Will Asia's wa­ter cri­sis trig­ger wa­ter wars?

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - BRAHMA CHELLANEY newsroom@mm­times.com

TEN­SIONS over wa­ter are ris­ing in Asia – and not only be­cause of con­flict­ing mar­itime claims. While ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes, such as in the South China Sea, at­tract the most at­ten­tion – af­ter all, they threaten the safety of sea lanes and free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion, which af­fects out­side pow­ers as well – the strate­gic ram­i­fi­ca­tions of com­pe­ti­tion over transna­tion­ally shared fresh­wa­ter re­sources are just as omi­nous.

Asia has less fresh wa­ter per capita than any other con­ti­nent, and it is al­ready fac­ing a wa­ter cri­sis that, ac­cord­ing to an MIT study, will con­tinue to in­ten­sify, with se­vere wa­ter short­ages ex­pected by 2050. At a time of wide­spread geopo­lit­i­cal dis­cord, com­pe­ti­tion over fresh­wa­ter re­sources could emerge as a se­ri­ous threat to long-term peace and sta­bil­ity in Asia.

Al­ready, the bat­tle is un­der way, with China as the main ag­gres­sor. In­deed, China’s ter­ri­to­rial grab in the South China Sea has been ac­com­pa­nied by a qui­eter grab of re­sources in transna­tional river basins. Reengi­neer­ing cross-bor­der ri­par­ian flows is in­te­gral to China’s strat­egy to as­sert greater con­trol and in­flu­ence over Asia.

China is cer­tainly in a strong po­si­tion to carry out this strat­egy. The coun­try en­joys un­matched ri­par­ian dom­i­nance, with 110 transna­tional rivers and lakes flow­ing into 18 down­stream coun­tries. China also has the world’s most dams, which it has never hes­i­tated to use to curb cross-bor­der flows. In fact, China’s dam builders are tar­get­ing most of the in­ter­na­tional rivers that flow out of Chi­nese ter­ri­tory.

Most of China’s in­ter­na­tion­ally shared wa­ter re­sources are lo­cated on the Ti­betan Plateau, which it an­nexed in the early 1950s. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the plateau is the new hub of Chi­nese dam build­ing. In­deed, China’s 13th five-year plan, re­leased this year, calls for a new wave of dam projects on the Plateau.

More­over, China re­cently cut off the flow of a trib­u­tary of the Brahma­pu­tra River, the life­line of Bangladesh and north­ern In­dia, to build a dam as part of a ma­jor hy­dro­elec­tric pro­ject in Ti­bet. And the coun­try is work­ing to dam an­other Brahma­pu­tra trib­u­tary, in or­der to cre­ate a se­ries of ar­ti­fi­cial lakes.

China has also built six mega-dams on the Mekong River, which flows into South­east Asia, where the down­stream im­pact is al­ready vis­i­ble. Yet, in­stead of curb­ing its dam-build­ing, China is hard at work build­ing sev­eral more Mekong dams.

Like­wise, wa­ter sup­plies in largely arid Cen­tral Asia are com­ing un­der fur­ther pres­sure as China ap­pro­pri­ates a grow­ing vol­ume of wa­ter from the Illy River. Kaza­khstan’s Lake Balkhash is now at risk of shrink­ing sub­stan­tially, much like the Aral Sea – lo­cated on the bor­der with Uzbek­istan – which has vir­tu­ally dried up in less than 40 years. China is also di­vert­ing wa­ter from the Ir­tysh, which sup­plies drink­ing wa­ter to Kaza­khstan’s cap­i­tal As­tana and feeds Rus­sia’s Ob River.

For Cen­tral Asia, the di­min­ished trans­bound­ary flows are just one part of the prob­lem. China’s en­ergy, man­u­fac­tur­ing, and agri­cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties in sprawl­ing Xin­jiang are hav­ing an even greater im­pact, as they con­tam­i­nate the wa­ters of the re­gion’s transna­tional rivers with haz­ardous chem­i­cals and fer­til­iz­ers, just as China has done to the rivers in its Han heart­land.

Of course, China is not the only coun­try stok­ing con­flict over wa­ter. As if to un­der­score that the fes­ter­ing ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute in Kash­mir is as much about wa­ter as it is about land, Pak­istan has, for the sec­ond time this decade, ini­ti­ated in­ter­na­tional ar­bi­tral tri­bunal pro­ceed­ings against In­dia un­der the terms of the 1960 In­dus Wa­ters Treaty. The para­dox here is that down­stream Pak­istan has used that treaty – the world’s most gen­er­ous wa­ter-shar­ing deal, re­serv­ing for Pak­istan more than 80 per­cent of the wa­ters of the six-river In­dus sys­tem – to sus­tain its con­flict with In­dia.

Mean­while, land­locked Laos – aim­ing to ex­port hy­dropower, es­pe­cially to China, the main­stay of its econ­omy – has just no­ti­fied its neigh­bours of its de­ci­sion to move ahead with a third con­tro­ver­sial pro­ject, the 912-megawatt Pak Beng dam. It pre­vi­ously brushed aside re­gional con­cerns about the al­ter­ation of nat­u­ral-flow pat­terns to push ahead with the Xayaburi and Don Sa­hong dam projects. There is no rea­son to ex­pect a dif­fer­ent out­come this time.

The con­se­quences of grow­ing wa­ter com­pe­ti­tion in Asia will re­ver­ber­ate be­yond the re­gion. Al­ready, some Asian states, con­cerned about their ca­pac­ity to grow enough food, have leased large tracts of farm­land in Sub­Sa­ha­ran Africa, trig­ger­ing a back­lash in some ar­eas. In 2009, when South Korea’s Dae­woo Lo­gis­tics Cor­po­ra­tion ne­go­ti­ated a deal to lease as much as half of Madagascar’s arable land to pro­duce ce­re­als and palm oil for the South Korean mar­ket, the en­su­ing protests and mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion top­pled a demo­crat­i­cally elected pres­i­dent.

The race to ap­pro­pri­ate wa­ter re­sources in Asia is strain­ing agri­cul­ture and fish­eries, dam­ag­ing ecosys­tems, and fos­ter­ing dan­ger­ous dis­trust and dis­cord across the re­gion. It must be brought to an end. Asian coun­tries need to clar­ify the re­gion’s in­creas­ingly murky hy­dropol­i­tics. The key will be ef­fec­tive dis­pute-res­o­lu­tion mech­a­nisms and agree­ment on more trans­par­ent wa­ter-shar­ing ar­range­ments.

Asia can build a har­mo­nious, rules-based wa­ter man­age­ment sys­tem. But it needs China to get on board. At least for now, that does not seem likely. – Pro­ject Syn­di­cate

Photo: Nay Aung

Asia has less fresh wa­ter per capita than any other con­ti­nent, and what lit­tle ex­ists is fu­elling a re­source cri­sis, an MIT study found.

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