- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Asia's Water Security Crisis: China, India, and the United States

Elizabeth C. Economy

PDF free through August 31, 2013


This chapter evaluates the water resource challenges confronting the developing countries of Asia and their implications for broader regional and global security concerns.

Main Argument

Water security throughout the developing countries of Asia is poor and under growing threat. This insecurity poses risks for public health, political stability, and continued economic growth both within Asia and abroad.

  • Within many Asian states, conflicts are flaring over competing demands for water and growing public health challenges. Weak state capacity compounds the challenge of addressing gaps in water security.
  • Asia must also contend with the potentially devastating impacts of global climate change: rising sea levels, increasing pestilence and disease, extreme flooding and droughts, and declining agricultural productivity.
  • India and China, the two most populous developing Asian economies, sit at the headwaters of several of Asia’s most important rivers. As these states increasingly tap into shared water resources, they are shaping the water security opportunities and challenges for the rest of the region.

Policy Implications

The U.S. can assist Asia in addressing serious water security issues.

  • Of particular use would be for the U.S. to extend integrated policy and technology assistance on water resource management to Asia’s water resource, environment, and public health agencies.
  • Washington could extend its mediation efforts in the Mekong Basin to other critical emerging conflicts to enhance the leverage of weaker states.
  • Of benefit would be U.S. leadership on global climate change to help mitigate or counteract the anticipated significant downsides of climate change for Asia’s water resources.