The Potential for Tensions in South Asia: The Food and Water Vector

2 May 2017 Madeleine Lovelle, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Water scarcity is predicted to affect 1.8 billion people by 2025, many of whom will be from across Asia.
  • The headwaters of most of Asia’s major rivers are located in Tibet, giving China a significant degree of control over the flow of these rivers to lower riparians.
  • The effects of climate change also threaten future stability within the region, particularly when Chinese dam construction activity is already creating tensions.
  • Multilateral engagement between South Asian countries must ensure that the consequences of dire food and water security do not eventuate.


Chinese control of Tibet has resulted in it controlling many of the headwaters of South Asia’s major rivers. The survival of these rivers and the livelihoods that they sustain are likely to face future challenges from both direct intervention from China, as well as the worsening effects of climate change. Although the uneven balance of power throughout the region makes transboundary co-operation difficult, it is essential that countries within the region establish co-operative relationships to help mitigate against future threats to food and water security.


Forty-six per cent of the world’s population depend upon rivers originating in Tibet. These rivers include the Mekong, Salween, the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, Indus, Sutlej, Irrawaddy, Yellow and Yangtse rivers. Though this paper will only focus on the rivers located in South Asia, the flow of the Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Yellow and Yangtse rivers significantly contribute to food and water security in the region. By 2025, water scarcity is predicted to affect 1.8 billion people, particularly across Asia. Control of Tibet places China in a dominant position to control Asia’s water sources.

Tibet’s annual glacial melt rate is currently at seven per cent; by 2050, it has been predicted that two-thirds of Tibet’s glaciers will be eliminated. The melt from the Himalayas as a result of climate change has increased runoff for many of these rivers, but this increased river supply will only last as long as the glacial melt does. Dams have been built on many of the tributaries of the major rivers throughout Asia which ultimately affects the flow in these major rivers. The likely implications of glacial melt and damming on the major rivers sourced in Tibet will play a significant role in regional food and water security.

Tibetan rivers

The Salween

The Salween is the region’s largest free-flowing river, and is one of the major rivers not yet affected by damming. China has recently released its latest energy plan, which does not include new dams on the Nu River (as the river is known in China) that it previously considered building. There are currently plans in Myanmar, driven by Chinese and Thai investment, for the construction of seven dams along the river. These plans have been met with resistance from environmental protestors, and by those in the proposed dam areas that will be displaced. The locations of the dam sites are in parts of the country that are home to ethnic minority groups who generally have hostile relations with the central government.

The Yarlung Tsangpo/ Brahmaputra

China’s Zangmu Dam became operational in October 2015. The dam lies along the upper reaches of the Yarlung Tsangpo (known as the Brahmaputra in India). Due to its close proximity to India, the dam may trigger floods in the Indian state of Assam during the rainy season and, in the worst case scenario, could cause parts of the Brahmaputra to dry up during winter. In this event, downstream agriculture will be seriously affected and soil salinity will increase.

The Gyatsa and the Zhongda Dam are in construction along the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet. China also has plans for two more dams along the river. Dam construction along the Yarlung Tsangpo is opposed by India because of the effects it will have on its own hydropower projects. Chinese plans to divert water would reduce water flow, damaging agriculture, ecology, lives, and the livelihoods of up to 1.3 billion people downstream in India and Bangladesh.

Predictions expect India and Bangladesh’s combined total population to surpass that of China within a decade. Rapid population growth downstream is likely to contribute to increasing water demands which, in turn, could severely heighten Sino-Indian tension. Geopolitical tension between the two major powers of Asia greatly increases the potential for conflict in the region.

The Brahmaputra and the Ganges

Bangladesh will experience a serious threat to its water supply by Chinese and Indian activities upstream. The Brahmaputra and Ganges River (or the Padma River, as it is known in Bangladesh) merge in Bangladesh to form the Meghna River, which flows into the Bay of Bengal. While the headwaters of the Ganges River do not commence in Tibet, the significant number of people that rely on this river, coupled with its flow into the Brahmaputra, mean that the Ganges is still a significant force that must be considered in ensuring future food and water security.

Indian damming of the Ganges River has already reduced its flow downstream. Soil salinity in Bangladesh has increased as a result, seriously damaging agriculture. Thousands of Bangladeshis have been forced to relocate to north-east India and, due to the demographic composition of the area, there have been serious ethnic conflicts. Chinese dam construction upstream has also had grim consequences downstream. Bangladesh has little capacity to challenge its upper riparians, yet further reductions in its water supply may continue to create grounds for internal conflict.

Parts of India and China are stressed for water which contributes to tensions between the two countries. Climate change, depleting aquifers, rapid population growth and urbanisation are placing pressure on scarce water resources within the two countries. Tibet has remained an underlying issue that affects Sino-Indian relations. Coupled with on-going border disputes over Arunachal Pradesh, tension over water has continued to strengthen since China began constructing dams upstream.

The Indus and the Sutlej

Climate change could alter the situation on the ground and affect the fragile relationship between India and Pakistan. As the rivers of the Indus Basin originate in the mountains of Tibet, they are influenced by the melting of glaciers in that region. There are concerns that the Indus could become a seasonal river by 2040, which would make the Pakistani Punjab increasingly prone to drought. Climate change also has the potential to increase the severity of extreme weather events, which could lead to more devastating floods, such as those that occurred in 2010.

Unless the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) is revised, climate change has the potential to complicate the existing allocation of water. While the region has always been prone to floods and drought, changed weather patterns could result in more frequent and destructive extreme weather events. Such conditions could prove to be a factor that pushes India and Pakistan into conflict, particularly since Pakistani hardliners often accuse the upper riparian of contributing to, or engineering, major floods. They claim that the only way to ensure that similar disasters are averted is to “liberate” Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir by force. Such views are held by only a small portion of the Pakistani population but, as glacial melt is likely to increase the potential for flooding in the coming decades, it is a view that might come to be adopted by more in the community.

The Sutlej is one of the rivers under the IWT that has been allocated to India. Under the IWT, India has exclusive use of this river before it enters Pakistan (Pakistan, too, has exclusive use of some of the other rivers flowing between the countries). India uses much of this water for irrigation and power plants. Given that the Sutlej later joins with the Indus in Pakistan, water does flow into Pakistan, but the flow is at risk of being compromised under Indian control in the upper reaches of the river.

Food Security, Surface Water and Transboundary Tensions

Food security is heavily entwined with water security. If the flow of a river dries up earlier upstream, this has the potential to affect agricultural activities relying on surface water in lower riparian countries.

Pakistan, India and the Indus River

One of the functions of the IWT is to set out provisions that govern the use of surface water between Pakistan and India. The countries are both agrarian economies, meaning that agricultural production is a significant factor in ensuring the livelihoods for millions of people. Water logging, salinity and land degradation threaten the productive capabilities of Pakistan’s agricultural sector. In 2012, 90 per cent of Pakistan’s food grains and 100 per cent of its fruits, vegetables, sugarcane, cotton and rice crops were produced from irrigated water. Recent statistics are difficult to come by but, in 2008, 6.91 million hectares of Pakistan’s 19.27 million hectares of irrigated land used surface water.  This figure was larger than the amount accounted for by groundwater, which provides irrigation water for 4.13 million hectares. While the deficit in water supply may be met by pumping groundwater, this solution will only be viable until the dwindling supply of water in aquifers depletes. It is clear that any alteration to Pakistan’s water supply from the Indus River will have an effect on the country’s future food security.

It is crucial that both countries also consider the role of climate change for long-term food security. The flow of the Indus river system depends largely on glacial meltwater from the Tibetan Plateau, and while increased glacial melt may increase river flow in the short term, the availability of surface water in the long term may decrease drastically. For India, the waters of the Indus Basin also play a significant role in ensuring productivity in India’s critical agricultural region. If the Indus river flow were to be jeopardised by any means, it is likely that both Pakistan and Indian food security will be threatened to varying degrees. There are likely to be heightened tensions between the two countries if they both become desperate for irrigation water that is currently sourced from the Indus River.

Bangladesh, India and the Brahmaputra and the Ganges

The Ganges-Brahmaputra basin is the largest basin within India, and contributes 59 per cent of India’s water resources. While India does not have a problem with the quantity of its physical supply of water, much of its food insecurity stems from the mismanagement of its food and water resources. If India finds itself unable to increase its current food security by improving its methods of production, it may continue to extract more water from the river system to produce greater quantities of food. This is likely to have an adverse effect on downstream Bangladesh, particularly when Bangladesh already experiences higher than average levels of food insecurity.

Rice and wheat are the staple crops produced throughout the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin. The crops require a large amount of water to produce and, during the dry season, rely on irrigation. Because the population of India and Bangladesh continues to increase, demand for these grains also continues to rise. Most of the land suitable for agricultural production in Bangladesh and India has already been cultivated, meaning that to meet this increased demand they must better utilise land resources. While irrigation technology may continue to develop within the region, any threat to the basin’s water supply will challenge future food security efforts. Similar to the Indus River basin, the impact of climate change on water resources in India and Bangladesh is likely to affect agricultural production in the future.

Easing the Tension

In 1997, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational uses of International Watercourses (UN Water Convention, UNWC) was established by one hundred countries as an international legal framework for the governance of transboundary watercourses. China, however, voted against the UNWC on the grounds that the convention did not support its territorial sovereignty. India and Pakistan abstained, while Bhutan and Myanmar were absent at the time of the vote. Bangladesh, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam voted in favour of the convention. The results of the 1997 UNWC demonstrate the difficulty in achieving regional co-operation when downstream countries have a strong interest in ensuring water sources are protected, yet upstream countries hold different territorial concerns. Zhang Hongzhou, Associate Research Fellow at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, argues that Chinese reluctance to sign multilateral water co-operation agreements signals Beijing’s desire for water control within Asia, despite the detrimental implications this could have for downstream riparians.

Population growth throughout the world to 2050 is predicted to occur mainly in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Over 90 per cent of the population of South and South-East Asia either live in poverty or are susceptible to it. Increasing population growth rates and urbanisation will only further threaten food and water security, and is likely to increase the number of people living in poverty. Without fair agreements governing the sustainable development and equal distribution of water flowing through Asia’s major transboundary rivers, the potential for conflict is significantly heightened.

Integrated basin management is imperative between riparians with headwaters originating in the Tibetan Plateau. Creating a shared perception of the tragedy of the commons problem between riparians will create win-win outcomes, and has a greater chance of encouraging Chinese co-operation. Although China is more likely to rely on bilateral agreements where it can harness its power over riparians more effectively, transboundary water co-operation cannot be holistically managed through bilateral actions alone. The threat to regional food and water security must be at the forefront of Asian co-operation to minimise the risk of potential conflict.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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