water crisis asia Mohammed Abed/Getty Images

A Water War in Asia?

Tensions over water are rising in Asia – and not only because of conflicting maritime claims. While territorial disputes, such as in the South China Sea, attract the most attention, the strategic ramifications of competition over transnationally shared freshwater resources are just as ominous.

BERLIN – Tensions over water are rising in Asia – and not only because of conflicting maritime claims. While territorial disputes, such as in the South China Sea, attract the most attention – after all, they threaten the safety of sea lanes and freedom of navigation, which affects outside powers as well – the strategic ramifications of competition over transnationally shared freshwater resources are just as ominous.

Asia has less fresh water per capita than any other continent, and it is already facing a water crisis that, according to an MIT study, will continue to intensify, with severe water shortages expected by 2050. At a time of widespread geopolitical discord, competition over freshwater resources could emerge as a serious threat to long-term peace and stability in Asia.

Already, the battle is underway, with China as the main aggressor. Indeed, China’s territorial grab in the South China Sea has been accompanied by a quieter grab of resources in transnational river basins. Reengineering cross-border riparian flows is integral to China’s strategy to assert greater control and influence over Asia.

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