). Therefore,
                 curity threatens much of the continent’s peace and security. Himalayan                                                                                        ary water management regimes while, conversely and at the                                                                                                any systemic changes to hydrological cycles threaten to
                 Asia’s transboundary water dynamics threaten to erode interstate                                                                                              same time, raising the odds that transboundary waters will                                                                                               upend complex and often delicate relationships between
cooperation, including among the continent’s major powers, risk worsening geopoliti-                                                                                           become sources of competition or even conflict among the                                                                                                 human and natural systems. This describes reality across
                                                                                                                                                                               major powers.                                                                                                                                            most of Asia, where the combination of human interference
cal competition, and heighten the odds of domestic and interstate conflict. Yet there are                                                                                         The bottom line is that water is the world’s single                                                                                                   in these systems plus climate-driven temperature and atmo-
viable pathways for avoiding such an outcome, the most important of which treat water                                                                                          most precious natural resource, one of a tiny handful of                                                                                                 spheric changes are altering the timing and amounts of water
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        that are available to societies, and to the fresh water ecosys-
as a shared resource to be managed cooperatively among a variety of actors, public and
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        tems that undergird much human activity, such as fisheries.
private, national and subnational. Without such leadership and engagement, there is signif-                                                                                    The Hindu Kush Himalayan mountain ranges produce many
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Water insecurity is increasingly acknowledged as a threat
icant risk of water insecurity becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy, wherein states securitize                                                                                  of the rivers spawned by Asia's water tower.                                                                                                             to peace and prosperity. For years, the World Economic

water and therefore define it in zero-sum geopolitical terms. That scenario has few, if any,
positive outcomes.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   AL
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          TA
                                                                                                                                                                              The Hindu Kush Himalayan region                                                                                                      Tarba
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Y
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    M
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        O
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            UN
   At the center of Himalayan Asia are the Hindu Kush-             and significant improvements in water use efficiencies,                                                                                                                                                                                               gatay
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Range                                             TA
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Hangay
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               n      Mou
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       IN                                                ntai
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             ns
Himalayas, Pamir, Karakoram, and Tian Shan mountain                the demand for water in Asia will continue rising through                                                               K A Z A K H                         S T E P P E                                                                                                                                                   S

ranges. Often collectively referred to as Asia’s ‘water tower,’    mid-century.                                                                                                                                                         BETPAQDALA                                                        w Mo
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              untains                     Junggar Basin
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Alata
these mountain ranges contain the world’s largest amount              Second, water governance in Himalayan Asia leaves much                                                                                                              DESERT                                                                      Boroho
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            ro      Moun
                                                                                                                                                                                        QIZILQUM DESERT                                                                                                                                 tains
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  MONGOLIAN PLATEAU
of ice and snow outside of the two poles, and in turn are          to be desired. While this is painting with a broad brush—                                                                                                       Karatau Range
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               T I A N         S H A N
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    GO
the source of Asia’s most important rivers, including the          several Asian states, including Singapore, Japan, and South                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   C        H I N A                                        BI
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               DE
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  SE
Mekong, Indus, Amu Darya, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy,          Korea, are generally regarded as highly competent at water                                                                                                                       Ferga
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         na Valley
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             TARIM BASIN
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Hex
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     RT
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       i Co
Yellow, Yangtze, and Salween rivers. Collectively, these           governance—most of the countries within Himalayan Asia’s                                                                               AMUDARYA
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     TARIM                                                     tains
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           rrid
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               or
                                                                                                                                                                         GARAGUM DESERT                                                                                                                                TAKLIMAKAN                         Moun                                                           QUIL
rivers extend across four Asian regions: Central Asia, South       major river basins generally face numerous, often severe,                                                                                                                                         PAMIRS                                              DESERT                     Altun                                   Qai                              IAN
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  YELLOW RIVER
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               dam                               MO
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Basin                           UN
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     TAI
Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. Billions of people living     water governance challenges. The transboundary gover-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      NS
                                                                                                                                                                              Westerlies
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             KUNLUN MOUNTAINS
in China, India, Pakistan, and a dozen or more other Asian         nance of water resources is in even worse shape. Himalayan                                                                                                                                                     KA
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    RA
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Loess Plateau
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                HINDU KUSH                                            KO
states depend on them for their fresh water, either entirely       Asia’s transboundary rivers are poorly governed at bilateral                                                              Paropamisus Range
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          KABUL
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        RA
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          M                                                                                                               Ya
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            ISLAMABAD                                                                                                                                            g tze

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            n
or in large part (groundwater also is an important source of       and multilateral levels, with few robust treaties and institu-                                                                                                                                              Salt
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Range      Vale of
                                                                                                                                                                                            A F G H A N I S TA N                                   P A K I S TA N                                                                           P L A T E A U                               O F                T I B E T

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Sulaiman R
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Kashmir
fresh water in certain regions). Himalayan Asia contains by        tions governing how transboundary rivers and their basins
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               H
far the most critical sources of surface fresh water in all of     are used. Its transboundary aquifers are not governed by                                                                    Margo
                                                                                                                                                                                               Desert                                                                                                                 I                                                                                                                                     C       H I N A
                                                                                                                                                                                                            Rigestan                                                                                                         M

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    ange
Asia, and arguably the entire world.                               international agreement in any way, shape, or form.                                                                                                                                                INDUS                                                         A L

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           In dus
                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Central                                                                                                                                                                                                                             YANGTSE
                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Bruhui
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                N EPAL                  A Y A
   Within Himalayan Asia, there are three principal reasons           Finally, Himalayan Asia’s geopolitical dynamics intersect                                                                                           Range                                                                                       Siwa                    S                                                       Tsangpo
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   NEW DELHI                lik H                                           BRAHMAPUTRA                Gorge
why the linkage between ecology and geopolitics is becom-          with its water dynamics, creating a potentially dangerous                                                                                                                                                                                                     ills
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            KATHMANDU
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Dalou
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                THAR DESERT                                                                                                        BHUTAN                                                                                           Mountains

                                                                                                                                                                                                                     n
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  ra
ing increasingly important. The first is a rising gap between      nexus of challenges that must be managed through skillful                                                                                        ak   Kirthar                                                                                                                                                   aputr a
                                                                                                                                                                                                   Ce n t r a l M        Range                                      Arvalli                                     Ga
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  ng                                                        Br a hm

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   ills
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             GA
water supply and its growing demand. On the supply side,           diplomacy. Its geopolitical dynamics have a high potential to                                                                                                                                    Range                       GANGES         NG es

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 aH
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Khasi Hills                                                        YUNGUI PLATEAU
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 ES P

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Nag
                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Indus                                                                                 LAIN
surface and groundwater sources are stressed across the            both fuel water insecurity across the continent and in turn                                                 Elevation                                        Delta

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          I rrawaddy
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        DHAKA
continent. Climate change will reduce water supply in some         be fueled by that insecurity, given the clash between water                                                 Metres

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Chi
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              e                           Chota Nä                         Ganges
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           ang                              Plateaugpur
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       ya R

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        n Hil
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Delta
critical sub-regions of the continent and increase the variabil-   supply and demand plus poor water governance across                                                                      6 000                                           Kathiawar                             Vindh      R ang
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   e
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Sundarbans
                                                                                                                                    RICCARDO PRAVETTONI/GRID ARENDAL

                                                                                                                                                                                            3 000                                                                                    Satpura

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             ls
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Peninsula                                                                                                                                           SHAN PLATEAU
ity in that supply nearly everywhere. Moreover, water supplies     much of the continent. Himalayan Asia is beset by a series
                                                                                                                                                                                            1 000
                                                                                                                                                                                            0
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      BANGLADESH                           IRRAWADDY                                       MEKONG
are frequently heavily polluted. On the demand side, rising        of rivalries among its major continental powers, as well as                                                                                                                                                            I     N D I A                                                                                                            NAYPYIDAW
                                                                                                                                                                                      Hindu Kush Himalayas                                                                                                                EASTERN                                                         Arakan Yoma SALWEEN
populations, especially in three major powers (China, India,       among and between these powers and the continent’s less                                                            Major river basin                                                                                                                    GHATS

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  AN
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              DECCAN

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Sa
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 MYANMAR

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    N
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      VIENTIANE

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            lween

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     AM
and Pakistan), plus rapid economic growth have translated          powerful states. Those rivalries are fueled by historic griev-                                                                                                                                                             PLATEAU
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Khorat

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          WES

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       IT
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         ER
                                                                                                                                                                                                   soon                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Plateau
into rising demand for water for irrigation, industry, energy      ances (e.g., the India-Pakistan dispute), by rapidly rising                                                           Indian mon

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             TER

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           AN
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  INDOCHINA

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             GE
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Irrawaddy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Me
production, and municipal uses. This demand has led to             powers that are upending continental diplomacy (China is

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                NG
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Delta                                       PENINSULA

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                kon g
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  HA
overuse of the continent’s surface water sources (rivers and       the most important of these), by competition for influence

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    TS
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Central
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Highlands
lakes, primarily) and its groundwater. Absent widespread           (e.g., China and Russia competing in Central Asia, and India
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Laccadive Islands                                                                                                                                                     Myeik Arch.                                        PHNOM PENH

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Andaman Islands
10   ECOLOGY MEET GEOPOLITICS WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA                                                                                                         The boundaries and names shown and the designations
                                                                                                                                                                       used on this map do not imply official endorsement or                                                                                                              ECOLOGY MEET GEOPOLITICS WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA Mekong
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    11
                                                                                                                                                                       acceptance by ICIMOD, CICERO or GRID-Arendal.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Delta
Ecology Meets WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA - Atlantic Council
Forum’s global risks reports have ranked water-related              northern India. One of the authors had the good fortune to
crises to be among the most probable and consequential              visit the Ladakh region as part of a Himalayan research trip
coming risks. Similarly, a 2012 US Intelligence Community           for this report. While there, he interviewed several groups of
Assessment of Global Water Security, a first for America’s          villagers for their thoughts on local water challenges.
intelligence services, hypothesized that water problems                This report is organized into the following sections. Section
will contribute to destabilizing key states around the world.
“When combined with poverty, social tensions, environmen-
                                                                    II examines the water tower’s evolving hydrology and its
                                                                    downstream effects, within the context of Asia’s changing                                   SECTION II

                                                                                                                                                                Himalayan
tal degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political          water dynamics. Section III provides an analysis of water and
institutions,” it argued, water insecurity will “contribute to      geopolitics, through an examination of how transboundary
social disruptions that can result in state failure.” Such intel-   water resources intersect with the geopolitical interests and
ligence community assessments also anticipate that some             perspectives of major and minor powers in Asia. Section IV
states might leverage transboundary water resources to gain         segues into a related conversation about the relationships

                                                                                                                                                                Asia’s Water
advantage over their neighbours. Multiple other institu-            between water and security. Finally, Section V asks three big
tions are focusing on this nexus of issues surrounding water        questions about water and Himalayan Asia’s future, provid-
insecurity, peace, and conflict, including the World Bank and       ing recommendations for reducing the risk of water conflicts
United Nations (UN).                                                and improving the odds of cooperation over transboundary
                                                                    water resources. One of these questions is about the United

                                                                                                                                                                Tower
Report method and plan                                              States, its strategy, interests, and policies.
THE FINDINGS IN THIS DOCUMENT RESULTED FROM A COMBINA-                 Two Special Sections, placed at the end of this report,
tion of desk research, interviews, and field study. Although        explore several important topics for those readers inter-
the authors consulted hundreds of published documents,              ested in more depth. Special Section I explores Asia’s water
their insights were sharpened the most by input from dozens         dynamics in greater detail, addressing water stresses across
of experts, interviewed in person and by phone over the             major sectors (agriculture, cities, and energy) and regions

                                                                                                                                       NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY
course of 2017 and 2018. All interviews were conducted off          (South, Southeast, Central, and East Asia). Special Section
the record. The authors solicited the opinions of experts           II highlights several of Asia’s “hot spots and blind spots,”
located in Asia, Europe, and North America, drawn from              including: Asia’s hydraulic mission; the Indus River; the
the public, private, and non-profit sectors, academia, and          Brahmaputra/Yarlung Tsanpo River; the Mekong/Lancang
journalism. In addition, source material for this report also       River; and the planned Rogun Dam. Each case illustrates one
came from villagers living in Jammu and Kashmir state in far        or more important themes outlined in this report.

NASA satellite image showing
contrast between heavy snow
and ice covering the Hindu
Kush Himalayan ranges and
downstream regions in South
Asia, February 2005.
12   ECOLOGY MEET GEOPOLITICS WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA
Ecology Meets WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA - Atlantic Council
H
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Glacial river in the
                  imalayan Asia’s water tower is the most important source of fresh water in                                                                                                                                                                                    Sagarmatha National
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Park, Nepal.
                  Asia, with its major and minor rivers providing water to billions of people
                  north to south and east to west. The tower refers to the high-altitude
                  regions that sit at the center of the continent and collectively act as a kind
                  of water-generating engine for Asia. Because the tower’s high mountain
                  ranges contain vast quantities of ice and snow, they produce a long list of
rivers, including the Mekong, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus, Salween, Amu Darya, Syr Darya,
Ili, Irrawaddy, Yellow, and Yangtze rivers. Collectively, those rivers flow into every region
of the continent except for West Asia (the region extending from Iran westward) and the
Caucasus. Moreover, because these mountain ranges straddle China, India, Pakistan, and
other countries with contested borders and regions, the water tower is itself a key part of
Asia’s geopolitical competition.
   This section summarizes the central features of Himalayan      not only as snow melt but crucially as rain too. This feature
Asia’s water tower and the importance of the rivers that flow     is less important for the monsoon-dominated rivers like the
out of it. It also sketches the dynamics of water use across      Mekong, where the greatest amount of rain falls well down-
the continent, with attention paid to the transboundary sur-      stream of the mountains. (The HKH ranges play a role in the
face waters produced by the water tower.                          monsoons: the high mountains create a ‘rain shadow,’ mean-
   Although there is no precise definition of the mountain        ing that they block the monsoons’ path into China, confining
ranges within the water tower, for purposes of this report it     rains to South and Southeastern Asia.)
includes the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH), Pamir, Karakoram,           Collectively, the water tower’s rivers range across thou-
and Tien Shan ranges. The HKH ranges contain the tall-            sands of kilometers of Asian territory and dozens if not
est mountains on Earth, including Mt. Everest, and are the        hundreds of individual ecosystems. While generalizing about                                     There is also a ‘Northeast’ monsoon season for South                  While power dynamics among riparian countries are not
most heavily glaciated. There are more than 54,000 glaciers       the rivers is therefore a difficult proposition, they do share                                  and Southeast Asia, running from October to December               geographically determined (meaning that upstream coun-
in the HKH ranges alone, giving them the third greatest           some commonalities. Given the height of the water tower’s                                       (Northeast refers to the origins of prevailing winds). For         tries automatically have power over downstream countries),
concentration of ice on Earth after the two poles. Many of        mountain ranges, nearly all the rivers experience a significant                                 the HKH ranges, the Northeast monsoon brings much less             at the same time it is true that upstream countries are in
Asia’s greatest rivers originate in the HKH mountain ranges,      drop in altitude from origin to termination, which in turn                                      precipitation, but it is the major source of rainfall for penin-   a more advantageous position. Whether that geographic
including the Mekong, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus, Salween,        means that they are ideal for construction of hydroelectric                                     sular India. To complicate matters, these seasonal fluxes can      position translates into geopolitical power depends on
Amu Darya, Irrawaddy, Yellow, Tarim, and Yangtze rivers. The      dams. Indeed, partly for this reason (hydroelectric dams also                                   be out of sync with water demand, whether for agriculture,         several other factors, including relative economic, diplo-
Tien Shan mountains lie to the north of the HKH ranges and        are built in flatter landscapes), there are more dams already                                   hydroelectric power generation, or other uses, depending on        matic, and military power. China, it bears repeating, is the
are the source of the Syr Darya and Ili rivers. The only rivers   built in Himalayan Asia, or in planning stages, than in any                                     river basin and region-specific seasonal weather patterns.         upstream riparian for most of the water tower’s rivers. It is
included in this study that do not originate in what might        other continent.                                                                                   With a few exceptions, the water tower’s rivers are             the closest thing to an Asian hydro-hegemon because of
be called the water tower proper are the Irtysh and Amur             Furthermore, as none of the major rivers run through                                         transboundary rivers rather than national ones. Unlike the         this geographic position plus its considerable power across
rivers. The Irtysh originates in the Altai mountains in western   temperate regions from start to finish, they are vulnerable                                     Mississippi River Basin, which lies almost entirely in one         numerous other dimensions.
Mongolia, and is shared by Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan, and       to high fluctuations in river flow. Part of this variability is                                 country, most of the water tower’s rivers straddle multiple           Finally, all of the water tower’s major rivers face a diffi-
Russia. The Amur River’s tributaries originate in Siberia and     seasonal, with very wet seasons followed by very dry ones.                                      countries. Moreover, several of these rivers run across jittery    cult combination of stresses arising from both the demand
eastern Mongolia. The Amur is included in this study because      Spring and summer mountain snow melt gives the rivers                                           national boundaries, as in the cases of the Brahmaputra/           and supply sides of the hydrological equation. On the
the river forms much of the border between two of Asia’s          their water through the dry seasons. For the rivers that run                                    Yarlung Tsangpo (China, India, Bhutan, and Bangladesh),            demand side, the rivers face increasing stresses owing to
major powers, China and Russia.                                   through South and Southeast Asia, monsoons add to this                                          the Indus (China, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan), the           rising population, greater agricultural production, increas-
   The water tower’s mountains themselves also are a signifi-     seasonal variability. The major monsoon season is the June                                      Mekong (China, Lao PDR, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia,               ing urbanization, more intensive industrial production, more

                                                                                                                                    PETER PROKOSCH/GRID ARENDAL
cant feature of regional rainfall patterns. As a high altitude    to September/October summer monsoon. (The season                                                and Vietnam), the Amur (China, Russia, and Mongolia),              dam-building, worsening pollution, and much more. Many
wall stretching thousands of kilometers east to west, they        has a slightly different onset and departure for South and                                      or the Amu Darya and Syr Darya (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,            of the rivers face combinations of several of these factors. A
impact wind and moisture circulation patterns across much         Southeast Asia.) Since summer is the monsoon season, when                                       Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan), and the                 2012 study in the journal Applied Geography, for example,
of Asia. By far, most of the rainfall in the Indus River basin    precipitation is extreme, snowmelt is less important to river                                   Salween/Nu (China, Myanmar, and Thailand). The few purely          assessed ten rivers arising in the water tower and concluded
and in the Central Asian rivers falls in the high upper basins    flow in these months. For river levels in South and Southeast                                   ‘national’ rivers that arise within the water tower include the    that all of them face a range of intense demand-side chal-
in the mountains, while the downstream areas are more             Asia, meltwater is most important in the so-called ‘shoulder’                                   Yangtze and Yellow rivers (China) and the Irrawaddy River          lenges. The ten rivers ran through regions characterized
arid. The mountains therefore effectively ‘generate’ water        seasons in spring and fall, before and after the monsoon.                                       (Myanmar).                                                         by high population densities, swift urbanization, ongoing

14   ECOLOGY MEET GEOPOLITICS WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA                                                                                                                                                                         ECOLOGY MEET GEOPOLITICS WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA    15
Hydropower in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region                                                                                      CHINA
agricultural intensification, high poverty, rapid industrializa-      ASIA’S WATER TOWER                                                                                                                Amu Darya                                                                                                 694 000

                                                                      Food, Cities, and
tion, or combinations of these factors. Dense settlement                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Tarim                                  341 190
patterns and high populations characterized all the basins.

                                                                      Energy
These authors are hardly the first to point out such chal-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Yellow river
lenges, with most serious analyses pointing to similar                                                                                                                                              AFGHANISTAN                     461
demand-side concerns across much of the continent. These
stresses are examined in greater detail in the sub-sections
below.
   As demand-side pressures are increasing, the water tower
                                                                      R    ising demand for water in Himalayan Asia comes from
                                                                           three broad sources: agriculture (food production
                                                                      plus non-food cash crops), cities (industrial, commercial,
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 PAKISTAN
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          42 000
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            7 477

and its rivers also face an uncertain and difficult supply-side       and household uses), and energy production. Owing to
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Brahmaputra                        Yangtse
threat arising from climate change. By now it is well estab-          population and economic growth across the water tower’s                                                                                                                          Indus                                                   30 000
lished that the disruptions created by a changing climate             countries, each of these sources has been increasing its                                                                                                                                                     NEPAL                        1 615
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         INDIA
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   83 290                   BHUTAN
will upend hydrological patterns throughout Himalayan                 claim to surface and groundwater resources. Agriculture is                                                                                                                                         148 000      968
Asia and the rest of the world. The questions are how those           the largest water user and figures to remain so for a very                                                                                                                                          49 382

patterns will change, when they will change, and with what            long time to come, but it is hardly the only sector with rising                                                                                                                                     Ganges                        BANGLADESH 230
consequences.                                                         demand for water. Rapid urbanization and population growth                                                                                                                                                                                            Irrawaddy
   For the regions served by the Himalayan Asia water tower,          in general have meant the swift growth of hundreds of cities                                                                                                                                                                                                           MYANMAR
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               100 000
a changing climate introduces several significant chal-               across the continent. That in turn has driven rapid growth of                                                                                                                                                                                                              3 140
lenges. The first and most obvious involves glacial melt,             municipal demand for water (from industries, households,
                                                                                                                                                                                           Hindu Kush Himalaya
given the tens of thousands of glaciers in the mountain               businesses, and other entities) and in the production of                                                                                                                                                                                                     Salween
ranges. Temperatures have been rising faster in the water             wastewater. There has been a related and massive growth in
                                                                                                                                                                                           Main river basins
tower’s higher elevations than the global average, causing            energy demand as well, reflecting strong economic growth                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Mekong
glaciers to shrink across all of the ranges, with few excep-          and urbanization in many countries.
                                                                                                                                                                               Hydropower
tions. Glacial melt is critical for maintaining river flows in           Briefly, experts divide the concept of water use into con-
                                                                                                                                                                               Megawatts per country
the spring and summer months when river water is most                 sumption and withdrawal. Consumption refers to water that
                                                                                                                                                                                           Installed capacity
needed for crops. Although all of the water tower’s rivers            is taken from a source (river, lake, groundwater, etc.) but
depend to some extent on glacial melt, several are more               not returned. Withdrawal refers to water that is taken but                                                           Potential
dependent than others. Among the rivers originating in the            returned. Globally, agriculture is far and away the largest con-
                                                                                                                                                                               Source: Lutz et al., 2015, Comprenhensive Review of Climate Change and the Impacts on                                                                                       200 km
water tower, the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra are more              sumer of water because irrigation water is either absorbed                                               Cryosphere, Hydrological Regimes and Glacier Lakes, Future Water, Statkraft and Icimod;
                                                                                                                                                                               International hydropower association, 2018, Hydropower status report, IHA.                                                                                         GRID-ARENDAL / LÓPEZ, 2018
dependent on glacial melt than the Mekong and Salween,                by plant tissue or evaporated into the atmosphere. Water
which are more heavily dependent on monsoon rains.                    withdrawal is frequently not a neutral exchange because the
Besides accelerating glacial melt, a warmer climate also will         water taken from a source is often returned to it in a more
shift precipitation patterns, with timing and amounts of pre-         degraded state.
cipitation expected to change at high and low elevations. A                                                                                                                         Asian agriculture is the biggest user of water in the world.                                            China is particularly important for China’s food produc-
major problem here is that climate models are inconsistent                                                                                                                       In 2010, the United Nation’s (UN) Food and Agriculture                                                     tion, although the region is a relatively dry area that
in their predictions, which in turn means that scientists are         Agriculture                                                                                                Organization (FAO) estimated that Asia’s agricultural sector                                               requires significant groundwater extraction to support food
reluctant to forecast either greater or lesser precipitation for      Asia’s large population is the primary reason for its mas-                                                 withdrew 81 percent of all water on the continent and about                                                production.
specific river basins. Greater variability of rainfall is, however,   sive agricultural water demand. Feeding 4.4 billion people                                                 75 percent of all water withdrawn for agriculture globally.                                                   Climate change likely will have negative impacts on
expected everywhere.                                                  requires an enormous amount of water, in particular given                                                  India (first), China (second), and Pakistan (fourth) are in the                                            the water cycle and therefore on agriculture. Yield losses
   Altogether, climate change will have significant conse-            rising incomes across much of the continent (wealthier                                                     top five most prolific agricultural water users in the world.                                              from higher temperatures and reduced soil moisture, more
quences for those Asian countries that are dependent on               people tend to consume both more calories and meat than                                                       Asia has by far the most irrigated land in the world, at                                                frequent and intense flood and drought cycles, increased
the water tower. Greater variability in river flows and in            do poorer people, both of which require more water per                                                     41 percent of the continent’s cultivated area, with China and                                              pest infestations, and loss of farmland in low-lying coastal

                                                                                                                                         NIEVES LÓPEZ ISQUIERDO/GRID ARENDAL
precipitation patterns, plus higher temperatures, will have           person). The challenges involved in feeding China and India’s                                              India the world’s two largest irrigators by a long measure.                                                regions top the list of concerns. Although Asian farmers
significant impacts on agriculture, settlements, fisheries,           growing and increasingly urbanized populations are primary                                                 Several of the world’s most intensely irrigated regions are                                                plant many different types of crops, a few staples dominate.
energy production, and more. Climate change will result               concerns. Together, the two countries have 2.7 billion people                                              in Asia. The largest of these is the Indo-Gangetic Plain that                                              These include the water-intensive cereals of rice, wheat,
in greater glacial melt and changing seasonal snowfall and            and counting, with both enjoying high economic growth                                                      runs across Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. The                                                    and maize and a few water-intensive cash crops such as
rain patterns at high and low altitudes (all of which will            rates. Food security therefore is a dual-sided proposition,                                                Plain is a vast region that is nourished by the water tower’s                                              cotton, which is particularly important in Pakistan and
change river flows), will alter ecosystems at all elevations,         involving on the one hand the production of enough food for                                                rivers and groundwater. More than a billion people live on                                                 Central Asia. Finally, Asian agriculture continues to depend
and will likely have negative and potentially devastating             increasingly wealthy urbanites and on the other finding ways                                               the Indo-Gangetic Plain, many of whom are smallholder                                                      on smallholder farmers, especially in South and Southeast
impacts across human systems (agriculture, settlements,               to ensure that poorer populations, which still number in the                                               farmers. Asia also contains intensely irrigated regions in                                                 Asia, meaning that climate disruptions will fall hardest upon
and infrastructure).                                                  billions, have sufficient access to food.                                                                  Northern China, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. Northern                                                 farmers with the fewest resources to withstand the impact.

16   ECOLOGY MEET GEOPOLITICS WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA                                                                                                                                                                                                                               ECOLOGY MEET GEOPOLITICS WATER SECURITY IN HIMALAYAN ASIA                17
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