n a recent James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, the villain hatches diabolical plots to corner a certain South American country’s fresh water resources. The Bond war is not over deposits of oil and gold but water. The conflict potential of water has clearly arrived even in the public’s imagination.
In the backdrop of growing tensions over the sharing of water resources across the world and specially so in Asia, Brahma Chellaney’s new book, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, is both timely and relevant.
In its seven chapters the book deals with diverse aspects of water in Asia, the conflicts and disputes that exist already and those likely to exacerbate as the economic boom in this region drives demand for scarce water resources.
Many of these water resources will become further points of dispute as climate change melts glaciers, diminishes rainfall and reduces the over all availability of water in shared rivers. The unique role of the Tibetan plateau and China’s control of the headwaters of several rivers crucial to Asia constitutes an important part of the book’s analysis of the growing potential for discord.
The book also deals with shared water resources on India’s western side, with Pakistan, and the growing conflict over that sharing under the Indus Waters Treaty. At the time of Partition, the British gave the three western rivers of the Indus river system (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab) to Pakistan and the three eastern rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) to India. According to Chellaney, India has failed to address this source of tension.
Chellaney describes the impact of the destructive use of natural resources, including water, in Asia’s rapid quest for double digit economic growth and how this is laying the ground for strategic shifts in Asia’s water politics, creating even greater potential for water wars between countries.
The increasing demand for water to grow more food for the densely populated countries of Asia, particularly China and India, is already causing upheavals in water sharing agreements. Both China and India are shown to be the victims of their earlier legacies of water use.
Mao Zedong made grandiose plans for mega projects to divert water from the water rich south of China to its arid north and built huge dams on its rivers so that today China has the largest number of dams in the world. This includes the highly contentious Three Gorges Dam which has wrought environmental destruction on an unprecedented scale. The over damming of rivers has interfered in their flows, leading farmers to turn to groundwater, causing its overexploitation and pollution of aquifers.
In a different way, Chellaney says that India’s negligent and disjointed approach to water management has also created a water crisis. Constitutionally water was made a state subject (rather than a central one, which would allow easier regulation) so that today states that share rivers are perpetually entangled in water disputes. Similarly, the Indus Treaty with Pakistan (1960), according to which India committed to indefinitely reserve 80 per cent of the Indus waters for Pakistan, reflects a lack of foresight and understanding of the role of water, especially for an agriculture dependent, food insecure country.
The book’s most fascinating part is where it lays out the position and politics of Tibet as an enormously rich source of natural resources, especially minerals, water and biodiversity. China’s annexation of Tibet and the brutal measures it takes to subjugate this rich land and its gentle people, is to be seen in the context of its determination to exploit Tibet’s vast mineral resources and its water for hydropower and irrigation, even as it destroys its unique, often unparalleled biodiversity. Having brought its own water resources under severe stress and caused irreversible contamination in many parts, China is now seeking to conquer the waters of Tibet. It is pursuing major water projects like inter river transfers in the fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau.
Tibet qualifies as a world heritage site on account of any one of its many aspects, its irreplaceable biodiversity, its landscape with deep gorges and canyons, its unique systems of agriculture and the culture of its people. Chellaney’s description of the desecration of Tibet by China is heartbreaking
Water: Asia’s New Battleground is a comprehensive and interesting book but it could have paid greater attention to suggesting what India could propose to mitigate the potential water conflict with China; what negotiating positions could it put on the table? What counter-measures could it take to protect its interests? How, for instance, could the two countries take advantage of each other’s strengths so that there is more to be gained from cooperation than conflict?
Both countries, but especially China, have experience with micro hydropower projects. Local communities in the Himalayas and in Tibet have a tremendous knowledge of biodiversity, hydrology and efficient water use, as well as water conservation. Sharing this knowledge could build bridges of mutual benefit and provide a stake in collaborating. So far, collaboration and coordination between the two countries in dealing with environmental challenges has been limited, despite several signed agreements. In 1993, China and India signed a collaboration agreement on the environment and more recently they have signed an agreement to jointly monitor glaciers and work together in the areas of energy and afforestation. Suggestions on taking such beginnings forward would have added value to this book.
Suman Sahai, a genetic scientist who has served on the faculty of the Universities of Chicago and Heidelberg, is convenor of the Gene Campaign