From Arms Racing to “Dam Racing” in Asia: How to Contain the Geopolitical Risks of the Dam-Building Competition
This paper warns that just as the scramble for energy resources has defined Asian geopolitics since the 1990s, the struggle for water is now likely to define many inter-country relationships. At a time when many territorial disputes and separatist struggles in Asia are being driven by resource issues — extending from the energy-rich South and East China Seas to the water-rich Tibet and Kashmir — water is indeed becoming the new oil. But unlike oil — dependence on which can be reduced by either tapping other sources of energy or switching to other means of generating electricity — there is no substitute for water. Asian economies are the world’s leading importers of resources like mineral ores, hydrocarbons, and timber, importing them from distant lands. But they have no such import choice on water.
The paper examines how the rising geopolitical risks arising from the dam-building competition can be stemmed. It does so by examining the broader water tensions and competition, which center on four distinct zones: China and its neighbors; South Asia; Southeast Asia; and Central Asia, where the Soviet Union’s disintegration left a still-festering water discord among the five so-called “stans” — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
The overexploitation of river resources has only promoted unbridled groundwater extraction, resulting in rapidly falling water tables across much of Asia. The scope of this paper, however, is limited to analyzing how the resources of shared rivers have become the target of rival appropriation plans in what can be described as a silent hydrological warfare. Driving the rival dam-building plans and the accompanying water nationalism is the notion that sharing waters is a zero-sum game. The danger that the current or new riparian disputes may escalate to conflict looms large on the Asian horizon, with important implications for Asia’s continued rapid economic-growth story and for inter-riparian relations.