The Tibetan Plateau and the surrounding Hindu Kush-Himalayan regions, also known as the “Asian water tower,” is the source of 10 major Asian rivers. Abundant glacier ice reservoirs and alpine lakes feed an extended river system encompassing the Yellow, Yangtze, Indus, Mekong, Salween, Ganges, Yarlung Zangbo, Amu Darya, Syr Darya and Tarim rivers, supplying freshwater to downstream areas. Holding the world’s third-largest global reservoir of snow and ice after the Arctic and Antarctica, the area provides nearly 2 billion people with freshwater, meaning that around 25 percent of the Earth’s population depends on the region.
Recent studies demonstrate that climate change is significantly affecting the region, not just in the short term but also causing significant long-term hydrological, socio-economic, humanitarian, and security challenges. The region has warmed at rates considerably higher than the global average, disrupting the water cycle. Annual and seasonal temperatures have increased more at higher elevation zones, while precipitation patterns have shifted, rising in the northwest but decreasing in the south. At the same time, glaciers are shrinking, groundwater is depleting, permafrost is degrading, and snow cover days are dwindling.
In addition to this, a recently published study found a significant imbalance in the “Asian water tower,” caused by changes in the westerlies (prevailing winds) and Indian monsoons, accelerating the transformation of ice and snow into liquid water. By 2100, estimates suggest that over one-third of Hindu Kush-Himalayan glaciers will have melted, while the glaciers of major Asian transnational rivers – the Brahmaputra, Ganges, and Indus – will have shrunk by more than 20 percent, thereby impacting the seasonality and hydrology of the river systems. Although total water volume will increase in the short term (due to the shrinking of glaciers) and likely cause floods, the absence of glacier melt without being replenished to historical sizes will have far more devastating effects in the long term than any short-term gain. While this will cause an increase in water (temporarily) in the north, it will also result in a decrease in the water supply in the south. As global warming further exacerbates this imbalance, water scarcity in the Yellow and Yangtze River basins in China is expected to be alleviated; in contrast, water scarcity in the Indus and Amu Darya River basins will be exacerbated.
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Implications for Asia and the Growing China-India Water Rivalry
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In Asia, water and water-related challenges are notably severe. While the region is home to more than 50 percent of the global population, it has less freshwater – 3,920 cubic meters per person per year – than other continents, aside from Antarctica. As the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding region’s glacier melt and mountain springs provide a significant supply of water flowing out of China to many downstream countries in Asia, it is an incredibly important region. Yet recent studies demonstrate that climate change is impacting Asia’s water insecurity by reshaping future water availability. From 2050, water availability will decrease in most rivers. Given the reliance of downstream countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, as well as most of Southeast Asia, on shared water resources for development, agricultural production, and drinking, the worsening of a water resources imbalance will likely heighten water insecurity in the downstream region.
Moreover, this could worsen the region’s significant humanitarian, economic, security, and environmental concerns. One potential impact of melting glaciers on regional security is the risk of water scarcity. As the Tibetan Plateau glaciers melt, they may provide less water during the dry season, leading to water shortages in some areas. This could even result in disputes or conflict between countries over shared access to water, especially if one country relies on the Tibetan Plateau for its water supply. Another potential impact is the risk of natural disasters such as landslides and flash floods. As the glaciers melt, they can create large amounts of runoff, increasing the risk of landslides and flash floods in the region. These natural disasters can cause significant damage to infrastructure and crops and disputes between countries over how to address and mitigate the impacts.
Additionally, the melting of Tibetan Plateau glaciers could have significant implications for regional security. As the Tibetan Plateau is a vital water source for many countries in the region, including China, India, and Nepal, changes in water availability could lead to tensions between these countries. Further complicating water security issues, there are growing water tensions between China and India. China, the “upstream superpower” of many of Asia’s longest and most important rivers and regional hydro-hegemon, does not have an independent transboundary river policy. Instead, the management of transnational water resources falls under the much broader framework of foreign relations with various downstream countries. Given China’s distrust of multilateral frameworks to resolve international disputes, Beijing has not signed a water-sharing with its neighbors or an international transboundary-governing water treaty, causing concern in the downstream region over the potential for conflict over access to and control of shared water resources. Some of China’s neighbors have not signed these agreements either.
China’s primary approach to water management is engineering-focused, including the construction of hydropower dams which can impact water supply by affecting river flow to the downstream region. Given that many of China’s hydropower dams are located in Tibet on the upstream of transnational rivers like the Brahmaputra River, downstream countries like India raised alarm due to potential geopolitical and hydro political repercussions. As Tibet is the origin of the headwaters of most of Asia’s major rivers, there are fears that China could use this infrastructure to “turn off the tap,” reducing or entirely halting the water flow to downstream countries. Such fears are made worse by various ambitious proposals to divert the upstream of transnational rivers. While Beijing has rejected these proposals, it does want to exploit the hydropower resources in the Brahmaputra’s upstream through hydro infrastructure, including a potential “super dam.”
Furthermore, through the Belt and Road Initiative, China has been investing heavily in the hydropower sectors of neighboring countries, including many countries in South Asia. Some of the ongoing hydropower projects are located in international rivers and disputed territories, triggering concerns from other regional countries. For instance, some of China’s hydropower investments in Pakistan under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor have been met with protests by India.
Meanwhile, India has also received criticism for its own hydropower ambitions and often competing plans. India’s role in transboundary governance has received growing scrutiny. India frequently accuses China of hydro-hegemonic behavior and exacerbating water stress through unilateral mega hydro-engineering infrastructure projects on the upper reaches of cross-border rivers.
On the one hand, India has been accused of undertaking the same actions to downstream countries Bangladesh and Pakistan and on the same rivers. New Delhi’s $1.18 billion Pakal Dul hydropower facility, expected to be completed in 2023, is built on the Marusudar river, the largest tributary of the transboundary Chenab River, which crosses from India into Pakistan. Observers suggest that the hydropower facility will improve India’s energy security while reducing Pakistan’s ability to build similar facilities on its side of the border.
On the other hand, like China, India is also a significant hydropower investor in the region, particularly in South Asia. It has significantly invested in South Asia’s hydropower projects, particularly in Bhutan and Nepal. While these investments have helped to increase the availability of electricity and have contributed to economic development in these countries, there are also concerns regarding India’s control over these countries’ water and power supplies. One example of India’s hydropower investment in South Asia is the Chukha Hydroelectric Project in Bhutan. This project, completed in 1988, has a capacity of 336 megawatts and is Bhutan’s largest hydropower plant. It generates electricity primarily exported to India, and its revenue has been a significant source of income for Bhutan.
Nevertheless, there are growing economic, environmental, and social concerns about India’s dominance of Bhutan’s hydropower sector. Accusations have been levied against Indian hydropower companies engaging in related sectors in Bhutan but not creating enough employment opportunities for Bhutanese citizens. As a result, Indo-Bhutan hydropower dynamics have created opportunities for Chinese hydropower investment to make inroads in Bhutan. Meanwhile, in recent years, Nepal has been redirecting hydropower projects worth billions of dollars from Chinese developers to Indian companies. For instance, in August 2022, Nepal signed a pact with an Indian company NHPC to develop a hydroelectric plant in the west of the nation years after a Chinese firm backed out.
Transboundary Water Governance Needs to be Improved
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Transboundary water governance, particularly cross-border river governance, is one of this century’s most pressing concerns. In Asia, the absence of effective and sustainable governance mechanisms between countries is a key challenge to transboundary water governance. This is particularly the case for rivers that cross both sub-national or domestic political borders and international ones.
Increasing water demand is one of the biggest regional challenges countries will face in transboundary governance. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the highest water demand at present is in the Indus basin (approximately 299 gigatons annually), while the lowest is in the Salween basin (around 5.1 gigatons annually). However, by 2050, total water demand is expected to increase by 11 percent. By 2090, total water demand is projected to increase by 18 percent. Given the water demands each riparian country will continue to place on the shared river basins, how can shared water resources be efficiently, sustainably, and equitably governed? How will countries respond if water demand in the region far outstrips supply?
In response to these interlinked concerns, apart from the more substantial implementation of water demand management measures, undertaking benefit-sharing initiatives, strengthening regional/cross-border basin-wide research networks, and improving water quality upstream and downstream, two crucial but often overlooked areas need rethinking. The first is the role of the agricultural sector in water governance. Agriculture is the biggest water user (agriculture irrigation accounts for 70 percent of water use worldwide) and one of the leading causes of water pollution. Poor agricultural practices, such as the over-application of fertilizers and pesticides, can contaminate freshwater resources and cause water degradation. In addition, governments must re-evaluate policies aimed at achieving food self-sufficiency or encouraging food exports against the water impacts. For some countries, rather than relying on water transfer projects to produce food domestically or for export, international trade can increase global food availability and reduce regional water stress. This is an important step towards sustainable water management.
The second is the link between the regional country’s hydropower development ambitions and regional water conflicts. Hydropower has positive and negative implications for climate change and transboundary river conflict. Considered key to reducing carbon emissions, hydropower has been prioritized by countries such as India and China, which have ambitious plans to cut coal consumption and achieve a carbon peak timeline. However, building hydropower plants and hydropower reservoirs can also contribute to carbon emissions, while frequent climate shocks have significantly increased the uncertainty and unreality of hydropower as a power source. Furthermore, hydropower development can adversely affect river ecosystems and cause water shortages further downstream, potentially leading to water conflicts or disagreements between countries. Careful management of hydropower resources is essential to ensure its positive impacts on climate change and avoid transboundary river conflicts.