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Water Conflicts at a Boiling Point in Southeast Asia

"Though land has historically been the focus of resource conflict, increasing water shortages combined with the insatiable demands of burgeoning populations, industry and agriculture are likely to prompt new conflicts. Ismail Serageldin, the first chairperson of the Global Water Partnership, declared in 1995, 'If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over wchange our approach to managing this precious and vital resource.'

"Changing river basin hydrology presents especially grave threats to agriculture, food security and livelihoods of marginal farmers. The recent drastic drop in water levels in the Mekong River, blamed by many on Chinese dam-building on upstream tributaries, has led to rising political tensions among the countries of the Mekong Basin, and threatens to destabilize the entire region. Yet, despite this stark warning of things to
come, more dams are planned in China, Lao PDR and Thailand. It seems inevitable that water conflicts in the region are set to intensify."

Implications from Institute for the Future:

Conflict resolution experts agree that inter-state conflict has been on a sharp decline since at least the end of the Cold War, possibly earlier depending on what figures you look at. However, as Noviscope explains, resource conflicts tend to be inter-state. This places the future of conflict resolution (a relatively young field) at the cusp of potential major change. Some conflict resolution experts worry that the field has lost much time focusing on inter-state resolution techniques when these conflicts have been in decline, but perhaps they will be well trained for coming inter-state resource conflicts.

What is potentially new for these conflicts however is having to disentangle the interests of both government powers and indigenous groups. While the governments of the Mekong River Region may be in dispute over proper use of the river with each other, each of these governments may in turn face opposition from indigenous groups. Having to meet the interests of so many different groups will make finding a lasting resolution that much harder, if not impossible.

Implications from Noviscope:

"Despite the establishment of the ASEAN Charter, Asia’s stance on conflict resolution emphasizes non-confrontation, non-intervention and face-saving in international relations (a.k.a. the "ASEAN Way"). This relative weakness and reluctance of supra-national bodies to intervene in mediating inter-state crises (compared with those existing in the West) raises a serious concern. In the absence of truly effective regional mediation mechanisms, do today’s many ongoing bilateral conflicts in Asia present an increasing risk of escalation into full-blown regional
crises?"

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Sources:

Noviscape July 2010, pgs. 2 and 4
http://newsletters.clearsignals.org/Noviscape_July2010.pdf#page2

For background on conflict resolution:
Ramsbotham, Oliver, Tom Woodhouse, and Hugh Maill. Contemporary Conflict Resolution . Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005