Water Wars and Humanitarian Crises in Asia

By: Jon Farley
Approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes

One half of the world’s population lives within Southeast Asia. The natural resources that allowed massive populations in past generations are now being stretched to their limit as those nations are industrializing. While regions such as the Middle East have struggled with water for decades, Southern Asia is facing a water crisis on a scale that cannot be matched in scope and impact to population. Current policy decisions and preparation will determine the way ahead; however, it remains likely that the next generation of Western militaries will spend their careers performing peacekeeping roles in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. Rather than anti-piracy operations like those in the Gulf of Aden, peacekeeping operations will deter state-sponsored threats and defend key lines of communication to secure life-sustaining resources, specifically water, for billions of citizens.

Scarcity, Tension, and the HKH

The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) provides water to a quarter of the world’s population [Fig 1]. To put that into perspective, the HKH is the sole water source for a population larger than North America, South America, and Europe, where rising economic superpowers – China and India – are pitted against each other for the same resources; not to mention India’s religious and ethnic rival to the west, Pakistan. Previous articles have discussed the challenges facing the Middle East, primarily in unsustainable groundwater withdraws, but more researchers are raising alarms about the HKH’s ability to provide sustainable water across its entire watershed.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain OperationsFigure 1. Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) Watershed

In the eastern HKH, economic development in China and India will overwhelm their available freshwater by 2025 – five years from now – with India needing 10 times their total available freshwater in 2100. Likewise, China suffers from quantity shortages as well as quality. While China closely guards information and its estimates regarding freshwater availability vary greatly, up to 80% of China’s water may be unsuitable for human consumption due to industrial pollution. On the western stretches of the HKH, battles for controlling the headwaters in Kashmir continue between India and Pakistan. Tensions between these nations date back to the British Empire with no release in sight. At sea, Chinese oil passes through the entire length of the Indian ocean, from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Malacca, having to sail around the length of the Indian subcontinent. Because of this, China has invested heavily in ports in both Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Both of these countries are now heavily in debt to China.

Factors Straining the HKH

Agriculture accounts for an average of 90% of water usage in the HKH watersheds. China is the exception and uses 65% of water for agriculture and 25% for industry. If less developed nations like Pakistan and India replicate China’s industrialization, their water withdrawals would rapidly increase to match China’s usage increasing the strain on an already stressed water supply.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain OperationsFigure 2. River Ganga Pollution

Further compounding the challenge, in India alone, 344 million people practice open defecation. An estimated 200,000 people die each year from water-borne diseases. Polluted water contributes to half of India’s morbidity. The Asian Development Research Institute estimates that 70% of India’s surface water is not fit for consumption, ranging from the aforementioned lack of sanitation to pollutants such as iron, arsenic, and nitrates.

Environmental Resilience

Resilience is a clichéd word today; however, it remains salient in relation to environmental preparation. All organizations face shocks and uncertainty over their lifespan. For a company, failure to adapt may result in bankruptcy and an economic loss for investors. For countries in Southern Asia, failure to adapt to increasing populations and decreasing water availability may result in the loss of millions of lives and potential conflict between nuclear-armed countries.

Political scientist, Aaron Wildavsky wrote of the distinction between anticipation and resilience, but more importantly the appropriate use of each. Anticipation is the effort to predict and prevent dangers before damage occurs, whereas resilience is the capacity to cope with unanticipated dangers after they have manifested. The distinction in these cases is known versus unknown dangers. When a risk can be properly identified, then the appropriate response is anticipation to create stability when the risk occurs. In the face of unknown or multiple risks, resilience through high levels of slack resources – or surplus during a ‘normal’ environment – may result in less organizational stability, but it offers the option to “bend, but not break.”

Since both anticipation and resilience often compete for limited resources, organizations are forced to choose between the two options. Certainly, preparation for risks would seem appropriate in any situation; however, if preparation for one risk opens a vulnerability to another, then the desired end is not achieved. Furthermore, stability through intense preparation could lead to a ‘rigidity’ which does not allow for resilience in a time of uncertainty.

So why does this distinction matter? Water is almost impossible to move in large quantities, beyond natural river flows. If India faces a drought in one region, there is no infrastructure available to move water from another. Therefore, no ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy will work in as geographically diverse of an area as southern Asia. Solutions must be regional in nature, not just for the upriver state, but also states further downstream.

Herein lies the problem. As the US learned from the great toilet paper run of 2020, one person’s “preparation” affects another person’s resilience. Anticipation through the building of dams and reservoirs in one region directly affects downriver riparian states, as has been seen in China’s damming of both the Brahmaputra and the Mekong rivers. Furthermore, China has refused to share water information, such as river levels, rainfall, and usage rates, for these countries to properly plan for river levels. If these countries, such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, do not know how much water will be available, they cannot build their own anticipatory or resilient systems. They are operating in the blind and just hoping there will still be water tomorrow.

Cooperation vs. Conflict

Rivers provide two different avenues for cooperation between states. Rivers allow for the inexpensive transportation of goods between two regions, as well as a natural border between states. Research has shown a curvilinear relationship between cooperation and water scarcity between states, meaning that when there is high slack in the water system, the states have little reason for cooperation, but as water scarcity increases, states have shown increased cooperation in the form of diplomatic relations and treaties. Much of this is because the cost of conflict does not outweigh the cost of cooperation, especially when reasonable agreements can be reached to alleviate the crisis.

Unfortunately, as scarcity increases to the point of environmental catastrophe, the risk of conflict spikes again due to domestic pressures over a basic human need. This highlights the necessity to implement good environmental policies and agreements while there is still slack in the system. In the HKH region, the economic benefits of industrialization have multiple draws on the system, both in water required for industry, but also the waste that pollutes otherwise useful water.


In previous decades, there was enough slack in these river systems to support large populations; however, industrialization has stretched these rivers to their limit. Since resilience is built around slack, without the surplus in the system, there is no ability to absorb droughts and water scarcity. China is artificially building slack in their system by depriving downriver riparian states in the short term, but they are also validating the threat of future withholdings. This places China in an asymmetrically powerful position. This lack of predictability creates instability in the lower riparian countries, leading to uncertainty and chaos in governance, environments, and economics.

Since China has shown a penchant for power politics in the South China Sea, there is substantial evidence that China uses similar tactics via its control of the origins of many rivers. The question is whether the downriver states will attempt to balance the power or acquiesce to Chinese regional control. For the US, there will be two primary outcomes that could involve military action, one preemptive and one reactive.

The first option is an alliance between ASEAN states and India to balance against a Chinese hegemony to force water agreements in the region. While this would require regional leadership, it would likely need American influence diplomatically, economically, and militarily to counteract Chinese asymmetry. This would induce political complications for governments who fear becoming perceived puppets of American influence, especially those governments that have taken anti-American stances over the past few years.

The second option is that the current trajectory continues without agreements, resulting in a series of humanitarian crises for unprepared countries. These crises could lead to a series of interventions from international organizations but would include the US military throughout the HKH region. This instability would likely ripple from one country to the next as a breakdown of basic human needs leads to domestic and interstate conflict. Unfortunately, this is the most likely scenario. There is little incentive for weaker nations to challenge a militarily and economically superior hegemony until it becomes existential.

Admittedly, there is an option for the US and its allies to invest in increasing water storage and distribution infrastructure in the region. India’s Secretary for the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation seeks to “[supply] all habitations with sustainable and sufficient drinking water by 2030.” Unfortunately, given the United Nations’ 2025 water scarcity projections, it is likely these efforts, even with American or Japanese investment, will fall short. Under the assumption that economic and diplomatic actions fail to prevent conflict, the US military must determine how it will address the challenge.

A Way Forward

If an ASEAN-Indian alliance chooses to balance Chinese influence and ask for American assistance, base access should increase correspondingly. However, there are many hurdles to this outcome that should be addressed. India is reticent to become a close ally with the US due to their historical memory of British colonialism and America’s traditional alliance with Pakistan. At the same time, Pakistan’s tenuous partnership in the War on Terror and ever-growing relationship with China, to include Chinese expansion in the port of Gwadar, makes basing in Pakistan equally unlikely.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain OperationsFigure 3. Basing in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea

The US does have access to the British-controlled island Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. However, it is geographically isolated and highlights the tyranny of distance in this region. In the last 10 years, competition has spiked dramatically as China successfully created economic dependencies with countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Djibouti, and traded this leverage for commercial and military expansion. The only other permanent US facility in this area is located just miles from the largest overseas Chinese base in Doraleh, Djibouti.

In Southeast Asia, the US has a history of presence and influence; however, that can be as much a detriment as a benefit to the local populations. The US has close ties to Thailand and Singapore. Yet, if ASEAN cannot ally due to the threat of Chinese influence, it is easy to see how these two countries could quickly take a neutral position, or worse, to shield themselves from Chinese retribution. Growing alliances with Indonesia and Vietnam provide potential expansion, but again this depends upon those countries’ willingness to invite American influence at the expense of their largest trading partner, China.

This uncertainty means the US needs to invest heavily in the ring around the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. India is likely to ask for increased support due to their desire to industrialize; however, the US will need infrastructure beyond India. There is growing resistance to Chinese intervention in the region, but it will be difficult to make planning assumptions from countries caught between two superpowers. If China successfully splinters these countries through unilateral agreements and military support, it is possible the US could be shut out of Southeast Asia entirely.

All of this is to say that due to increasing environmental degradation and withdrawals, the nations in the HKH region will soon face domestic pressures greater than any previously encountered. The US cannot allow the region to devolve into a series of humanitarian crises, but it will have little ability to support security and stability operations without established basing. The threat to stability in Southeastern Asia would be exorbitant without the ability to provide humanitarian assistance, not to mention other American economic interests within the region.

Some would argue that the United States should withdraw from this type of intervention; however, the US will likely be drawn into humanitarian relief missions on an unprecedented scale. But this will not be a situation like Somalia or Rwanda, it will be relief in “established” countries with massive populations. Unless trajectories change rapidly, America’s next generation of warfighters will spend most of their careers in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia.

CDR Jon “Tike” Farley is an F-18 Pilot with over 2,500 hours and multiple deployments to the 5th Fleet AOR, supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and Air Command and Staff College, and previously served as an editor for OTH.

Disclaimer: The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author. They do not reflect the official position of the US Government, Department of Defense, or the United States Navy.

Feature Image Source: Depiction of Global Population

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain Operations

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