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The Future of Asia: Forces of Change and Potential Surprises – Supplementary Report

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Cascading Water Supply Challenges

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What is it?
Why is it important?

What is it?

Former Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao once remarked that water shortages “threaten the very survival of the Chinese nation.”1

Increasing water scarcity in Asia is attributed to worsening pollution, unsustainable consumption due to changing lifestyles, droughts and climate change. The construction of dams, nuclear and coal power plants, and other megaprojects is diverting the natural flow of rivers, thereby exacerbating the problem. The problem is especially acute in densely populated areas in Asia, where water scarcity could create “water refugees,” increase black market water sales and pose serious institutional challenges.

The region’s three major river systems — the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra — sustain India and Pakistan’s breadbasket states and many of their major cities including New Delhi and Islamabad, as well as Bangladesh. Rapid and continuing urbanization will only exacerbate pollution and resource strain, particularly on surface water such as rivers. A 2012 U.S. intelligence report warns that fresh water supplies are unlikely to keep up with global demand by 2040.

The prevailing assumption is that people will co-operate over water rather than fight, however, past water conflicts and the lack of cooperative arrangements indicate that the risk for conflict around water issues is on the rise in Asia.

Why is it important?

Water supply issues could trigger or escalate geopolitical tensions, especially in the case of trans-boundary rivers, such as the Mekong and the Brahmaputra. Demand for fresh water that outstrips the available surface and groundwater may also lead to increased water trading, and increased use of desalination and filtration technologies. The trade-offs both between agricultural and industrial usage, and between water and energy needs, will present policy dilemmas for the economic growth objectives of many emerging economies in Asia.

With more reliance on water to generate energy, an excessive number of dams are being constructed in Asia. Out of the 57 transitional river basins only 4 have a co-operative or water sharing treaty. Increasing autonomous action, such as the building of new dams, is leading to heightened tensions between neighboring countries.2 The future of the world’s most famous mountain range – the Himalayas – is endangered by this regional race. China and India together have plans to build over 400 hydroelectric dams that will generate 160,000 megawatts of electricity. In the next 20 years, the Himalayas will be the most dammed region in the world.

Indian farmers will increase their use of ground water for irrigation as rivers become more polluted and river levels decline. The increased use of ground water may have a negative impact on salinity and soil quality, leading to a decline in agricultural output and further exacerbating food security concerns. According to the Asian Water Development Outlook 2013, saline soils are already estimated to affect almost 50% of irrigated areas in Turkmenistan, 23% in China, and 20% in Pakistan.

Investment in desalination and filtration technologies could offset some of the impact. Water technology and management companies will find Asia a highly receptive market over the next 15 years. For example, Singapore recently opened the region’s largest seawater desalination plan and is hoping to reduce its reliance on Malaysia for water supply.


  1. “Desperate measures.” The Economist. October 2013. http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21587789-desperate-measures(link is external)
  2. Chellaney, B. “From Arms Racing to ‘Dam Racing’ in Asia: How to contain the geopolitical risks of the dam-building competition.” Transatlantic Academy. May 2012. http://www.transatlanticacademy.org/publications/arms-racing-dam-racing-asia-how-contain-geopolitical-risks-dam-building-competition
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Policy Horizons | Horizons de politiques

Policy Horizons Canada, also referred to as Policy Horizons, is an organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.

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