Monday, October 24, 2011

Asia's next battleground: Water

NEW DELHI: It may seem odd to talk about it at a time when television screens are filled with scenes of the worst flooding that Bangkok has suffered in 50 years.
By Ravi Velloor, South Asia Bureau Chief

But a new book by a respected voice on Asian strategic affairs warns that a scarcity of water is set to become Asia's most defining crisis by the middle of the century, one with the potential to trigger major conflicts.

As Asia continues to live beyond its means where water is concerned, accentuating its scarcity, disputes and competition over bodies of water that cross the boundaries of various countries pose a greater threat to peace and stability in a continent already marked by festering territorial and resource disputes, Professor Brahma Chellaney says in the first such wide-ranging study on water and peace.


Access woes

ASIA has less fresh water per capita than any other continent. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka account for more than 21 per cent of the world's population, yet make do with 8.3 per cent of global water resources.

China and India make up 37 per cent of the world's population, yet have access to less than 11 per cent of global water resources.

Asia's water efficiency and productivity levels are among the lowest in the world. Inefficient water practices are compounded by a rising consumer class that uses water-guzzling comforts such as washing machines while eating more meat, which is notoriously water intensive to produce.

Asia has 57 transnational river basins. China is the source of cross-border river flows to the most number of nations like Russia, India, Kazakhstan and Vietnam.


S'pore and water

SINGAPORE has consciously set itself the goal of becoming the hub of water technology for Asia, thanks to fears that Malaysia may one day cut off its water supply, says Professor Brahma Chellaney of New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research.

Besides expanding alternate sources of supply, by removing salt from sea water and building huge catchment reserves, it has pursued demand management through greater water productivity and efficiency.

By plugging system leaks and inefficiencies and raising the price of domestic water, it has managed to reduce household water use by about 10 per cent since the mid-1990s to about 155 litres per person a day this year, he notes.

Add to this the fact that people are using more water and Asia is expected to bear the greatest impact of global warming, and the region faces an incendiary situation.

'National reliance on oil can be reduced through other sources of energy,' Prof Chellaney says in Water: Asia's New Battleground. 'There is no such hope with water. Water has no substitute.'

Worries over water have begun to manifest in myriad ways across Asia.

Pakistan has sought international arbitration to stop India's run-of-the-river projects upstream on the Indus River, despite a treaty signed in 1960 that has survived even the worst lows in their bilateral ties.

India itself never fails to raise its concerns with China about its plans to build the world's biggest dam along the Brahmaputra River, which originates in Tibet and flows through India before reaching Bangladesh.

Indochinese states are warily watching China's massive river engineering plans to take moisture to its parched regions by diverting water from elsewhere.

In West Asia, some disputed or occupied territories such as the Golan Heights and the West Bank draw their strategic value as much for their water wealth as their advantageous location.

Prof Chellaney of New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research says the forestalling of water wars demands a cooperative Asian framework among river basin states, so that they work towards a common ownership of shared resources and share the benefits securely.

In this context, he points out, no country is more central to the issue than China, which has been noticeably cool on a multilateral approach to water, as, for instance, at the Mekong River Commission.

Smaller states, for this reason, fear that China may be following a strategy of 'divide and conquer'.

'No other country in the world matches China's position as a multi-directional, transboundary water provider,' says Prof Chellaney. 'Significantly, the important international rivers of China all originate in ethnic- minority homelands, some of which are racked by separatist movements.'

He says China's increasing assertiveness on such issues will prompt a number of regional actors to form a web of interlocking partnerships to act as a discreet check on its exercise of power.

'As the dispute over the South China Sea shows, this may actually bring other claimants together in opposition to Chinese policy and make them turn to the United States for security assurances,' he says.

That said, it will be impossible to turn the competition for water into cooperation without China's active support for sub-regional water sharing and cooperative-management mechanisms. But for that to happen, China will need to drop its allergy to terms such as 'internationally shared water resources' and for legally binding accords on water.

Prof Chellaney says: 'To cite one example, China needs to go from being a 'dialogue partner' to becoming a member of the Mekong River Commission, so that it can work with its (neighbours)... on a water management plan for the mutual benefit of all.'