How stealthy China’s gi­gan­tic river projects will cre­ate strate­gic con­flicts in a re­gion suf­fer­ing from grow­ing water scarcity

India Today - - LEISURE - By Kan­wal Sibal

Brahma Chel­laney’s new book ex­am­ines the water sce­nario in Asia in the con­text of the in­creas­ing use and de­creas­ing avail­abil­ity of water in the years ahead as Asia’s pop­u­la­tion grows and its so­ci­eties be­come more ur­banised. With greater in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion and chang­ing life-styles, more water is needed for Asia’s non-agri­cul­tural uses. En­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion and global warm­ing add to the grim­ness of the sce­nario the author, armed with ex­ten­sive data from in­ter­na­tional tech­ni­cal re­ports, sur­veys.

The premise of grow­ing water scarcity is now not con­tested. Ap­pre­hen­sions that fu­ture wars would be for water have al­ready been aired. But a com­pre­hen­sive Asia-wide study of the prob­lem, with fo­cus on the prin­ci­pal zones of com­pe­ti­tion and po­ten­tial con­flict, has been lack­ing. A strate­gic look at the di­men­sions of the is­sue from the geopo­lit­i­cal an­gle has not been at­tempted. Chel­laney does so, with strik­ing in­sights into the emerg­ing Asian cri­sis, which will deepen un­less some co­op­er­a­tive in­ter­na­tional mech­a­nisms are de­vel­oped, Asian norms and rules cov­er­ing trans­bound­ary rivers es­tab­lished, in­clu­sive basin or­gan­i­sa­tions set up and con­ser­va­tion pro­moted.

Though Chel­laney’s can­vas is the whole of Asia—water dis­putes in Cen­tral, West and South Asia are cov­ered—the core of the book is de­voted to China. This is un­sur­pris­ing be­cause of China’s geo­graph­i­cal and de­mo­graphic size and its con­trol of the roof of the world, Ti­bet, which con­sti­tutes the big­gest ice-land­mass in the world out­side the poles. It is from Ti­bet that vir­tu­ally all of the big­gest rivers of Asia flow: the Yel­low, the Yangtze-kiang, the Brahma­pu­tra, the In­dus, the Sut­lej, the Mekong, the Sal­ween and the Ir­rawaddy. Water is thus a mas­sive geo-po­lit­i­cal weapon of po­ten­tial use in China’s hands against lower ri­par­ian coun­tries whose civil­i­sa­tion and so­ci­eties de­pend on the unim­peded flow of water down­stream from the Ti­betan plateau. Water is no longer an en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sue, but a strate­gic one. The book has a sep­a­rate chap­ter on the Ti­betan plateau that is par­tic­u­larly il­lu­mi­nat­ing in terms of the ter­ri­tory’s re­sources and the fright­en­ing pro­por­tions of China’s planned ex­ploita­tion of its ri­par­ian ad­van­tage.

China’s own water thirst is in­sa­tiable, as the author demon­strates. It has dammed all its in­ter­nal rivers (China has half the num­ber of dams in the world) and has built the world’s largest hy­dro­elec­tric project—the Three Gorges Dam— on the Yangtze. This fre­netic dam-build­ing ac­tiv­ity is caus­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal havoc in the coun­try, apart from mas­sive dis­place­ment of com­mu­ni­ties. The Yel­low River that has nour­ished the Chi­nese civil­i­sa­tion has been mor­tally pol­luted. Apart from the Maoist ob­ses­sion with con­trol­ling na­ture that still an­i­mates the Chi­nese lead­er­ship sprin­kled with many hy­dro-en­gi­neers, China needs water for the needs of its wheat and rice bas­ket in the semi-arid north of the coun­try, for which China is em­bark­ing on highly am­bi­tious south­north water di­ver­sions.

China, as the author stresses, is now shift­ing at­ten­tion to project build­ing on in­ter­na­tional rivers, sow­ing the seeds of pres­sure and con­flict down­stream. It has al­ready built up­stream projects on the Mekong and the Sal­ween, with

plans to build a gar­gan­tuan project—twice the size of the Three Gorges Dam—on the Brahma­pu­tra at Mo­tuo, close to Arunachal Pradesh in area of unique and un­equalled bio-di­ver­sity. Its plans to di­vert the wa­ters of the Brahma­pu­tra north­wards will have se­vere con­se­quences down­stream, es­pe­cially in Bangladesh. China is in­volved in water dis­putes with Kaza­khstan and Rus­sia with projects on the Illy, Ir­tysh and Amur rivers.

The prob­lems of China’s neigh­bours are com­pounded by the fact that China works by stealth, deny­ing plans un­til ripe for un­veil­ing. Its do­mes­tic pub­lic opinion is un­able to de­ter the dam-build­ing mega­lo­ma­nia of its lead­ers. In­ter­na­tional law is weak on the rights of lower ri­par­i­ans, which makes it dif­fi­cult to ar­raign China legally for up­stream ac­tiv­ity. China is un­will­ing to en­ter into any mul­ti­lat­eral ar­range­ments with the lower ri­par­i­ans for the op­ti­mal de­vel­op­ment of river basins. The lower ri­par­i­ans have of­ten di­vided in­ter­ests and are other­wise loath to en­ter into a con­fronta­tion with an in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful China.

The author con­trasts the re­mark­able gen­eros­ity of In­dia as an up­per ri­par­ian in agree­ing to cede 80 per cent of the wa­ters of the In­dus basin to Pak­istan, an ar­range­ment en­tered by independent In­dia de­spite Pak­istan’s claims on Kash­mir. In­dia has ac­com­mo­dated Bangladesh with the Ganges Ac­cord.

The prob­lems of China’s neigh­bours are com­pounded by the fact that China works by stealth. Its do­mes­tic pub­lic opinion is un­able to de­ter the dam- build­ing mega­lo­ma­nia of its lead­ers.

De­spite that water is­sues with both coun­tries per­sist. In­dia, more water-stressed than China, has, fur­ther­more, grossly mis­man­aged its water re­sources. Hav­ing, with ab­sence of fore­sight, yielded Ti­bet to China, In­dia now faces the prospect of China con­struct­ing water projects up­stream to its detri­ment.

The book con­tains a chap­ter on in­tra-state water dis­putes which only high­lights the broader need for im­proved in­ter­nal man­age­ment of water as a scarce re­source to lessen ex­ter­nal pres­sure. Chel­laney’s book is big­ger than you would ex­pect, and there­fore de­mands a big­ger ef­fort to read it than you would bar­gain for. Although the sub­ject is com­plex and tech­ni­cal, the author, with his strate­gic eye, im­parts a fas­ci­nat­ing geo-po­lit­i­cal con­tent to it, with in­sights into China’s alarm­ingly am­bi­tious water plans that neigh­bours would be un­aware of. The author has done them a big ser­vice.

SAU­RABH Singh/­di­a­to­day­im­

WATER: ASIA’S NEW BAT­TLE­GROUND by BRAHMA CHEL­LANEY Harper­collins Price: RS 699 Pages: 400

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