Lurking beneath the mosaic of geopolitical tensions in Asia is a wellspring of conflict over one of humanityís most fundamental needs: water. For the 1.3 billion people living in southwest China and the northern reaches of Southeast Asia, rivers are fixtures of local economies and cultures. In recent years, demand for water has skyrocketed due to the regionís relentless economic development and population expansion, while supply is expected to dwindle over the next few decades due to the effects of changing climate patterns.

Compounding this dire scarcity, water is being increasingly politicized due to the transnational nature of these major rivers. Since accessible water resources are integral to life in general and the regionís agricultural economies specifically, disputes over fair usage of these shared rivers have become critical challenges in regional diplomacy. More than ever, the policies and politics of countries in this region are being woven together in an inextricable web of dependency. In some ways, these river conflicts are manifestations of the regionís foreign policy dynamics in another form. Though some fear that these river conflicts may turn into armed conflicts, certain international treaties have provided a sustainable framework for water management that serve as a glimmer of hope for conflict resolution in a region that is perpetually plagued with hostility.

Strategically, China has a distinct advantage in terms of water resources because eight of the regionís major rivers originate in the Tibetan Plateau of the western part of the country. These rivers, in turn, serve 1.8 billion people ranging from Pakistan to Vietnam. The crucial element in these river conflicts is the power dynamic between upstream and downstream countries. Many countries like China and India have pursued aggressive programs of dam construction on these rivers to harness hydroelectric power and to manage water levels during flooding seasons. These policies have rippling effects downstream because riparian countries that share the river fear reductions in their water supply due to upstream manipulation.

Within the next five years, China plans to meet fifteen percent of its energy consumption needs from alternative energy sources, and so hydroelectric generation is a top policy priority. The Mekong River alone supplies water to 325 million people living in China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. China has already built three major dams on the Mekong River, which in turn have the potential to send ripples of side effects downstream. By altering water levels, these projects can disrupt rice production and fuel local resentment as far downstream as Vietnamís Mekong delta region. Public opinion in many of the Mekong Riverís basin countries pins China as a scapegoat for economic and agricultural problems. In 1995, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam established the Mekong River Commission to facilitate policy collaboration on transnational water usage. Strikingly, China is not a member, though it has been receptive to dialogue. Another river basin in which China has played a polarizing role is the Brahmaputra, which originates in the Tibetan Plateau and flows through Assam in India before entering Bangladesh. In November 2010, China began construction on the Zangmu Dam on the Brahmaputra, which is estimated to cost US$1.2 billion. India fears that China might eventually try to divert the Brahmaputra towards its eastern provinces, thereby cutting off one of Indiaís essential water sources. Though there has been much debate as to the technical feasibility of such an endeavor, the possibility of this type of upstream manipulation has continued to foment uneasiness between the two economic powers.

The most fascinating aspect of these river conflicts is that countries often have different positions in the regionís wide array of upstream-downstream links. While India is downstream of China, India is upstream of Pakistan in its contentious border regions. Transnational river conflicts have only exacerbated the dire state of diplomatic and military relations between India and Pakistan. The Pakistanis, for example, bitterly resent the Baglihar Dam in India, which generates hydroelectric energy for Jammu and Kashmir. In the border regions, there are an estimated thirty-three hydroelectric projects under construction. For Pakistan, the Indus River, which originates in India, forms both the geological and agricultural backbone of the country, as it supplies water for fifty-four million acres of irrigated lands through the heart of the country. Fears over manipulation of the Indus River at the hands of India upstream have polarized public opinion in Pakistan.

Despite the persistence of these river conflicts, international norms and legal frameworks have been developed over the years to manage transnational water resources. In 1997, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. Though it still lacks the requisite signatories to be ratified as a treaty, this agreement enshrines general principles that have been accepted in the realm of international water jurisprudence. In a situation in which multiple countries share a waterway, each countryís actions concerning the river must be reasonable and equitable to ensure that one countryís water usage does not inflict significant harm on other countries. The prevailing paradigm of transnational waterway conduct disapproves of unilateral actions and instead requires countries to notify, consult, and negotiate with other countries that might be affected by river policies. This UN agreement was the product of decades of conflict and arbitration. As early as 1960, India and Pakistan signed the Indus Treaty under the auspices of the World Bank. This treaty divided certain rivers in the border region between the two countries and established a Permanent Indus Commission with a representative from each country who has extensive arbitration powers. Even in times of war, neither side has revoked this treaty, which is a testament to its remarkable resiliency that stems from its sturdy arbitration framework. In recent years, however, this treaty has been tested by controversies like that of the Baglihar Dam.

South Asiaís rivers are both a blessing and a curse. In an era where alternative energy sources are prized, the regionís rivers have the potential to generate significant quantities of hydroelectric power. This energy source is not only essential to meeting the demands of industrialization, but it also critical to supporting South Asiaís population of 1.5 billion that the World Bank projects will grow at an annual rate of 1.7 percent. But in the race to harness the power of these rivers, countries have taken unilateral actions that are fomenting tensions and threatening regional security. This region is proceeding at a two-tiered pace of economic and political change, as its dynamic economic growth has been met with stagnant political systems. As this region becomes more interconnected, governments must develop multilateral arbitration methods within the framework of treaties to ensure that South Asiaís great rivers will change from wellsprings of conflict to wellsprings of prosperity.

Staff Writer Tianhao He