GREEDY DRAGON THIRSTY NEIGHBOURS
How stealthy China’s gigantic river projects will create strategic conflicts in a region suffering from growing water scarcity
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.
WATER: ASIA’S NEW BATTLEGROUND by BRAHMA CHELLANEY Harpercollins Price: RS 699 Pages: 400