Geo-strategic hotspots in Asia, energy and water crises

Energy being the driving force behind economic growth and human development, all countries in Asia are in pursuit of energy and water resources seeking high living standards for their citizens. With many Asian countries, particularly China and India, witnessing fast economic growth, the demand for energy in the continent is rapidly rising. But the vast energy resources of the region have different territorial claims by many countries and the disputes could become flashpoints with global consequences.

South China Sea

In the South China Sea, seven countries namely Brunei, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam are involved in the disputes over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas. The two island chains -Paracels and the Spratlys – are claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries. Though largely uninhabited, the islands may have reserves of natural resources around them. The South China Sea is also a major shipping route and source of livelihood for people across the region. A report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) says the South China Sea has 11 billion barrels (BBL) of oil reserves and 190 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas reserves.

China claims by far the largest portion of the territory. Over the past two years, the country has built 2,000 acres of artificial islands complete with helipads, airstrips, and military facilities. China, however, is not the first to plunge into South China Sea real estate. Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines have all built on the islands in the past. To resolve the dispute, China has tended to favour bilateral negotiations, while other countries want international mediation. A major issue confronting the South China Sea is freedom of navigation especially between the USA and China over the right of the U.S. military vessels to operate in China's two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

East China Sea

In the East China Sea, China and Japan both claim a group of islands. Japan calls them the "Senkaku" islands while China dubs them the "Diaoyu" islands. Chinese and Japanese naval and air patrol vessels continue to operate closely in the East China Sea making the risk of an armed confrontation due to miscalculation a real danger. The East China Sea has a total area of approximately 482,000 square miles and the EIA estimates that it has about 200 million barrels of oil (MMbbl) in proved and probable reserves. The islands matter because they are close to important shipping lanes, offer rich fishing grounds and lie near potential oil and gas reserves.

Water and regional issues

According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), 4.3 billion people or about 60 per cent of the global population live in Asia but the people in the region only have access to 38 per cent of the world’s fresh water. As a result, Asia has the lowest regional per capita water availability in the world.

Conflict over water in South Asia

Water-sharing conflicts among the countries of South Asian region have a long history. Bangladesh and India maintain a tense relationship over issues of water management, one that has grown increasingly strained.

China-India water dispute

The Brahmaputra is one of the major rivers of Asia. The river, known as the Yarlung Zangbo in China, starts its 1,760 mile journey beneath Mount Kailash, high in the Tibet region of the Himalayas. India and China see the river as a source of energy. Both countries are planning major dams on long stretches of the river. China is constructing the Zangmu dam to provide hydro-electric power. The project, which began in 2009, has caused concern downstream in India. India claims that the river’s water flow will drastically fall if China is successful in constructing the dam. India, however, is also building dams on the river – many more than China.

India-Nepal issues

Friendly Indo-Nepal relations have also been plagued by issues regarding the region’s four trans-boundary rivers, the Kosi, the Gandaki, the Mahakali and the Karnali, that include unfair compensation packages, an inequitable distribution of water for meeting irrigation needs, and unfair power sharing arrangements that, according to Nepal, disproportionately benefit India.

Pakistan-India water dispute

Since 1960, a delicate accord called the Indus Waters Treaty has governed the sharing of the river's resources between India and Pakistan. But in the past decade, there have been disputes over India and Pakistan’s shared waters. Pakistan has objected to the construction of dams by India over the rivers. Many in Pakistan fear that India can easily run Pakistan dry either by diverting the flow of water by building storage dams or disturbing timing of the flows on which Pakistani crops rely.

India emphatically maintains that it has never meddled with Pakistan's share of the Indus waters and that its projects are in compliance with the Indus Water Treaty and sees no conflict with Pakistan on water. With Pakistan and India having claims over Kashmir, from where three rivers flow into Pakistan under the 1962 Treaty , the issue of water supplies could lead to renewed conflict, making water conservation an urgent priority.

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