Asian and Pacific leaders, who gathered in Thailand this weekend for the 2nd Asia-Pacific Water Summit, warned that fierce competition in the region for water resources has the potential to cause conflicts.
"There could be a fight over resources," Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said at the summit, adding, "No country in this region can handle these challenges alone.”
In an effort to increase cooperation, summit leaders adopted the “Chiang Mai declaration,” which calls for region-wide efforts to increase resilience to natural disasters, sharing of technical and management skills and placing water security at the top of the political agenda.
"We declare to encourage the adoption of policies and measures to reduce water pollution, combat desertification, improve water quality and protect wetlands, rivers and the other source of fresh water," it states.
Obtaining water security will cost the region an estimated $380 billion USD by 2020 in investments in just water and sanitation systems, according to Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.
This “vital undertaking” will have to overcome competition that “could lead to international disputes,” he added.
As for preventing natural disasters, the Global Post quoted Yingluck as saying: "We have experience that the cost of investment and planning to prevent natural disasters will be lower than the cost of addressing problems and recovery again and again. Therefore, we should work together to promote water security by addressing the problems at its roots."
However, water-related issues are still difficult to negotiate, according to summit spokesman Apichart Anukularmphai.
"We also realize that political will is needed in resolving water problems...and another significant factor is budget," he said.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pointed to a water-sharing agreement her nation recently signed with India on the Brahmaputra River as an example of what can be accomplished through cooperation.
"Only judicious management of access to water resources" will prevent conflict, the Bangkok Post quoted her as saying.
About two-thirds of the Asia-Pacific region’s population lack access to potable, piped water services, according to the Asian Development Bank. This is despite the region’s economic growth, and is the result of poor management and the lack of investment in infrastructure, the bank said.
More than 1,000 representatives from 50 Asia and Pacific countries were in attendance.
Representatives of a number of environmental non-government organizations gathered alongside the summit to protest failures in water management projects and practices by governments from around the world.
The groups are also criticizing the summit for not considering social and environmental impacts of water development projects the governments have chosen.
One organization, the People's Network of North and Northeastern River Basins, condemned Thailand for having a “top-down” approach to water management. In a statement released on May 19, the first day of the summit, the organization stated that "most of the agenda tabled for discussion seems to be irrelevant to issues around major environmental and trans-boundary development projects, and their impact on people's livelihoods...”