A Divining Rod for Conflict: The Dangers of Faltering Water Infrastructure in Asian Metropolises

As the world changes around us, we are soon to be thrust into a future in which the availability of a particular natural resource that has formed the foundations of every human civilization throughout history is being called into question: water. At the end of 2016, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon spoke to diplomats gathered in Marrakech for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, gravely warning them that “no country, irrespective of its size or strength, is immune from the impacts of climate change, and no country can afford to tackle the climate challenge alone.” Indeed, the world is gradually becoming united in recognizing the importance of protecting our water resources, with 90% of countries referencing agricultural development as important to alleviating the stresses of climate change. Undoubtedly, the rural poor who conduct most of the agricultural work in these countries are among the most at risk and most egregiously affected by water scarcity because it constitutes not only a human necessity for them, but also a foundation of their livelihood. Yet, the ramifications of water scarcity are growing and encroaching on urban metropolises at a rate that will threaten significantly larger subsets of the population in the near future. While many leaders have focused on the impact of rural water scarcity, soon-to-be thirsting urban populaces will force their political representatives to address the equally vital topic of water scarcity in urban areas of Asia.

The urgency of addressing this growing threat to our planet cannot be denied when one listens to José Graziano da Silva, Director-General the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, who espouses that “from California to China’s eastern provinces and from Jordan to the southern tip of Africa, an estimated four billion people – almost two-thirds of the global population – live with severe water shortages for at least some of the time.” This problem becomes specifically pronounced in Asia when one considers that more than half of all 29 megacities (defined by the United Nations as a city with a population of more than 10 million people) are located in Asia. As our global populace urbanizes and begins to self-stratify to cities, population centers accelerate in growth to placate the need for concentrated labor sources in developing Asian economies. Population division to cities does not always align with the natural distribution of water resources, resulting in 1/3 of the global population currently living with consistent and reliable access to clean drinking water. With the populations of cities around the world projected to continue to grow, so too grows the preeminent importance of planning secure urban water supplies to quench all of these new mouths so that states are not forced to resort to violence.

It is important to differentiate between the problems caused by demand, called “water stress,” and scarcity driven by overflowing population, called “water shortage.” While economies of scale create the potential for sweeping water resource sustainability projects, megacities have not always adapted to the rapidly approaching threat of water scarcity well. With our global aquifers depleting and ice caps melting, the clock is ticking to find a solution to water stress driven by the massive populations of metropolises which will soon have serious political and human security implications – especially in Asia where the majority of these megacities lie. The first step to combatting water stress is evaluating how urgent the problem has become. With many Asian cities operating with an incredibly low buffer for water scarcity in the future, the problem of water shortage has accelerated to the point that it will pose a serious threat to the lives of tens of millions of people in Asia’s megacities if not dealt with imminently.

With a low buffer for error, many Asia metropolises are forced to wrestle with water shortage earlier than they are prepared for, which elevates the importance of the issue in the eyes of local bureaucrats but also can result in short-term stopgap solutions. Water shortage is a problem of both preparedness and infrastructure, the shortcomings of both of which were highlighted by the recent incursion of El Niño’s scorching weather patterns throughout Southeast Asia. In July of 2015, city authorities in Bangkok warned that taps may be shut off, as dams supplying the megacity with water see their usual water level of 8 billion cubic meters of water being reduced to a scant 660 million cubic meters of water. Residents were instructed to keep a reserve store of 60 liters of water on hand in case the city was no longer able to provide running water. This water stress resulted, at least partially, from poor infrastructure, for Thailand’s water is collected from rivers which become unusable in times of drought when salt water levels rise leaving the city unequipped to treat. Kuala Lumpur experienced similar strife during a period of dry weather in 2014 that was brought on from the fact that the entirety of the nation’s water comes from surface sources. These examples highlight the tribulations incurred by inadequate preparation, giving us a spyglass to a not-so-distant future if the proper steps are not taken to fight water shortage.

More than half of the world’s urban population now lives in Asian cities. If water stress remains unaddressed in these population centers, it’s possibly violent effects may likely become more pronounced and more serious. As massive population centers struggle to match the pace of their solutions to rapidly approaching water scarcity, it can easily become a conflict resource. Roughly 260 rivers run across borders through two or more Asian countries, and few treaties dictate who owns the rights to use the water from the river basins many nations rely upon. This ambiguity is bound to result in conflict as we move forward into the new world of water scarcity. Furthermore, in situations where water is scarce problems with water quality often follow, so we may end up fighting wars for water we are even apprehensive to drink. Infrastructure in cities must be expanded and modernized to bulwark against shocks to the system wrought from human-influenced changes in weather patterns.

The majority of responses to water stress have been classified by recent research in the International Journal of Water Resources Development as “crisis management.” Yet, the problem with addressing a crisis is that the crisis is seen as an isolated problem to be resolved. When the crisis dissipates, any potential long term solutions to urban water scarcity evaporate with the passing crisis. City administrations are apt to deal with a problem when it is being thrust in their face by citizens who incur the immediate effects of a water shortage, but to truly handle the threat posed by water stress in megacities, urban governments must look farther than just the next conflict to bulwark against the centuries of water strife that will likely follow. In Marrakech the UN Secretary General called for the world to become more resilient, and that is exactly what countries must do. Even if droughts end, the ever-exacerbated problem of global climate change is here to stay and we must adapt our solutions to water stress as such. As our ground water depletes and rivers stop running, securing readily available water resources for population centers is key to preventing a future wrought with water-incited conflicts.

The potentially violent political ramifications of water stress in megacities can neither be downplayed nor ignored as they have the potential to become the largest drivers of conflict in the developing world. The history of China, where in the near future there will be nine cities qualifying as megacities, illustrates that “he who controls the water controls the people.” This holds true throughout the nation’s history, from the first emperor, who tamed the country’s rivers with canals, to Mao Zedong who constructed more than 80,000 dams. Marvyn Piesse, a Research Analyst at Future Directions International argues that “to maintain a hold on political power, maintain control over water.” If the grasp governments have on their water resources evaporate, so too will the governments unless they can ascertain ways to modernize and prevent shortages from turning into lasting conflicts. A world where water wars occur is often posited as a threat for the future, but few realize that it is a world we already live in. From Golan Heights to the Kashmir Glacier, the locations of water resources have contributed to conflicts for longer than is often recognized. The presence of water on land adds and additional layer of complexity to conflicts often viewed as purely territorial, for with control over aquafers comes control of the people who drink from them. Water is a resource that is inherently unevenly distributed, and when that fact is combined with inept and unstable political regimes, the propensity for conflict is high. The likelihood of larger and more widespread water-driven conflicts is more than the impetus we need to actively take a role in bulwarking against water insecurity in metropolises for the future.

To fight water stress in megacity population centers, strides must be made in three key sectors: water resources must be diversified, water infrastructure must be updated to accommodate ballooning populations, and efficiency and austerity must be introduced into water use itself. In China, efforts are being made to construct “sponge” cities, which diversify the water supply of cities to include stormwater. Many cities in China have experienced difficulties from the huge amount of concrete used in their construction, but through strategic placement, and careful urban planning and interspersing of water-collecting city parks, new cities in China are able to rely less on water from ground and surface sources and rely more on the water readily available falling from the skies for needs from toilet flushing to being purified for drinking water. The new cities hold such promise that the Chinese government has promised to fund the construction of 16 sponge cities in the near future. Singapore has similarly set an example for how to diversify water resources, implementing the “Four National Taps” policy to ensure that water comes from four different sources. While half of the country’s water comes from Malaysia, they also desalinate saltwater, collect rainwater through a system of canals and ponds, and have a sewage system with two water reclamation plants. In India, sewage reclamation has become a pillar of its water resource. Between 70-80% of domestically used water originates as wastewater before it is treated in one of 234 sewage water treatment plants. This system is crucial as India accounts for 4% of the world’s water resources but constitutes 16% of the world’s population. In the megacity of Bangalore, they fought back against 48% of their water being sent through their pipes being unaccounted for by installing approximately 4,000 sensors in their pipes and pumping helium through their pipes to find leakages to be able to address them as soon as they are identified. Phnom Penh in Cambodia is a prime example of the benefits of implementing water austerity all the way up from the infrastructure. In 1993, only 20% of the city had access to running water, and that was only available for 10 hours a day, but by cutting down on the 70% leakage they were experiencing in their pipes and cracking down on corruption to eliminate illegal connections they were able to extend reliable water access to include 90% of the city. By today, under careful leadership, the city has 24/7 access to clean water, five times the treatment capacity, and a water loss rate of only 6.63%. Some other cities are taking their infrastructure systems to the next level, such as Hoi An, Vietnam, which plans to install a smart water sensor system that can actively respond to the changing water needs of the population. Some scholars go further than to recommend modernizing infrastructure and instead recommend that we start constructing new infrastructure through dams and canals. Only be pursuing solutions such as those discussed above that transcend the parameters of passing dilemmas can we buttress against future water wars driven by human-influenced climate change.

The threats to our water supply can be dealt with in an urban environment, as demonstrated by the examples above, through a combination of diversifying water sources, updating water infrastructure, and eliminating waste. These changes are crucial to Asia megacities, who are a window into what our rapidly urbanizing future will look like. Without adequately accommodating for obstacles to come, water wars could become more than a possibility; they could become an inevitability.


Andrew Fallone

About Andrew Fallone

Andrew is the Marketing Director for the World Mind, as well as a contributing editor, and a staff writer for the Asia column. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he is in D.C. pursuing degrees in International Relations and German. He is currently interning with the Embassy of the Principality of Liechtenstein.