The Grand Chessboard


Brahma Chellaney: Modi takes Indian diplomacy to the big leagues

Nikkie Asian Review, August 30, 2014

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the historic Red Fort during Independence Day celebrations in Delhi on Aug. 15. © Reuters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in May in India’s biggest election victory in a generation, has signaled his determination to strengthen his country’s diplomatic clout in its own strategic backyard while collaborating more closely with the major powers.

So far, Modi has limited himself to visits to two of India’s smaller neighbors, Nepal and Bhutan, where the trips were hailed as successes. But the prime minister’s powers of diplomacy are about to face a stiffer test in successive bilateral summits with the leaders of Japan, China and the U.S. His handling of these talks will set the parameters of Indian foreign policy for years to come.

Time for more substance

Modi’s Aug. 30 to  Sept. 3 tour of Japan is certain to deepen bonds between the two democracies — one the world’s largest, the other Asia’s oldest (and richest). But if this emerging democratic axis is to turn into a game-changer in Asia, the two countries must add more substance to their collaboration through deeper strategic and economic links.

Modi’s visit to Tokyo will pave the way for a greater Japanese role in India’s development. But there is also scope for greater cooperation in the military realm. Some of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent steps, including easing Japan’s arms export ban and reasserting the right of collective defense, open clear new avenues of potential collaboration with India.

By contrast, when Chinese President Xi Jinping comes to New Delhi in mid-September, Modi will have a more difficult task at hand, given China’s increasing assertiveness on issues such as frontiers and its right to build dams on international rivers originating in Tibet. There may also be friction over the Indian prime minister’s election campaign rhetoric criticizing Beijing’s “expansionist attitude.”

Despite these irritants, Modi is seeking to co-opt China, with its massive foreign-exchange reserves, as a partner in India’s development, negating the early assumptions of some analysts that his government would be less accommodating toward Beijing than its predecessor.

In particular, Modi must find ways to address the lopsided trade relationship between the two countries: Beijing exports three times as much to India as it imports, and treats its huge neighbor as a raw-material appendage of its economy. The Indian leader has already sketched out ways in which this relationship can be transformed by inviting Chinese investment in his plan to modernize India’s infrastructure, especially railroads, power stations and industrial parks.

To prepare the ground for Xi’s visit, Modi has gone out of his way to befriend China. He received the Chinese foreign minister before welcoming any other foreign dignitary. His first bilateral meeting with a major head of state was with Xi on the sidelines of a summit in Brazil of the BRICS grouping of major emerging economies. He allowed the Chinese president to move up his India visit to September while postponing his own Japan trip by eight weeks, a decision that allowed him to meet Xi first. And Modi agreed to let Shanghai host the proposed new BRICS development bank, accepting the consolation prize of having an Indian as its first president.

But the tensions between the neighbors will not go away: Modi’s election-victory pronouncement that the coming decades would constitute “India’s century” sits uneasily alongside China’s similar proclamation of its ownership of the 21st century. And friction along their shared border is increasing, according to Kiren Rijiju, India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs, who told parliament recently that Chinese border transgressions this year have exceeded more than one per day to reach 334 as of Aug. 4. For India, it is clear that China remains as much a strategic rival as an economic opportunity.

Rising above U.S. humiliation

Given the critical importance of the U.S. to India, Modi has wisely placed national interests above personal umbrage by shaking off visa-denial humiliations heaped on him by Washington. These date back to 2005, when the U.S. denied Modi a visa over his alleged involvement in anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. Washington maintained the ban for years, even though he had been cleared of any wrongdoing by an inquiry appointed by India’s Supreme Court.

The U.S. abruptly reversed course when Modi emerged as the favorite to win the election, and in the wake of his overwhelming electoral mandate in May, Modi could have waited for U.S. officials to come calling. Instead, seeking to establish a mutually productive relationship with Washington, he quickly accepted President Barack Obama’s invitation to visit the White House, thereby leaving no room for perceptions about bilateral strains to damage India’s own foreign policy interests.

Nevertheless, the reality is that U.S.-India relations have gradually lost momentum since their heyday under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, even though Washington has quietly become India’s largest arms supplier. Ties hit a new low in December after an Indian diplomat serving as deputy consul general in New York was arrested and strip-searched by police after being accused of underpaying a nanny she had brought with her from India. India’s national security adviser called the diplomat’s treatment, which included vaginal and anal cavity searches by police, “despicable and barbaric.”

Modi appears keen to reinvigorate the bilateral relationship. But he will be visiting Washington at a time when Obama is beset with crises at home and abroad and appears increasingly under political siege, including from members of his own Democratic Party in the Senate. The contrast between a newly empowered Modi and a fading Obama could not be starker.

It is therefore unclear what the White House visit in late September can accomplish, other than drive home the message that all is well on the U.S.-India front. As if to highlight how transactional aspects overshadow strategic elements in the relationship, Washington will be expecting Modi to come bearing gifts in the form of new business and arms contracts.

Standing up for India

But Modi has already shown that he will unflinchingly stand up for his perception of the national interest, even if it means opposing the U.S. He demonstrated this in late July at the World Trade Organization negotiations in Geneva on a new global trade facilitation accord. Failing to win last-minute concessions in relation to India’s food-stockpiling program, the Modi government vetoed the agreement, which the previous Indian administration had tentatively approved, drawing criticism from the U.S. and many of the 158 other countries that had voted in favor of the deal.

Modi’s smoothest interaction will likely be with Japan, despite his apparent focus on wooing China. Abe will ensure that his Indian counterpart’s visit is a success, not least because the relationship is seen in Tokyo as a win-win partnership that can help catalyze Japan’s revival as a world power, while also driving India’s infrastructure development and aspirations to become a top power.

In particular, Modi is expected to return home with a much-hoped-for civil nuclear accord with Tokyo. Such a deal will be presented in India as a diplomatic triumph, even though its practical value is largely symbolic because India cannot afford large-scale investment in imported nuclear reactors. The country would be better off using its own expertise to build fast-breeder reactors and more conventional small reactors.

The Japan-India partnership nevertheless holds the potential to shape Asian geopolitics in much the same way as China’s rise or Obama’s U.S. “pivot” to Asia. Modi says his visit is aimed at taking “time-tested” ties with Japan to “a new level.”

India’s foreign policy has never had a distinct strategic imprint, except for a period under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The country has always placed more emphasis on being liked than on being respected. Modi recognizes this failing and, as his actions in Geneva exemplified, appears intent on fixing it.

His overtures to Beijing do not conceal his resolve to build close strategic ties with Japan to help put discreet checks on China’s exercise of its rapidly accumulating power, which risks sliding into arrogance. Modi’s vision for Asia is a stable equilibrium in which India can thrive unhindered.

Achieving that objective will not be easy, given the complex challenges facing India in its relationships with its three most important interlocutors. Yet Modi’s record since May suggests that his government has a clear vision of how a proactive foreign policy might work. For New Delhi, that is a step forward.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

© Nikkie Asian Review, 2014.

Who created the new Frankenstein monster?  


Like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State has been inadvertently spawned by the policies of those now in the lead to combat it. But will anything substantive be learned from this experience?

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindu, August 27, 2014

SavagesU.S. President Barack Obama has labelled the jihadist juggernaut that calls itself the Islamic State a “cancer,” while his Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, has called it more dangerous than al-Qaeda ever was, claiming that its threat is “beyond anything we’ve seen.” No monster has ever been born on its own. So the question is: which forces helped create this new Frankenstein?

The Islamic State is a brutal, medieval organisation whose members take pride in carrying out beheadings and flaunting the severed heads of their victims as trophies. This cannot obscure an underlying reality: the Islamic State represents a Sunni Islamist insurrection against non-Sunni rulers in disintegrating Syria and Iraq.

Indeed, the ongoing fragmentation of states along primordial lines in the arc between Israel and India is spawning de facto new entities or blocks, including Shiastan, Wahhabistan, Kurdistan, ISstan and Talibanstan. Other than Iran, Egypt and Turkey, most of the important nations from the Maghreb to Pakistan (an internally torn state that could shrink to Punjabistan or, simply, ISIstan) are modern western concoctions, with no roots in history or pre-existing identity.

The West and agendas

It is beyond dispute that the Islamic State militia — formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — emerged from the Syrian civil war, which began indigenously as a localised revolt against state brutality under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before being fuelled with externally supplied funds and weapons. From Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-training centres in Turkey and Jordan, the rebels set up a Free Syrian Army (FSA), launching attacks on government forces, as a U.S.-backed information war demonised Mr. Assad and encouraged military officers and soldiers to switch sides.

But the members of the U.S.-led coalition were never on the same page because some allies had dual agendas. While the three spearheads of the anti-Assad crusade — the U.S., Britain and France — focussed on aiding the FSA, the radical Islamist sheikhdoms such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates as well as the Islamist-leaning government in Turkey channelled their weapons and funds to more overtly Islamist groups. This splintered the Syrian opposition, marginalising the FSA and paving the way for the Islamic State’s rise.

The anti-Assad coalition indeed started off on the wrong foot by trying to speciously distinguish between “moderate” and “radical” jihadists. The line separating the two is just too blurred. Indeed, the term “moderate jihadists” is an oxymoron: Those waging jihad by the gun can never be moderate.

Invoking jihad

The U.S. and its allies made a more fundamental mistake by infusing the spirit of jihad in their campaign against Mr. Assad so as to help trigger a popular uprising in Syria. The decision to instil the spirit of jihad through television and radio broadcasts beamed to Syrians was deliberate — to provoke Syria’s majority Sunni population to rise against their secular government.

This ignored the lesson from Afghanistan (where the CIA in the 1980s ran, via Pakistan, the largest covert operation in its history) — that inciting jihad and arming “holy warriors” creates a deadly cocktail, with far-reaching and long-lasting impacts on international security. The Reagan administration openly used Islam as an ideological tool to spur armed resistance to Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

In 1985, at a White House ceremony in honour of several Afghan mujahideen — the jihadists out of which al-Qaeda evolved — President Ronald Reagan declared, “These gentlemen are the moral equivalent of America’s Founding Fathers.” Earlier in 1982, Reagan dedicated the space shuttle ‘Columbia’ to the Afghan resistance. He declared, “Just as the Columbia, we think, represents man’s finest aspirations in the field of science and technology, so too does the struggle of the Afghan people represent man’s highest aspirations for freedom. I am dedicating, on behalf of the American people, the March 22 launch of the Columbia to the people of Afghanistan.”

The Afghan war veterans came to haunt the security of many countries. Less known is the fact that the Islamic State’s self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — like Libyan militia leader Abdelhakim Belhadj (whom the CIA abducted and subjected to “extraordinary rendition”) and Chechen terrorist leader Airat Vakhitov — become radicalised while under U.S. detention. As torture chambers, U.S. detention centres have served as pressure cookers for extremism.

Mr. Obama’s Syria strategy took a page out of Reagan’s Afghan playbook. Not surprisingly, his strategy backfired. It took just two years for Syria to descend into a Somalia-style failed state under the weight of the international jihad against Mr. Assad. This helped the Islamic State not only to rise but also to use its control over northeastern Syria to stage a surprise blitzkrieg deep into Iraq this summer.

Had the U.S. and its allies refrained from arming jihadists to topple Mr. Assad, would the Islamic State have emerged as a lethal, marauding force? And would large swaths of upstream territory along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Syria and Iraq have fallen into this monster’s control? The exigencies of the topple-Assad campaign also prompted the Obama administration to turn a blind eye to the flow of Gulf and Turkish aid to the Islamic State.

A full circle

In fact, the Obama team, until recently, viewed the Islamic State as a “good” terrorist organisation in Syria but a “bad” one in Iraq, especially when it threatened to overrun the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil. In January, Mr. Obama famously dismissed the Islamic State as a local “JV team” trying to imitate al-Qaeda but without the capacity to be a threat to America. It was only after the public outrage in the U.S. over the video-recorded execution of American journalist James Foley and the flight of Iraqi Christians and Yazidis that the White House re-evaluated the threat posed by the Islamic State.

Many had cautioned against the topple-Assad campaign, fearing that extremist forces would gain control in the vacuum. Those still wedded to overthrowing Mr. Assad’s rule, however, contend that Mr. Obama’s failure to provide greater aid, including surface-to-air missiles, to the Syrian rebels created a vacuum that produced the Islamic State. In truth, more CIA arms to the increasingly ineffectual FSA would have meant a stronger and more deadly Islamic State.

As part of his strategic calculus to oust Mr. Assad, Mr. Obama failed to capitalise on the Arab Spring, which was then in full bloom. By seeking to topple a secular autocracy in Syria while simultaneously working to shield jihad-bankrolling monarchies from the Arab Spring, he ended up strengthening Islamist forces — a development reinforced by the U.S.-led overthrow of another secular Arab dictator, Muammar Qadhafi, which has turned Libya into another failed state and created a lawless jihadist citadel at Europe’s southern doorstep.

In fact, no sooner had Qadhafi been killed than Libya’s new rulers established a theocracy, with no opposition from the western powers that brought about the regime change. Indeed, the cloak of Islam helps to protect the credibility of leaders who might otherwise be seen as foreign puppets. For the same reason, the U.S. has condoned the Arab monarchs for their long-standing alliance with Islamists. It has failed to stop these cloistered royals from continuing to fund Muslim extremist groups and madrasas in other countries. The American interest in maintaining pliant regimes in oil-rich countries has trumped all other considerations.

Today, Mr. Obama’s Syria policy is coming full circle. Having portrayed Mr. Assad as a bloodthirsty monster, Washington must now accept Mr. Assad as the lesser of the two evils and work with him to defeat the larger threat of the Islamic State.

The fact that the Islamic State’s heartland remains in northern Syria means that it cannot be stopped unless the U.S. extends air strikes into Syria. As the U.S. mulls that option — for which it would need at least tacit permission from Syria, which still maintains good air defences — it is fearful of being pulled into the middle of the horrendous civil war there. It is thus discreetly urging Mr. Assad to prioritise defeating the Islamic State.

Make no mistake: like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State is a monster inadvertently spawned by the policies of those now in the lead to combat it. The question is whether anything substantive will be learned from this experience, unlike the forgotten lessons of America’s anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan. At a time when jihadist groups are gaining ground from Mali to Malaysia, Mr. Obama’s current effort to strike a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, for example, gives little hope that any lesson will be learned. U.S.-led policies toward the Islamic world have prevented a clash between civilisations by fostering a clash within a civilisation, but at serious cost to regional and international security.

(Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace, and War, Oxford University Press, 2014.)

(c) The Hindu, 2014.


Water, Power, and Competition in Asia



Asian Survey, Vol. 54, Number 4, pp. 621–650. ISSN0004-4687, electronic ISSN1533-838X. (Copyright 2014 by the Regents of the University of California.)

ABSTRACT: At a time when Asia is at a defining moment in its history, water stress has emerged as one of its most serious challenges. Water shortages have not only stirred geopolitical tensions by intensifying competition over the resources of shared rivers and aquifers, but they also threaten Asia’s continued economic rise.

KEYWORDS: Water stress, hydropolitics, dam racing, hydro-hegemony, Harmon Doctrine

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (2013) and Water: Asia’s New Battleground (2012), which won the Asia Society’s 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award. Email: <>.


THE FUTURE OF OUR WORLD WILL BE determined by several factors. One critical factor is adequate access to natural resources. The sharpening geopolitical competition over natural resources has already turned some strategic resources into engines of power struggle. Water, mineral ores, and fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas are resources of the greatest strategic import. They hold the key to human development and, in the case of water, to human survival.

Food production is closely intertwined with water and energy, whereas water and energy are closely connected with each other. Water is essential for energy extraction, processing, and production, while energy is vital to treat, distribute, and supply water. Moreover, water is intimately linked with climate change. Human-induced changes in the hydrological cycle contribute to climate variation, and global warming, in turn, affects water resources, creating a vicious circle in the process.

Access to potable water is becoming a major issue across large parts of the world because of rapid demographic and economic expansion. Lifestyle and dietary changes have spurred increasing per-capita water consumption in the form of industrial and agricultural products. Freshwater, although a renewable resource, is a finite commodity whose quantity has virtually remained the same since the dawn of civilization.  In fact, less than 1% of the world’s water is usable because 97.5% of it is ocean salt water while another 1.6% is locked up in polar icecaps, glaciers, and permafrost.

Asia is attracting international attention more than ever before, in large part because of its reemergence on the global stage after a two-century decline. Asia is now the world’s largest creditor and main economic locomotive. Asia’s rise, however, has been accompanied by an insatiable appetite for natural resources. This has set off a sharpening resource competition between Asian economies within Asia and far beyond in other continents.

Although able to secure fossil fuels, mineral ores, and timber from distant lands, Asian economies cannot import the most critical resource for their socioeconomic development—water. Water is essentially local and prohibitively expensive to ship across seas. To compound the continent’s challenges, some of the world’s worst water pollution and shortages are found in Asia, promoting environmental degradation and creating a potential for conflict over shared waters.

A little-known fact is that Asia, not Africa, is the world’s most water-stressed continent. Water stress is internationally defined as the per capita availability of less than 1,700 cubic meters per year. Not only is Asia’s per capita water availability the lowest of any continent, but its water stress has also been exacerbated by its dramatic economic rise. The rapid economic growth, coupled with breakneck urbanization and the changing lifestyles of Asians, has made an already difficult water situation worse. Much of the world’s coming expansion of urban population is projected to take place in Asia, with the portion of the global population living in urban areas expected to jump from slightly over half in 2011 to more than two-thirds in 2050.[1] Asia’s rapid urbanization is driving increased water demand both for municipal supply and for the industrial and agricultural products in demand in cities.

This essay analyzes how shared water has become an instrument of power in interstate relations in Asia, stoking underlying tensions, fostering competition, exacerbating impacts on ecosystems, and impeding broader regional collaboration. It examines cases of both upriver and downriver hydro-hegemony, which is water-resource capture or control at the basin level achieved through coercive or diplomatic means by exploiting and reinforcing regional power asymmetries. And it analyzes the security-related water trends in Asia, now the center of global water challenges. In doing so, the essay opens a window to the nature of interstate water competition and conflict, its wider impacts, and its management.


Natural-resource constraints in Asia raise troubling questions about the region’s future growth trajectory. Asian economies facing a domestic resource crunch are being forced increasingly to rely on imported mineral ores, timber, and fossil fuels, bringing international supplies under pressure and triggering price volatility. Yet Asia, paradoxically, remains the world’s economic locomotive. Its growing resource constraints raise the issue of whether it can continue to spearhead global economic growth in the coming years.

Asia’s rise has fueled an insatiable appetite for resources it does not have. Unlike North America and Europe, which are well endowed with natural capital, Asia is the world’s most resource-poor continent in per-capita terms. Its resources are also unevenly spread. Its energy resources, for example, are largely concentrated in the desert lands of Central and West Asia, while its water resources are concentrated in the mountainous hinterlands, yet 95% of Asians live in the plains or coastal regions. Even as resource-wealthy countries such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, and Russia enjoy commodity-export booms, Asia’s resource struggle has brought it to a treacherous point of growing external dependency, geopolitical tensions, and environmental degradation.

Asia’s overexploitation of its own natural resources has spurred an environmental crisis, which, in turn, is furthering regional climate change. Asia thus confronts three interlinked crises—a resource crisis, an environmental crisis, and a climate crisis—that threaten its future. From Asian cities dominating the list of the world’s most-polluted cities to many urban areas reeling under serious water shortages, Asia faces increasing resource-related stresses. Meanwhile, sharpening Asian resource competition has aggravated disputes over resource-rich territories, including in the East and South China Seas and southern and central Asia.


All the important Asian economies are in or near conditions of water stress.China supports 19% of the world’s population on its territory with a 6.7% share of global water resources. The situation in India is grimmer: It has 17.8% of the global population but just 4.3% of the world’s water.[2]

A World Bank estimate placed the economic cost of water-resource degradation and depletion for China at 2.3% of gross domestic product (GDP), including 1% stemming from the direct impact of rampant water pollution. The health and non-health impacts of both air and water pollution in China were estimated at US$100 billion a year, or about 5.8% of GDP.[3] China, with a per capita annual availability of 2,060 cubic meters in 2013, is not yet in the category of water-stressed states, a list that includes a number of other Asian economies. Water-scarce India and South Korea, for example, are seeing a greater impact nationally than China, with water shortages already beginning to reshape their economies, including the location of industries.

Asia’s yearly per capita freshwater availability (2,816 cubic meters) is not even half the global average of 6,079 cubic meters.[4] Yet Asia has experienced the world’s most rapid growth in freshwater withdrawals from rivers, lakes, and aquifers in the period since it began rising economically. One international report, detailing the resulting steep declines in water availability for development in a number of Asian states since 1980, had this warning about the regional water situation: “Water shortfalls on this scale heighten competition for a precious resource and frequently lead to conflicts, which are emerging as new threats to social stability.”[5]

Asia’s rate of utilization of freshwater already exceeds its renewable stocks. By digging deeper wells, further damming rivers, and transferring surface water across some basins, Asia is using tomorrow’s water to meet today’s needs, thereby accelerating environmental degradation. State policies, including the provision of irrigation subsidies as well as subsidized electricity and diesel fuel to farmers, have unwittingly contributed to water-resource depletion and environmental degradation.

The fact that Asia has one of the lowest levels of water efficiency and productivity in the world makes a bad situation worse. With water stress projected to cover two-thirds of the global population by the end of the next decade, up from about 50% today, the majority of the world’s people living in water-related despair will continue to be in Asia.


Asian economies are already facing a new problem on the food front at a time when agriculture’s appropriation of the bulk of the water resources is coming under challenge from expanding cities and industries. Growth in crop yields and overall food production in Asia is now beginning to lag behind demand. Rising prosperity and changing diets, including an increased preference for animal-based protein, are compounding Asia’s food challenges.

While new technologies, including genetic engineering, can serve as tools to enhance agricultural productivity, a way has not yet been found to reduce the dependence of crops on large amounts of water, except by installing expensive micro-irrigation systems. Unlike the large conglomerates that own much of the cropland in North America and Europe, most farmers in Asia have small acreage, limiting their capacity to invest in new technologies and irrigation systems.

The fast-rising Asian consumption of meat has by itself turned into a major driver of water stress. After all, production of meat is as much as 10 times more water-intensive than plant-based calories and proteins.[6] In a reflection of the larger Asian trend, meat consumption quadrupled between 1980 and 2010 in China. The ecological footprint of Asia’s increasing livestock population is compounding environmental and resource stresses. The only silver lining for India in an otherwise dismal water situation is the fact that a sizable percentage of its population remains vegetarian.

Asia needs to grow more food with less water. To be sure, the region has come a long way in addressing its food needs. Up to the 1960s, it was troubled by food shortages and recurrent famines. Then, on the back of an unparalleled expansion of irrigation, Asia emerged as a net food exporter in just one generation, opening the door to its economic rise. The total irrigated cropland in Asia doubled between 1960 and 2000 alone. Now, Asia boasts 72% of the world’s total acreage equipped for irrigation, with irrigation mostly concentrated in its most populous subregions.[7]

The irrigation-spurred farming boom, however, has come at a high price. Asia channels 82% of its water resources for agricultural use.[8] This level is not sustainable. With the world’s most rapid industrialization and urbanization, Asia is witnessing the fastest increase in water demand from its industries and municipalities. It thus must make major water savings in agriculture to quench the thirst of its booming industries and expanding cities. This challenge is compounded by the slowing growth in crop yields at a time when Asian food demand, for the first time in decades, is outstripping supply.


How Asian states manage their resource challenges will shape their security and economic trajectories in the coming years. For example, the biggest enemies of alleviating economic poverty are water poverty and energy poverty. Water and energy poverty keep the poor chained to economic poverty. Asia needs an energy-technology revolution that can deliver cheap, reliable power to those mired in energy poverty and help clean up polluted or brackish waters, chemically treat and recycle wastewater, and make ocean water potable. Otherwise, water pollution—largely an intrastate challenge at present—is likely to assume transboundary dimensions and compound inter-country tensions and discord.


Asia’s water resources are largely transnational, making inter-country cooperation and collaboration essential. Yet the vast majority of the 57 transnational river basins in continental Asia have no water-sharing arrangement or any other cooperative mechanism. This troubling reality has to be seen in the context of the strained political relations in several Asian subregions.

The river basins in the Asian continent that have a treaty-based sharing arrangement currently in place are the Al-Asi/Orontes (Lebanon-Syria), Araks-Atrek (Iran-Russia), El-Kaber (Lebanon-Syria), Euphrates (Iraq-Syria), Gandhak (India-Nepal), Ganges (Bangladesh-India), Indus (India-Pakistan), Jordan (Israel-Jordan), and Mahakali (India-Nepal). Arrangements in some of these basins, such as the Gandhak, Jordan, and Mahakali, do not incorporate a formula dividing the shared waters between the parties but rather center on specific water withdrawals, transfers, or rights of utilization. An important arrangement in the Mekong Basin—limited to the lower riparian nations—is centered on the sustainable management of water resources but without any water sharing.

The only treaties in Asia with specific sharing formulas on cross-border river flows are the ones between India and its two downriver neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In addition, the Soviet-era water arrangements in Central Asia continue to hold, even if tenuously, through an interim agreement signed in February 1992. Such is the competition over scarce water resources that even sharing arrangements are not free of rancor and discord.

Central Asia

Consider the water discord among the five so-called “stans” of Central Asia. The interim agreement, signed shortly after these states gained independence, defined on an ad hoc basis the principles to govern the sharing of the waters of the region’s two main rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. Soviet Central Asia’s internal rivers became international watercourses following the independence of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The post-Soviet agreement, while stipulating that the principles would continue until the parties had worked out a new water-sharing arrangement, set up an Interstate Commission for Water Coordination (ICWC) to help develop a new but still-illusive regional water management system.

In the Syr Darya River Basin, where the total annual flows aggregate to 36.57 billion cubic meters, the share of Kazakhstan—located farthest downriver—was set to be no less than 10 billion cubic meters downstream of the Chardara Reservoir. Uzbekistan, however, is the main consumer of the waters of both the Syr Darya and the region’s largest river, the Amu Darya, whose average yearly flows total 78.46 billion cubic meters. In 1996, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan reached a water-allocation accord between themselves to supplement the five-nation 1992 interim agreement.

The fact, however, is that rising nationalism and competition over water resources in parched Central Asia has impeded the development of a regional alternative to the Soviet-era water management system. The old system survives largely due to the threat of force. The three lower but militarily powerful riparians—Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan—wield the threat of force against the small and weak Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which are the sources of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, respectively. Most of the water flows in these two lifelines of Central Asia are generated in the mountainous parts of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.


More broadly, Asia’s water map stands out for the unique riparian status that China enjoys. China is the source of rivers for a dozen countries. No other country in the world serves as the riverhead for so many countries. This makes China the central driver of inter-riparian relations in Asia.

Yet China also stands out for not having a single water-sharing arrangement or cooperation treaty with any co-riparian state. Its refusal to accede to the Mekong Agreement of 1995, for example, has stunted the development of a genuine basin community. By building mega-dams and reservoirs in its borderlands, China is working to unilaterally re-engineer the flows of major rivers that are the lifeblood for the lower riparian states.

To be sure, China trumpets several bilateral water agreements. But none is about water sharing or institutionalized cooperation on shared resources. Some accords are commercial contracts to sell hydrological data to given downstream nations. Others center on joint research initiatives, flood-control projects, hydropower development, fishing, navigation, river islands, hydrologic work, border demarcation, environmental principles, “good-neighborliness and friendly cooperation,” or nonbinding memorandums of understanding.[9] By fobbing off such accords as water agreements, China creates a false impression that it has cooperative riparian relations. In fact, it is to deflect attention from its unwillingness to enter into water sharing or institutionalized cooperation to sustainably manage common rivers that Beijing even advertises the accords it has signed on sharing flow statistics with co-riparian states. These agreements are merely contracts to sell hydrological data, which some other upstream countries provide free to downriver states.

The plain fact is that China rejects the very concept of water sharing. It also asserts a general principle that standing and flowing waters are subject to the full sovereignty of the state where they are located. It thus claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters on its side of the international boundary, including the right to divert as much shared water as it wishes for its legitimate needs.

This principle was embodied in the now-discredited “Harmon Doctrine” in the U.S. more than a century ago. This doctrine is named after U.S. Attorney General Judson Harmon, who put forth the argument that the U.S. owed no obligations under international law to Mexico on shared water resources and was effectively free to divert as much of the shared waters as it wished for U.S. needs.[10]  Yet, despite this thesis, the U.S. went on to conclude water-sharing agreements with Mexico between 1906 and 1944.

China, in rejecting the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (which lays down rules on shared water resources and constitutes the first move to establish an international water law), placed on record its assertion of absolute territorial sovereignty over the waters within its borders: “The text did not reflect the principle of territorial sovereignty of a watercourse state. Such a state had indisputable sovereignty over a watercourse which flowed through its territory.”[11] This indicates that the Harmon Doctrine may be dead in the country of its birth but is alive and kicking in China.

In this light, it is hardly a surprise that water has become a new divide in China’s relations with riparian neighbors. This divide has become apparent as Beijing has increasingly shifted its dam-building focus from the dam-saturated internal rivers to international rivers, most of which originate on the water-rich Tibetan Plateau. Only three important transnational rivers—the Amur, the Irtysh, and the Ili (or Yili), which flow to Russia or Kazakhstan—originate in China outside the Tibetan plateau, whose wealth of water and mineral resources is a big factor in its political subjugation. China’s water disputes with neighbors extend even to North Korea, with which it has yet to settle issues relating to Lake Chonji and two border rivers, the Yalu and the Tumen.

China’s rush to build more dams promises to roil inter-riparian relations, fostering greater water competition and impeding the already slow progress toward regional cooperation and integration. By erecting dams, barrages, and other water diversion structures in its borderlands, China is setting up an extensive upstream infrastructure, thereby spurring growing unease and concern in downriver countries. Getting China on board has thus become critical to shape water for peace in Asia.

More fundamentally, the absence of water institutions in the bulk of transnational basins in Asia is hardly conducive for water peace because it increases the geopolitical risks from the sharpening resource competition and unchecked environmental degradation. These risks are accentuated by the lack of an overarching Asian security architecture and by weak regional consultation mechanisms. Asia is the only continent other than Africa where regional integration has yet to take off, largely because Asian political and cultural diversity has hindered institution building.

Integrated management of transnational water resources through interstate collaboration is essential to prevent their degradation, depletion, and pollution. Only robust water institutions, with rule-based cooperation and sharing, can create the right incentives for nations to sustainably manage and conserve water supplies and to refrain from actions at the expense or injury of a downriver state. When cooperative arrangements are absent in any basin, there is a strong incentive for an upper riparian to try to capture water resources before they flow out of its national borders.


Just as the scramble for energy resources has defined Asian geopolitics in recent decades, the struggle for water seems set to define many inter-country relationships in the coming years. At a time when territorial disputes and separatist struggles in Asia increasingly are being driven by resource issues, water indeed is becoming the new oil. But unlike oil—dependence on which can be reduced by tapping other sources of energy—there is no substitute for water.

In what can be described as tacit hydrological warfare, the resources of transnational rivers, aquifers, and lakes have become the target of rival appropriation plans. The fusion between national identity and river or groundwater basins creates a sense of ownership and propels efforts to control water resources, even if they are internationally shared. Driving the rival appropriation plans and the accompanying water nationalism is the notion that sharing waters is a zero-sum game. This, in turn, has given rise to environmentally questionable ideas with transboundary implications—from China’s Western Route to divert river waters from the Tibetan plateau to its parched north and northwest, to India’s embryonic National River Linking Project that proposes to connect rivers across India to alleviate floods and shortages. China’s Western Route plan is the third phase of its South-North Water Transfer (or Diversion) Project (Nanshui Beidiao Gongcheng), whose first two phases involving internal rivers—the Eastern Route and the Central Route—are already complete or nearing completion.

The danger that riparian disputes could escalate to overt conflict looms large on the Asian horizon, with important implications for Asia’s continued rapid economic growth and water security. Water-rich areas, ominously, are at the center of geopolitical tensions in Asia. They range from Kashmir and Tibet to the Golan Heights and the West Bank. Such areas not only boast water wealth but also are strategically located.

Take Central Asia’s Fergana Valley, whose control is divided among Kyrgyzstan (which holds almost two-thirds), Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The ethnic fault lines that run through the Fergana Valley—a minefield of ethnic animosities—are the source of periodic clashes among the Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. The 2010 bloody riots in the Fergana Valley, which left several hundred Uzbek citizens of Kyrgyzstan dead, were sparked in part by local ethnic Kyrgyz fear that Uzbekistan wanted to absorb the water-rich Kyrgyz part.[12]

There is a similar tripartite political split over water-rich Kashmir. India controls about 45% of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan 35%, and China the remaining 20%. Because the largest rivers flow to Pakistan from the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, many Pakistanis—especially the military generals and their longstanding allies, the mullahs—have linked the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan’s water security. However, only one of the six Indus-system rivers originates in Indian Kashmir; three have their source in India’s Himachal Pradesh state and two in Chinese-ruled Tibet.

Even the Pakistani-held portion of Kashmir, paradoxically, has assumed water-related significance for Pakistan’s unity and social harmony because the upstream Pakistani construction of giant dams on the Indus has created a deep divide between the downriver Sind and Baluchistan provinces and the upriver Punjab, which has appropriated the bulk of the river waters through hydroengineering structures, located largely in Pakistani Kashmir. This large-scale upstream diversion has reduced the Indus system’s farthest downstream flows to a trickle, turning the Indus Delta into a saline marsh and inviting saltwater intrusion from the Arabian Sea into a once-fertile land.

However, to deflect attention from their water appropriation, the Punjabi elites that rule Pakistan have sought to scapegoat India, an increasingly water-stressed country that reserved more than 80% of the Indus basin waters for Pakistan under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. This pact remains the world’s most generous water-sharing arrangement, under which India agreed to keep for itself only a 19.48% share of the waters. (The volume of waters earmarked for Pakistan—by way of comparison—is over 90 times greater than the 1.85 billion cubic meters the U.S. is required to release to Mexico under a 1944 treaty with that country.) India is wracked by increasingly bitter domestic water-sharing disputes that have defied settlement through judicial arbitration.

Significantly, South Asia is the only region, other than North America, where inter-riparian relations are governed by bilateral treaty arrangements, which involve India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan. There are also project-specific water agreements between Bhutan and India. Yet water has emerged as a divisive issue in this region in both the inter-country and intra-country context, with dam building at the center of tensions and recriminations on the subcontinent. The India-Pakistan water relationship remains rife with disputes.

Pakistan, for example, invoked the Indus treaty’s dispute settlement provisions in recent years to take two Indian hydropower projects separately for international adjudication. India has embarked on several dam projects in its part of Kashmir to address chronic electricity shortages there. While railing against the modestly sized run-of-the-river Indian dams, Pakistan has stirred local grassroots protests at home by embarking on much larger, storage-type dams such as the 4,500-megawatt Bhasha Dam (also known as Diamer-Bhasha) and the 7,000-megawatt Bunji Dam. While storage-type hydropower plants impound large volumes of water, run-of-the-river projects are located so as to use a river’s natural flow energy and elevation drop to generate electricity without the aid of a large reservoir and dam.

Pakistan’s new dams are centered in Pakistani Kashmir’s northernmost Gilgit and Baltistan areas, where the Pakistan Army and Sunni jihadist groups have sought to suppress a long-simmering rebellion against Pakistani rule by the local Shiite Muslims. China’s growing role in dam building and other strategic projects in Gilgit-Baltistan, along with the entry of Chinese military units to guard such construction sites, has made the situation there more complex and unsettled, as underscored by the June 2013 killing of nine foreign tourists, including three Chinese, by gunmen.

Kashmir, like other water-rich regions, is a key crossroads in the international geopolitical rivalry, with the Islamic insurrection in the Indian-administered part adding to the India-Pakistan tensions. Tibet is firmly under China’s rule, while the Golan Heights (the source of the Jordan River’s headwaters) and the aquifer-controlling West Bank remain under Israel’s control since their capture in the 1967 Six-Day War. However, Kashmir, like the Fergana Valley, remains a divided and contested territory, with Pakistan averse to accepting the territorial status quo. For the foreseeable future, all the water-rich regions extending up to the traditional Kurdish homeland, which straddles the Tigris-Euphrates basin, are likely to stay potential flashpoints for water conflict in Asia because they seem ripe for further geopolitical jousting.

In fact, like arms racing, “dam racing” has emerged as a geopolitical concern in Asia, where the world’s fastest economic growth is being accompanied by the world’s fastest increase in military spending and the world’s fiercest competition for natural resources. As riparian neighbors compete to capture the water of shared rivers by building dams, reservoirs, barrages, irrigation networks, and other structures, distrust and discord have begun to roil relations between upstream and downstream states.

Asia is already the world’s most dam-dotted continent: It has more dams than the rest of the world combined. China, the world’s biggest dam builder, alone has slightly more than half of the approximately 50,000 large dams on the planet.[13] China’s dam-building zeal began in the Mao Zedong era but picked up momentum after Deng Xiaoping emerged as the paramount leader in 1978. A succession of engineer-presidents in China—Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping—have supported grand water-diversion projects, including the Three Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Diversion Project.

The numerous new dam projects in China and elsewhere show that the damming of rivers remains an important priority for Asian policymakers. In the West, the building of large dams has largely petered out; the rate of decommissioning of dams indeed has overtaken the pace of building new ones in several developed countries. According to international projections for the next 10 years, the total number of dams in developed countries is likely to remain about the same. Much of the dam building in the developing world, in terms of aggregate storage-capacity buildup, is expected to be concentrated in Asia. Dam building on transnational rivers, however, is already stoking inter-riparian tensions in Asia.


Water disputes in Asia center on four distinct zones: China and its neighbors; India and its neighbors; the countries of continental Southeast Asia; and the five “stans” of Central Asia. The dam-building competition involves even the lower riparian states because it is often driven by the doctrine of prior appropriation, which legitimizes the principle “First in time, first in right.” Under this doctrine of customary international water law, the first user of river waters (whether an upstream or downstream state) acquires a priority right to the continued utilization of river waters, as long as those resources are diverted for “beneficial” applications, including irrigation, industrial or mining purposes, electric power generation, and municipal supply.

In the interstate context, water can be turned into an instrument of power through resource capture and control or by upholding inequitable utilization patterns. This usually necessitates either the construction of hydroengineering structures to reengineer transboundary flows or the perpetuation of unfair, pre-independence arrangements in the name of protecting “historical rights.” The latter could involve implicit threats of use of force. Dam building, by intensifying water disputes and tensions across Asia, carries implications for regional stability.

The ability to fashion water into an instrument of control or manipulation, of course, hinges on regional power equations. Only militarily and economically powerful states can normally shape water into a possible political weapon, irrespective of whether they are located upstream or downstream. But if one party, even if lacking matching military and economic prowess, has sufficient capability and political will to mount an effective or strong challenge against a co-basin state, it crimps the latter’s potential to use water as a weapon. Generally, downstream states have a tendency to be alarmist on an upper riparian’s damming of a shared river. When the upper riparian is the preeminent regional power, it may have little incentive to enter into a water-sharing treaty with a downriver state, although the United States and India have concluded such pacts with weaker neighbors.

Central Asia

Central Asia serves as a good example of how water can be wielded as an instrument of power through downstream control, including through threat of force. The regional water competition pits the upstream interests of energy-poor Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan against those of the larger and stronger countries that are the main water consumers: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. The three hydrocarbon-rich countries not only use the bulk of the region’s renewable water resources—estimated at 263 billion cubic meters per year—but also insist that their leonine share is protected under the norm of “historical rights.”

The Central Asian downstream states, with their military might, have the capacity to prevent the upstream countries from building any new hydroengineering projects that could materially alter transboundary flows. This power has blocked the emergence of an equitable successor regime to the region’s Soviet-era water-management system, which integrated water, energy, and agriculture under a federally run and highly centralized regional arrangement. The region’s artificial political frontiers, which bear little resemblance to natural or ethnic fault lines, have also compounded water-sharing issues. The regional water competition indeed is fraught with major ethnic-rivalry dimensions. The intersection between ethnic identity and water insecurity in Central Asia has fostered deep-seated ill will among communities and occasionally spawned violent conflict.

The continued downstream production of cotton, a highly water-intensive crop, through intensive irrigation has exacerbated the regional water discord. In fact, the curse of cotton from the Soviet era has been an important contributor to the degradation of water and land resources in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. It has also led to the extensive retreat of the Aral Sea, which has shrunk to about one-fourth of its original size because of heavy extractions for irrigation from its principal sources, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya.[14]

In this tricky and risky situation, Uzbekistan, with 45% of the Central Asian population, consumes more than half the region’s water supply and uses threats of military reprisals against upstream states to shield its appropriation of the dominant share of water resources. It remains embroiled in bitter water rows with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan over their dam-building proposals to boost energy production. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan contend that such dam building is imperative because the main water-consuming states located downstream are unwilling to supply them with hydrocarbons at concessional rates, as was the practice in the Soviet era. However, Uzbekistan’s implicit military threats have stymied their plans to build large new hydroelectric stations and become renewable-energy exporters. The threats have compelled Tajikistan, for example, not to press ahead with plans to resume work on unfinished Soviet-era hydropower projects, including one on the Vakhsh River that was intended to be the world’s highest dam.


China, however, serves as the best example of upstream water hegemony in Asia—and indeed the wider world. It has established a hydro-hegemony unparalleled on any continent by annexing in 1951 the Tibetan Plateau, the starting place of major international rivers. Another sprawling territory Beijing forcibly absorbed, Xinjiang, is the source of the transnational Irtysh and Ili Rivers. Given that China is at the geographical hub of Asia, sharing land or sea frontiers with 20 countries, no rules-based regional order can emerge without its participation in institutionalized cooperation. This challenge is most striking on transboundary rivers.

The Tibetan Plateau is central in Asia's water map

The Tibetan Plateau is central in Asia’s water map

Not content with the large number of dams, reservoirs, barrages, and irrigation networks it has already built, the Chinese government in early 2013 unveiled plans to build new cascades of dams, many of them on major rivers flowing to other countries. The decision by China’s State Council to ride roughshod over downstream countries’ concerns and proceed unilaterally showed that the main issue facing Asia is not readiness to accommodate China’s rise but the need to persuade its leaders to institutionalize cooperation with neighboring countries.

Most of China’s dams serve multiple functions, including generating electric power and supplying water for manufacturing, mining, irrigation, and households. Dam building in downstream countries, although stoking interstate disputes too, pales in comparison with the extent of China’s dam building. For example, China’s latest dam on the Mekong River, the 5,850-megawatt Nuozhadu, can alone generate more electricity than the combined installed hydropower capacity in the lower-Mekong countries at present. The 330-megawatt Indian dam project on the Kishenganga (Neelum) stream that prompted Pakistan to invoke international arbitration proceedings under the Indus Treaty in 2010 is of a size that Chinese dam builders would scoff at, considering it uneconomical as a stand-alone project unconnected to a cascade of dams. In fact, the largest dam India has built since independence, the 2,000-megawatt Tehri on the Bhagirathi River, is not large by Chinese standards. Tehri is capable of producing barely one-tenth of the electricity generated by China’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s biggest.

By ramping up the size of its dams, China now not only boasts the world’s largest number of mega-dams, but it has also emerged as the biggest global producer of hydropower, with an installed generating capacity of nearly 230 gigawatts. The serious environmental and social problems spawned by the Three Gorges Dam—which officially uprooted 1.7 million Chinese—have failed to dampen China’s hyperactive dam building.

In its 2013 actions, China’s State Council, seeking to boost the country’s hydropower capacity by another 120 gigawatts, identified 54 new dams—in addition to the ones currently under construction—as “key construction projects” in a revised energy-sector plan up to 2015. Most of the new dams are planned in the biodiversity-rich southwest, where natural ecosystems and indigenous cultures are increasingly threatened. Among the slew of newly approved dam projects are five on the Salween and three each on the Brahmaputra and the Mekong. China has already built six mega-dams on the Mekong, the lifeblood for continental Southeast Asia.

The new damming plans threaten both the Salween River’s Grand Canyon—a UNESCO World Heritage site—and the pristine, environmentally sensitive upstream areas through which the Brahmaputra and the Mekong flow. These three international rivers originate on the Tibetan plateau, whose bounteous water resources have become a magnet for Chinese planners. The Salween, which runs through Yunnan Province into Myanmar and along the Thai border for a stretch before draining into the Andaman Sea, will cease to be Asia’s last largely free-flowing river once work is completed on the giant 4,200-megawatt Songta Dam in Tibet.

The State Council decision reversed the suspension of dam building on the Salween announced by Premier Wen Jiabao in 2004, after an international uproar over the start of multiple megaprojects in the National Nature Reserves, adjacent to a world heritage area—a stunning canyon region through which the Salween, the Mekong, and the Jinsha flow in parallel. The decision to resume work on dams along the rim of the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Area was consistent with the pattern established elsewhere, including the Yangtze: China temporarily suspends a controversial plan after major protests in order to let public passions cool and to buy time, before resurrecting the same plan.

China’s new dam projects on the Brahmaputra, the main river running through northeastern India and eastern Bangladesh, have meanwhile prompted the Indian government to advise China to “ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed” by the upstream works. Water has emerged as a new divide in Sino-Indian relations. Then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally proposed to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in separate meetings in the spring of 2013 that the two countries enter into a water treaty or establish an intergovernmental institution to define mutual rights and responsibilities on shared rivers. Both Xi and Li, however, spurned the proposal. The Indian assumption that booming bilateral trade would make Beijing more amenable to solving the border and water disputes with India has clearly been belied.

Indeed, China is damming not just the Brahmaputra, on which it has already completed several dams, but also other rivers in Tibet that flow into India. It has built a dam each on the Indus and the Sutlej and unveiled plans to erect a cascade of dams on the Arun River, which helps augment downstream Ganges flows and is thus critical for India to meet its water-sharing treaty obligations vis-à-vis Bangladesh. The flash floods that ravaged India’s Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh states between 2000 and 2005 were linked to the unannounced releases from rain-swollen Chinese dams and barrages.

The Brahmaputra is a huge attraction for China’s dam program because this river’s cross-border annual discharge of 165.4 billion cubic meters into India is greater than the combined transboundary flows of the three key rivers running from the Tibetan plateau to Southeast Asia—the Mekong, the Salween, and the Irrawaddy. An officially blessed book published in 2005, Tibet’s Waters Will Save China, openly championed the northward rerouting of the mighty Brahmaputra, although it is unclear whether this idea is technically feasible.[15] As China gradually moves its dam building on the Brahmaputra from the upper reaches to the river’s lower water-rich Great Bend—the area where the Brahmaputra makes a U-turn around the Himalayas to enter India, forming the world’s longest and steepest canyon in the process—it is expected to embark on Mekong-style mega-dams.

More fundamentally, China’s new focus on building dams in its southwest carries transnational safety concerns because this is an earthquake-prone region. Indeed, some Chinese scientists blamed the massive 2008 earthquake that struck the Tibetan Plateau’s eastern rim, killing 87,000 people, mainly in Sichuan Province, on the newly constructed Zipingpu Dam, located beside a seismic fault.[16] The weight of the water impounded in the 156-meter-high dam’s massive reservoir was said to have triggered severe tectonic stresses, or what scientists call reservoir-triggered seismicity (RTS). China’s southwest is an area of high seismic activity because it sits on the fault line where the Indian Plate collides against the Eurasian Plate.

To be sure, China, despite its riparian dominance in Asia, faces important water challenges internally. Although China’s average renewable water resources are 2,051 cubic meters per capita annually, the figure is just 700 cubic meters in its water-stressed north, home to nearly half the country’s population.[17] The intrastate disparity in water availability is compounded by the fact that the largely parched north serves as the country’s agricultural and industrial heartland. This has contributed to serious surface-water pollution and the steady depletion of groundwater resources in the north.

Yet such is its fixation on supply-side measures that China is to spend a staggering $290 billion under its current five-year plan on water-related infrastructure projects, including dams.[18] At a time when dam building has run into growing grassroots opposition in Asian democracies like Japan, South Korea, and India, China will remain the nucleus of the world’s dam projects. Significantly, China is also the global leader in exporting dams.

While the dams China is building in Africa and Latin America are largely designed to supply the energy for its mineral-resource extraction and processing, many of the dam projects in Southeast Asia financed and undertaken by Chinese state-run firms are intended to generate electricity for export to China’s own market. Indeed, China is demonstrating that it has no qualms about building dams in disputed territories, such as Pakistan-administered Kashmir, or in areas torn by ethnic separatism, like northern Myanmar. At home, by embarking on a series of dams in its ethnic-minority-populated borderlands, China is seeking to appropriate river waters before they cross its frontiers, thereby exacerbating ethnic tensions through the submergence of land and displacement of residents.

China’s overseas dam projects have drawn attention to their mounting environmental and human costs. For example, work on the Myitsone Dam—the biggest of the seven dam projects in Myanmar sponsored by China to import electricity—instigated new disputes and fighting, ending a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and government forces, before authorities shocked Beijing by suspending the project in late 2011. The bold action set the stage for Myanmar’s own transformation from military rule and a virtual Chinese client state to a country that has opened its doors to political and economic reform, attracting global investors and the first-ever visit by a U.S. president. The question haunting Chinese policymakers today is, “Who lost Burma?”

As for China’s dam projects at home, the countries likely to bear the brunt of the Chinese thirst for power and control over transboundary waters are those located farthest downstream on rivers like the Brahmaputra, the Mekong, and the Ili: Bangladesh, whose future is threatened by climate and environmental change; Vietnam, a rice bowl of Asia; and Kazakhstan, which boasts 17,000 natural lakes but whose own overexploitation of water resources has already dried up 8,000 small lakes.[19]

Whereas the Brahmaputra is the largest source of freshwater for Bangladesh, Vietnam is located downstream on two rivers flowing in from the edge of the Tibetan plateau: the Red River, the main watercourse of northern Vietnam; and the Mekong, the principal river of southern Vietnam. China’s water appropriations from the Ili threaten to turn Kazakhstan’s largest lake—Balkhash, spread over 18,000 square kilometers—into another Aral Sea, which has become the symbol of human-made environmental disaster. Diversion of water for irrigation from the Ili Basin already “has led to ecological problems in the region, notably the drying up of small lakes.”[20]

At a time when upstream Chinese dams have helped stir popular passions in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, the U.S. has sought to diplomatically cash in on downstream concerns by launching the Lower Mekong Initiative, or LMI. The U.S.-sponsored LMI—seeking to promote integrated cooperation among Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam in the areas of environment, education, health, and infrastructure—emphasizes sustainable hydropower development and natural resource management, including improving institutional capacity to address connected transnational issues. The LMI, however, cannot obscure the imperative to build institutionalized cooperative arrangements involving all the Mekong basin states, including China. One U.S. official has urged Beijing to overcome its loathing of institutionalized water cooperation and join the Mekong River Commission, which was set up in 1995 to foster integrated and sustainable management of basin resources.[21]

The situation in the basin has also been roiled by Laotian and Cambodian plans to build dams on the Mekong, including with Chinese financial and technical aid. Laos, which wants to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia by selling electricity to its neighbors, has courted regional controversy by starting work on the 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi (Sayabouly) Dam and unveiling a plan to build the smaller 260-megawatt Don Sahong Dam near its iconic Khone Falls area in the south, just before the river enters Cambodia. Environmentalists have warned that the Xayaburi Dam, which Laos began constructing over its neighbors’ objections, posed a potential threat to the survival of the wild population of the Mekong giant catfish.


Another zone of water discord centers on India, which has multiple riparian identities. It is the uppermost riparian on some rivers that originate on its territory, such as the Chenab and the Jhelum, which flow to Pakistan, and the Teesta, which drains a part of northern Bangladesh. India is the mid-riparian on the Brahmaputra and the main Indus stream. And India is the lowermost riparian on the rivers that begin in Tibet and flow southward via Nepal to empty into the Ganges Basin, such as the Karnali, the Gandak, and the Kosi (Arun). Besides India, few other states in Asia fall in all the three categories—upper, middle, and lower riparian. Indeed, such is India’s geographical spread that it has a direct stake in all the important river basins in South Asia.

Because of its mottled riparian status, India is potentially affected by water-related actions of states located upstream—China, Nepal, and Bhutan—while its own actions can carry a cross-border impact on Pakistan or Bangladesh. No nation is more vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of transboundary flows than India because it alone receives nearly half of all river waters that leave Chinese territory. A total of 718 billion cubic meters of surface water flows out of Chinese territory yearly, of which 48.33% runs directly into India.[22] (Some additional Tibetan waters also flow to India via Nepal.) Bangladesh, on the other hand, has one of the world’s highest dependency ratios with regard to cross-border inflows, receiving 91.3% of its water from India, although a sizable portion of that water originates in Tibet.

India confronts a deepening water crisis, which is more acute than China’s. Yet India’s per capita capacity to store water for dry-season release (200 cubic meters yearly) is one of the world’s lowest; indeed, it is 11 times lower than China’s (2,200 cubic meters).[23] The 2030 Water Resources Group—a consortium of private social-sector organizations providing insights into worldwide water issues—has a dire warning for India: the country is likely to face a 50% deficit between water demand and supply by 2030.[24] India’s own agencies say it must nearly double its annual grain production to more than 450 million tons by 2050 to meet the demands of increasing prosperity and a growing population, or risk becoming a major food importer—a development that will disrupt the already tight international food markets.[25] The growing water shortages also threaten to slow Indian economic growth and fuel social tensions.

With water increasingly at the center of interprovincial feuds in India, the country’s Supreme Court has struggled for years to settle water-related lawsuits, with several of the parties returning to litigate on new grounds. Plans for large water projects in India, meanwhile, have run into stiff opposition from influential nongovernment organizations (NGOs), so that it has become increasingly difficult to build a large dam, blighting the promise of hydropower. Proof of this was the federal government’s 2010 decision to abandon three dam projects on the Bhagirathi River, a Ganges tributary, including one that was already half-built, with authorities having spent $139 million on construction work and ordered equipment worth $288 million.

Yet, seeking to exercise the right of prior appropriation on transnational rivers, the Indian government has since 2012 approved the construction of several dams for electric-power generation in the Himalayan states of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Jammu and Kashmir. They include the Tawang (800 megawatt), Tato (700 megawatt), Subansiri Upper (1,800 megawatt), and Teesta (520 megawatt) projects. Cost and time overruns are common problems in every dam project in India. But given the growing grassroots power of NGOs in blocking dam building, it is unclear which of the newly approved projects will be completed and in what time frame.

In truth, India demonstrates that dams and democracy normally don’t go well together. Whereas China continues to build giant dams and reroute rivers, trumpeting these projects as symbols of its engineering prowess, the public pressures generated by India’s democracy act as a brake on ambitious water projects that displace many people or flood vast areas. For example, while India’s river-linking plan remains in the realm of fantasy, China’s similar program began transferring water domestically through the Eastern Route by 2013.

Still, given the growing gap between Asian water demand and supply, water disputes are almost as rife between India and its neighbors as they are between China and its neighbors. There are, however, two key differences. One, India has water pacts with all its riparian neighbors other than China. And two, its water-sharing treaties with Bangladesh and Pakistan contain dispute-settlement mechanisms.

The Indus Treaty, according to a 2011 majority staff report prepared for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is “considered the world’s most successful water treaty, having remained relatively intact for 50 years and having withstood four Indo-Pakistani wars.”[26] Yet this treaty has not been able to stop bilateral water disputes from surfacing and embittering relations. The treaty, however, contains elaborate provisions to resolve differences or disputes through the appointment of a neutral international expert or a court of arbitration. These mechanisms help to moderate disagreements, ensuring that they do not escalate to conflict.

Still, the reality is that water shortages have become acute in Pakistan, which maintains one of Asia’s highest population-growth rates. The total quantum of cross-border flows into Pakistan from India has not materially changed over the years, in spite of genuine concerns over the impact of global warming. The inflows include an average of 167.2 billion cubic meters yearly from the three large rivers reserved for Pakistan under the Indus Treaty, plus 11.1 billion cubic meters in bonus waters that run across the border from the three smaller rivers set aside for India’s use. So, Pakistan’s effective share, according to the U.N., adds up to 85.9% of the 207.6 billion cubic meters in total yearly flows of the six Indus-system rivers.[27] In other words, Pakistan’s share of transboundary waters is greater than that of Egypt, another state located farthest downstream on a major international river system.

But with Pakistan’s per capita water availability falling in proportion to its population expansion, the country has since the 1980s gone from being a water-sufficient country to becoming a water-stressed one. It is now headed toward acute water scarcity. India’s own portion of the Indus Basin is reeling under growing water stress, with the deficit between water supply and demand estimated at 52%.[28] Both Pakistan and India thus face difficult choices on water that are likely to be compounded by climate change, including the accelerated thawing of glaciers—a significant source of meltwaters for the major rivers, particularly the Indus and the Brahmaputra.[29]  Dealing with the challenges demands greater bilateral water cooperation, which hinges on improved India-Pakistan relations.

Low-lying Bangladesh, for its part, has too much water during the annual four-month monsoon, when large parts of the deltaic country become inundated, and too little in the dry season, which runs from early spring to early summer. Bangladesh’s annual per capita water availability averages 8,252 cubic meters—or more than five times that of India—but the major interseasonal variations, which are larger than that in any other South Asian country, and the limited storage capacity of its aquifers, make its water situation difficult.

India’s 1996 Ganges water-sharing treaty with Bangladesh, which ended protracted acrimony over the diversion of water by India’s Farakka Barrage, guarantees the downstream state specific cross-border flows in the critical dry season—a new principle in international water relations. This provision means that even if the river’s flows were to diminish due to reasons beyond India’s control—such as climate change or the planned Chinese damming of a key Ganges tributary, the Arun (also known as the Kosi) that contributes significantly to downstream Ganges water levels—India would still be obligated to supply Bangladesh with 34,060 cubic feet of water per second of time (cusecs) on average in the dry season, as stipulated by the treaty. Bangladesh’s share of downstream flows is about 50%.

The Ganges Treaty, by and large, has been smoothly implemented, but new disagreements have flared over smaller river basins shared by Bangladesh and India, especially over New Delhi’s proposed revival of a long-dormant multipurpose dam project, Tipaimukh, in remote Manipur State bordering Myanmar. Located 210 kilometers upstream from the Bangladesh border on the Barak River and designed to control floods, improve river navigation, and generate 1,500 megawatts of hydropower, the Tipaimukh Dam had been held up for years by grassroots concerns on the Indian side over displacement and submergence. To help resolve bilateral differences over this plan, India has arranged tours for Bangladeshi officials and lawmakers to the project site and supplied the design and other technical details.

Separately, Bangladesh wants India to reserve for it about half of the waters of the Teesta River, which originates in the Himalayan Indian state of Sikkim and ultimately merges with the Brahmaputra in the Bangladeshi delta. The draft text of the proposed Teesta Treaty has been under discussion since at least 2010, and the two countries would have signed the agreement in 2013 but for the opposition of the government of India’s West Bengal State, for whose northern part the Teesta serves as the lifeline. Many believe that it is only a matter of time before this agreement is signed, a development that will end the long global absence of a new water-sharing treaty since 2002, when Syria and Lebanon agreed on a sharing formula on their small border river El-Kaber.

Two other South Asian states, Nepal and Bhutan, sit on vast untapped Himalayan hydropower reserves. Nepal, which remains in danger of becoming a failed state, holds up to 83,000 megawatts of potential hydropower reserves, yet it produces less than 1,000 megawatts of electricity for its 32 million citizens from all sources of energy and actually imports power from India. Several water treaties underpin the India-Nepal relationship, but the pacts have been particularly controversial in upstream Nepal, where many seem to believe that they are loaded in India’s favor. The two neighbors thus have made slow progress on bilateral water collaboration, with Nepal recently turning to China for dam construction. The Bhutan-India water relationship, by contrast, has flourished through joint, small-scale hydropower projects, with electricity exports swelling Bhutanese coffers.

If the already difficult water situation on the Indian subcontinent is to be prevented from deteriorating, much greater interstate and intrastate cooperation is needed. This is one of the world’s most-densely populated and thirstiest regions. Yet it is wracked by complex water challenges that are set to become more difficult due to demographic and economic expansion and global warming. This region has virtually the same land area as Central Asia, but a population that is more than 18 times larger. Its water resources are barely six times greater than those of Central Asia. In global terms, the countries of South Asia account for about 22% of the world’s population, but make do with barely 8.3% of the global water resources.[30]


The situation in Asia—the hub of global water challenges—shows that water can be fashioned into a hidden political weapon by various means, including the denial or delayed transfer of hydrological data, and that a powerful state can wield the water weapon irrespective of whether it is located upstream or downstream. In a diplomatic or economic sense, water wars are already being waged between riparian neighbors in several of Asia’s subregions. With a number of Asian nations jockeying to control transnational water resources, even as they demand transparency and the sharing of information about their neighbors’ hydroengineering projects, sharpening water competition could provoke greater tensions and conflict.

Such competition actually underscores Asia’s broader challenges, which threaten its continued rise. To be sure, the ongoing global power shifts are primarily linked to Asia’s economic rise, the speed and scale of which have been phenomenal. But Asia faces major constraints. It must cope with entrenched territorial and maritime disputes; harmful historical legacies that weigh down its most important interstate relationships; increasingly fervent nationalism; growing religious extremism; and sharpening competition over water, energy, and other resources.

Moreover, Asia’s political integration lags behind its economic integration and, to compound matters, it has no overarching security framework. One central concern is that, unlike Europe’s bloody wars of the first half of the 20th century, which made war there unthinkable until the advent of the Ukraine crisis recently, the wars in Asia in the second half of the 20th century only accentuated bitter rivalries. Several interstate wars have been fought in Asia since 1950, when both the Korean War and the annexation of Tibet started, without resolving the underlying disputes. Given the significant role that natural resources have historically played in global strategic relations—including instigating conflict—Asia’s increasingly murky resource geopolitics threatens to exacerbate existing interstate tensions.

Water-sharing disputes have become common across Asia. Measures taken by one nation or province to augment its water supply or storage capacity often threaten to adversely affect downstream basins, thereby stoking political or ethnic tensions. To compound matters, governmental or commercial decisions on where to set up new manufacturing or energy plants are increasingly being influenced by local availability of adequate water resources. Attempts to set up water-intensive energy or manufacturing plants in already water-stressed areas have provoked strong local protests, including violent confrontations with police.

Today, it has become virtually impossible to set up nuclear power plants along freshwater bodies in Asia, the center of the so-called global nuclear renaissance. These water-guzzling plants perforce have to be erected along coastlines so that they can rely on seawater for their operations. Yet the 2011 Fukushima disaster has served as a warning of the vulnerability of seaside nuclear facilities to extreme weather events, which are likely to become more common in an increasingly global-warming-driven environment. Meanwhile, the proliferation of new dam projects highlights the continuing Asian efforts to engineer potential solutions to the water crisis via traditional supply-side approaches when the imperative is instead to adopt smart water management.

Against this background, the big question is: how can the struggle for water be prevented from becoming a tipping point for overt conflict? Strategic competition over natural resources will continue to shape Asia’s security dynamics, yet the associated risks could be moderated if Asia’s leaders were to establish norms and institutions aimed at building rules-based cooperation. Unfortunately, little progress has been made in this direction, as underlined by the absence of institutionalized cooperation in the vast majority of transnational river basins.

Averting water wars demands rule-based cooperation, water sharing, uninterrupted data flow, and dispute-settlement mechanisms. Transparency, collaboration, and sharing are the building blocks of water peace. Asia also needs new market mechanisms, public-private partnerships, innovative practices and technologies, conservation, and astute management to advance adaptation and affordable solutions and thereby open the path to a more sustainable and peaceful environment to safeguard its continued rise.

Asian economies must focus on three specific areas to mitigate their water crisis. One is achieving greater water-use efficiency and productivity, especially by controlling profligate agricultural practices. Another is using new clean-water technologies to open up nontraditional supply sources, including desalinated ocean and brackish water and recycled wastewater. The third is expanding and enhancing water infrastructure to correct regional and seasonal imbalances in water availability, and to harvest rainwater, which can be an additional supply source to help ease shortages. Improving water-supply management calls for abandoning the business-as-usual outlook and embracing unconventional approaches.

Renewed efforts are also needed to try and co-opt China in basin-level institutions. Without China’s active participation in water institutions, it will not be possible to transform Asian competition into cooperation. Only water institutions involving all important co-riparians can make headway to regulate inter-country competition, help balance the rights and obligations of co-basin states, and promote sustainable practices. If China were to accept rule-based cooperation, it would have to strike a balance between its right to harness transnational water resources for its development and a corresponding obligation (embedded in customary international law and the 1997 United Nations Convention) not to cause palpable harm to any co-riparian state.

A balance between rights and obligations indeed is at the heart of how to achieve harmonious, rule-based relations between co-basin states. To be sure, any water arrangement’s comparative benefits and burdens should be such that the advantages outweigh the duties and responsibilities, or else the state that sees itself as a loser may walk out of discussions or fail to comply with its obligations. China must be persuaded that its diplomatic and economic interests would be better served by joining forward-looking institutionalized cooperation. Beijing will need considerable convincing, of course, if it is to participate in any basin-level framework centered on compromise, coordination, and collaboration. If China insists on staying on its current unilateralist course, the risk is not only that it will define and implement its water interests in ways irreconcilable with those of its co-riparian states, but also that prospects for a rule-based order in Asia could perish forever.

The dirty little secret about bilateral or multilateral water cooperation in any basin is that it is really more about politics than about law. Without improved inter-country relations and better trust, Asia’s hydropolitics will remain grating. Strained political relations in most of Asia’s subregions make an Asia-wide security structure or more effective resource cooperation difficult to achieve. Connected with this is the overarching challenge for Asian countries to eliminate the baggage of history that is preventing them from charting a more stable and peaceful future. Unassuaged historical grievances have constricted diplomatic space for building political accommodation and reconciliation. Asian states must find ways to overcome their histories of antagonism to build cooperation. As a Russian proverb warns, “Forget the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes.”


[1] United Nations, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision (New York: UN, April 2012).

[2] Brahma Chellaney, Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), p. 273.

[3] World Bank, Cost of Pollution in China: Economic Estimates of Physical Damages (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2007), <>.

[4] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Aquastat online database. Figures for 2011,

[5] United Nations, The State of the Environment in Asia and the Pacific 2005 (Bangkok: United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 2006), pp. 57-58.

[6] A. Y. Hoekstra and A. K. Chapagain, Globalization of Water: Sharing the Planet’s Freshwater Resources (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008); and Food and Agriculture Organization, Water Resources of the Near-East Region: A Review (Rome: FAO, 1997).

[7] FAO, Aquastat online database.

[8] Ibid.

[9] For a list of agreements China advertises, see Annex I in Patricia Wouters and Huiping Chen, “China’s ‘Soft-Path’ to Transboundary Water Cooperation Examined in the Light of Two UN Global Water Conventions—Exploring the ‘Chinese Way’,” The Journal of Water Law 22:6 (2011), pp. 246-47.

[10] U.S. Attorney General Opinions, 21 Op. Att’y Gen. 274 (1895) (‘‘Harmon Opinion’’). Attorney General Judson Harmon wrote in 1895 that ‘‘the fundamental principle of international law is the absolute sovereignty of every nation, as against all others, within its own territory.’’ Hon. Judson Harmon to the Secretary of State, December 12, 1895, in E. C. Brandenburg, ed., Official Opinions: The Attorneys-General of the United States, Advising the President and Heads of Departments,vol. 21 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1898), p. 281.

[11] Statement of Chinese envoy Gao Feng at the United Nations General Assembly, May 21, 1997, in “General Assembly Adopts Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses,” United Nations Press Release, GA/9248, <>.

[12] Michael Schwirtz and Ellen Barry, “Russia Weighs Pleas to Step in as Uzbeks Flee Kyrgyzstan,” New York Times, June 14, 2010.

[13] Chellaney, Water, Peace, and War, p. 233. Also see International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), “Register of Dams,” <>.

[14] Philip Micklin, “The Aral Sea Disaster,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 35 (May 2007), pp. 47–72.

[15] Li Ling, Xizang Zhi Shui Jiu Zhongguo: Da Xi Xian Zai Zao Zhongguo Zhan Lue Nei Mu Xiang Lu [Tibet’s Waters Will Save China], in Mandarin (Beijing: Zhongguo Chang’an chu ban she, November 2005), book sponsored by the Ministry of Water Resources.

[16]Shemin Ge, Mian Liu, Ning Lu, Jonathan W. Godt, and Gang Luo, “Did the Zipingpu Reservoir Trigger the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake?” Geophysical Research Letters 36 (2009). Also see Richard Kerr and Richard Stone, “A Human Trigger for the Great Quake of Sichuan,” Science, 323, no. 5912 (January 16, 2009); Sharon La Franiere, “Possible Link Between Dam and China Quake,” New York Times, February 6, 2009; and Jordan Lite, “Great China Earthquake May Have Been Man-Made,” Scientific American, February 3, 2009.

[17] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Country Fact-Sheet: China, Aquastat, 2014, <>.

[18] Leslie Hook, “China: High and Dry,” Financial Times, May 14, 2013.

[19] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Irrigation in the Countries of the Former Soviet Union in Figures, FAO Water Report No. 15 (Rome: FAO, 1997).

[20] FAO, Irrigation in the Countries of the Former Soviet Union.

[21] Joshua Lipes, “China Should Join Mekong Commission: U.S. Official,” Radio Free Asia, January 9, 2014, <>.

[22] FAO, Aquastat online database.

[23] Chellaney, Water, Peace, and War, p. 287.

[24] 2030 Water Resources Group (Barilla Group, Coca-Cola Company, International Finance Corporation, McKinsey & Company, Nestlé S.A., New Holland Agriculture, SABMiller PLC, Standard Chartered Bank, and Syngenta AG), Charting Our Water Future (New York: 2030 Water Resources Group, 2009), p. 10.

[25] Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development, Integrated Water Resource Development: A Plan for Action, vol. 1 (New Delhi: Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development, Ministry of Water Resources, 1999); National Water Development Agency, Indian Ministry of Water Resources, “The Need,” <>.

[26] United States Senate, Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia’s Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, A Majority Staff Report, Prepared for the Use of the Committee on Foreign Relations (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, February 22, 2011), p. 7.

[27] United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Irrigation in Southern and Eastern Asia in Figures, Water Report 37 (Rome: FAO, 2012). The figure does not include the waters of the Kabul River, which flows from Afghanistan to join the main Indus stream in Pakistan.

[28] 2030 Water Resources Group, Charting Our Water Future, p. 56.


Walter W. Immerzeel, Ludovicus P. H. van Beek, and Marc F. P. Bierkens, “Climate Change Will Affect the Asian Water Towers,” Science 328:5983 (June 11, 2010), pp. 1384–85.

[30] FAO, Aquastat online database.

Asian Survey, Vol. 54, Number 4, pp. 621–650. ISSN0004-4687, electronic ISSN1533-838X.

Copyright 2014 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, DOI: 10.1525/AS.2014.54.4.621.

To prevent another MH17, examine root causes


By Brahma ChellaneyNikkie Asian Review

Despite the international outrage over its tragic fate, Malaysia Airlines’ MH17 is not the first civilian airliner thought to have been shot down by rebels with an anti-aircraft missile. Nor will it be the last, unless urgent steps are taken internationally to avert another such disaster.

A Buk M-23 air defense missile system is seen on display during an international air show outside Moscow. © Reuters

Next to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the greatest threat to international security and civilian safety is posed by surface-to-air missiles, including the shoulder-fired types known as man-portable air defense systems, or “manpads.” Yet major powers have supplied such missiles to rebel groups in different parts of the world for decades.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are at least 500,000 manpads in state or nonstate hands in more than 100 countries. Estimates of the number of shoulder-fired SAMs in terrorist or rebel hands range up to 150,000. In Afghanistan alone, U.S. forces have secured thousands of such weapons since intervening in 2001.

To be sure, MH17 fell victim to a vicious Russian-U.S. proxy war over Ukraine that has destabilized that country and helped foment a raging civil war there. The MH17 crash, coming on the heels of a new round of American sanctions against Moscow, promises to further escalate this proxy conflict, pitting the U.S. and Russia against each other in a new style of Cold War.

The downing of the passenger plane occurred at a time when the U.S.-backed government in Kiev was waging artillery and air attacks on cities held by pro-Russian separatists. The fighting has created a humanitarian crisis and prompted rebels and the regime to declare rival no-fly zones over parts of eastern Ukraine.

In truth, this was a tragedy waiting to happen. In the absence of direct communication, tracking satellites, air traffic control over rebel-held territory, or the technology to detect a civilian plane’s transponder, it was easy for a ground unit to mistake a civil airliner for a military transport aircraft. A U.S. Federal Aviation Administration notice expressed concern over the potential for misidentification of civilian aircraft over eastern Ukraine, although the institution banned American flights over the area only after the MH17 disaster.

Amid increasingly murky geopolitical issues, the question that needs to be asked is why a number of airlines were still flying over a major battle zone. The rebels had already demonstrated their anti-aircraft capability on July 14, shooting down a Ukrainian military transport plane. That was three days before MH17 went down.

Some carriers, including Korean Airlines, Qantas Airways, Asiana Airlines, and Taiwan’s China Airlines, had stopped using Ukrainian airspace by April. Those that continued to overfly rebel-controlled territory appeared to take their cue from one side in the armed conflict — the Ukrainian government in Kiev — throwing caution to the wind.

There is a much bigger question: Given the proliferation of anti-aircraft weapons in the hands of nonstate actors, how can the world ensure that another commercial jetliner is not shot down? This question assumes greater significance because the MH17 incident shows that the international community has failed to learn from the downing of a number of civilian airliners by rebels in the past.

Today, the focus is rightly on Russia’s alleged role in training and arming separatists in eastern Ukraine with manpads and the more lethal Buk-M2E missile launch platform, which is suspected to have brought down MH17 with a single SA-11 Gadfly missile. The U.S. has taken the lead in holding Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, guilty in the global court of opinion. But Washington has itself armed rebels elsewhere with anti-aircraft weapons that have brought down passenger planes.

Insurgents battling Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s downed three passenger aircraft with U.S.-supplied missiles. The deadliest incident occurred on Sept. 4, 1985, when rebels shot down a Soviet-built Antonov-26 aircraft of Bakhtar Afghan Airlines near Kandahar city with a SAM, killing 52 people. Another 29 people were killed on April 10, 1988, when a rebel-launched missile downed a second Afghan AN-26 passenger jet.

In the third case, an Ariana Afghan Airlines’ McDonnell Douglas DC-10, with about 300 passengers aboard, was struck by an insurgent-fired missile as it was preparing to land in Kabul on Sept. 21, 1984. Although the plane suffered extensive damage, including to two of its three hydraulic systems, it crash-landed with no fatalities.

Before the MH17 tragedy unfolded, U.S. President Barack Obama was seriously considering transferring manpads to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, according to a report in Time magazine. After arming the “moderate” jihadists in Syria with sophisticated TOW anti-tank missiles, the White House hoped that the manpads would be a “game-changer” there, just as the U.S. supply of Stinger missiles to rebels in the 1980s turned the tide of the war against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. To moderate the risks from such transfers, the administration was considering “building obsolescence” into the missiles, and setting a remote “kill switch” to render any missile useless if it were captured by a group linked to al-Qaida.

The MH17 episode, however, makes such transfers politically difficult. The more radical Syrian groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, are already armed with a limited number of manpads, which they secured from other sources, including Libyan militias and perhaps the Saudi and Qatari regimes. This is apparent from the videos they have posted online, including one that purports to show a Syrian government aircraft being shot down with a shoulder-fired SAM.

The main difference between heat-seeking manpads and large, radar-guided, vehicle-based systems such as Buk is that the latter can target aircraft at cruising altitude. Shoulder-fired missile systems have a limited strike range of about 6km, but can be transported and hidden easily. Manpads are among terrorism’s most deadly weapons, capable of bringing down an aircraft that has just taken off or is about to land.

They thus pose a potent threat. Guerrillas have used them with stunning effect, reportedly downing two Boeing 737s in Angola in 1983 and 1984 respectively, and a Congo Airlines Boeing 727 in 1998, killing a total of 171 people. In September 1993, rebels shot down two Tupolev planes of Transair Georgia in two straight days near the city of Sukhumi, Abkhazia, leaving 135 people dead.

In November 2003, the left wing of a DHL cargo Airbus A300 was struck by a missile while departing Baghdad. In another attack, two SA-7 missiles were fired at an Arkia Israeli Airlines Boeing 757 on Nov. 28, 2002, when it took off from Mombasa, Kenya. The rockets, however, missed the aircraft.

Against this background, the MH17 crash has ignited a new debate on how to safeguard civil aircraft from SAMs. Technical options are available, such as installing counter attack technology on aircraft. The U.S. is seeking to draw on existing military technology to develop missile-defense systems for commercial aircraft. Missile countermeasure systems, however, carry a high price tag, estimated at $1 million to $3 million per aircraft, according to a Congressional Research Service report. The weight of such systems, moreover, can potentially decrease an aircraft’s fuel efficiency, adding to operating costs.

A more cost-effective approach to countering missile threats to civil aircraft would be political, focusing on better geopolitics, improved regional security, enhanced safety measures in the vicinity of airports, and modified flight operations and air traffic procedures to minimize risks.

Many of the SAMs that have been used against passenger jets by insurgents or are currently in rebel possession have been supplied by big powers as part of a strategy targeting specific regimes.

Some such missiles have also proliferated among nonstate actors because of various countries’ dysfunctions and a flourishing black market. For example, the enduring chaos and conflict in Libya following the 2011 regime change effected by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has facilitated international trafficking of manpads — including SA-7s, the early Soviet equivalent of American Stingers — from the arsenal built by Moammar Gadhafi’s government.

Currently there is no legal restriction on transferring or trading SAMs between countries or entities, although the Wassenaar Arrangement on export controls for conventional arms and dual-use technologies has strengthened its guidelines on manpads. Clearly, an international treaty is needed to bar states from transferring SAMs to nonstate actors. Such a pact could open the path to concerted international action against the thriving black market in such weapons — and avoid another disaster such as the MH17 tragedy.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a geostrategist and the author, most recently of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

Copyright © 2014 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved.

How do we avert a thirsty future?


BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Special to The Globe and Mail, July 15, 2014

There is a tongue-in-cheek saying in America – attributed to Mark Twain, who lived through the early phase of the California Water Wars – that “whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” It highlights the consequences, even if somewhat apocryphally, as ever-scarcer water resources create a parched world. California is currently reeling under its worst drought in modern times.

Adequate availability of water, food and energy is critical to global security. Water – the sustainer of life and livelihoods – is already the world’s most exploited natural resource. With nature’s capacity for providing renewable freshwater lagging behind humanity’s current rate of utilization, tomorrow’s water is being used to meet today’s need.

Consequently, the resources of shared rivers, aquifers and lakes have become the target of rival appropriation plans. Canada, which is the Saudi Arabia of the freshwater world, is fortunate to be blessed with exceptional water wealth. But more than half of the global population lives in conditions of water distress.

The struggle for water is exacerbating effects on the earth’s ecosystems. Groundwater depletion, for its part, is affecting natural stream flows, groundwater-fed wetlands and lakes, and related ecosystems.

If resources like water are degraded and depleted, environmental refugees will follow. Sanaa in Yemen risks becoming the first capital city to run out of water. If Bangladesh bears the main impact of China’s damming of River Brahmaputra, the resulting exodus of thirsty refugees will compound India’s security challenges.

Silent water wars between states, meanwhile, are already being waged in several regions, including by building dams on international rivers and by resorting to coercive diplomacy to prevent such construction. Examples include China’s frenetic upstream dam building in its borderlands and downriver Egypt’s threats of military reprisals against the ongoing Ethiopian construction of a large dam on the Blue Nile.

The yearly global economic losses from water shortages are conservatively estimated at $260-billion. Water-stressed South Korea is encouraging its corporate giants to produce water-intensive items — from food to steel — for the home market in overseas lands. But this strategy is creating problems elsewhere. For instance, a South Korean contract to lease as much as half of all arable land in Madagascar — a large Indian Ocean island-nation — triggered a powerful grassroots backlash that toppled the country’s democratically elected president in 2009.

Unlike mineral ores, fossils fuels, and resources from the biosphere such as fish and timber, water (unless bottled) is not a globally traded commodity. But the human population has doubled since 1970 alone, while the global economy has grown even faster.

Lifestyle changes have become a key driver of water stress. In East and Southeast Asia, for example, traditional diets have been transformed in just one generation, becoming much meatier. Meat production is highly water-intensive. If the world stopped diverting food to feed livestock and produce biofuels, it could not only abolish hunger but also feed a four-billion-larger population, according to a University of Minnesota study.

Compounding the diet-change impacts on the global water situation is the increasing body mass index (BMI) of humans in recent decades, with the prevalence of obesity doubling since the 1980s. Obesity rates in important economies now range from 33 per cent in the United States and 26.2 per cent in Canada to 5.7 per cent in China and 1.9 per cent in India. Heavier citizens make heavier demands on natural resources, especially water and energy. A study published in the British journal BMC Public Health found that if the rest of the world had the same average BMI as Americans, it would be equivalent to adding nearly an extra billion people to the global population, with major implications for the world’s water situation.

The future of human civilization hinges on sustainable development, with water at the centre of that challenge. The world can ill-afford to waste time – or water – to find ways to avert a thirsty future.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace and War.

(c) The Globe and Mail, 2014.

India’s Shinzo Abe


Brahma Chellaney

A Project Syndicate column

After a prolonged period of political drift and paralysis, India’s new government will be led by a man known for his decisiveness. Just as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s return to power in late 2012, after six years of political instability, reflected Japan’s determination to reinvent itself as a more competitive and confident country, Narendra Modi’s election victory reflects Indians’ desire for a dynamic, assertive leader to help revitalize their country’s economy and security.

Like Abe, Modi is expected to focus on reviving India’s economic fortunes while simultaneously bolstering its defenses and strengthening its strategic partnerships with likeminded states, thereby promoting regional stability and blocking the rise of a Sino-centric Asia. The charismatic Modi – a darling of business leaders at home and abroad – has promised to restore rapid economic growth, saying there should be “no red tape, only red carpet” for investors.

The 63-year-old Modi mirrors Abe’s soft nationalism, market-oriented economics, and new Asianism, seeking close ties with Asian democracies to create a web of interlocking strategic partnerships.

In a country where the gap between the average age of political leaders and citizens is one of the world’s widest, Modi will be the first prime minister born after India gained independence in 1947. This constitutes another parallel with Abe, who is Japan’s first prime minister born after World War II.

There is, however, an important difference in terms of the two leaders’ upbringing: While Modi rose from humble beginnings to lead the world’s largest democracy, Abe – the grandson and grandnephew of two former Japanese prime ministers and the son of a former foreign minister – boasts a distinguished political lineage. In fact, Modi rode to victory by crushing the dynastic aspirations of Rahul Gandhi, whose failure to articulate clear views or demonstrate leadership ran counter to the Indian electorate’s yearning for an era of decisive government.

Modi, like Abe, faces major foreign-policy challenges. India is home to more than one-sixth of the world’s population, yet it punches far below its weight. A 2013 essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, titled “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy,” focused on how the country is resisting its own rise, as if the political miasma in New Delhi had turned the country into its own worst enemy.

Many Indians want Modi to give a new direction to foreign relations at a time when the gap between India and China in terms of international stature has grown significantly. India’s influence in its own backyard – including Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives – has shrunk. Indeed, Bhutan remains India’s sole pocket of strategic clout in South Asia.

India also confronts the strengthening nexus between its two nuclear-armed regional adversaries, China and Pakistan, both of which have staked claims to substantial swaths of Indian territory and continue to collaborate on weapons of mass destruction. In dealing with these countries, Modi will face the same dilemma that has haunted previous Indian governments: the Chinese and Pakistani foreign ministries are weak actors. The Communist Party and the military shape Chinese foreign policy, while Pakistan relies on its army and intelligence services, which still use terror groups as proxies. The Modi government is unlikely to let another Mumbai-style terrorist attack staged from Pakistan go unpunished, employing at least non-military retaliatory options.

Restoring momentum to the relationship with the United States – damaged recently by grating diplomatic tensions and trade disputes – is another pressing challenge. But Modi’s commitment to pro-market economic policies and defense modernization is likely to yield new opportunities for US businesses and lift the bilateral relationship to a new level of engagement.

America’s strategic interests will be advanced by likely new defense cooperation and trade that boosts US arms sales and creates avenues for joint military coordination. The US already conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country.

Modi is the sort of leader who can help put US-India ties back on track and boost cooperation. Yet there is a risk that his relations with the US, at least initially, could be more businesslike than warm, owing to an American slight that is hard for him to forget. In 2005, the US government revoked his visa over unproven allegations that he connived in Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002, when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat. Even after India’s Supreme Court found no evidence to link Modi to the violence, the US continued to ostracize him, reaching out to him only on the eve of the recent election.

With the US having expressed no regret for its revocation of his visa, Modi is unlikely to go out of his way to befriend the US by seeking a White House visit. Instead, he is expected to wait for US officials to come calling.

By contrast, Modi is likely to remember states, such as Japan and Israel, that courted him even as the US targeted him. Modi’s 2007 and 2012 visits to Japan opened new avenues for Japanese investment in business-friendly Gujarat.

Moreover, Modi has forged a special relationship with Japan and built personal rapport with Abe. When Abe returned to power, Modi congratulated him with a telephone call.

Modi’s victory is likely to turn Indo-Japanese ties – Asia’s fastest-developing bilateral relationship – into the main driver of India’s “Look East” strategy, which, with America’s blessing, seeks to strengthen economic and strategic cooperation with US allies and partners in East and Southeast Asia. Abe, who has sought to build security options for Japan beyond the current US-centric framework, has argued that his country’s ties with India hold “the greatest potential of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world.”

A deeper Japan-India entente under Abe and Modi could potentially reshape the Asian strategic landscape. It is no surprise that Abe rooted for a Modi victory.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

(c) Project Syndicate, 2014.

Alarm Bells in Asia


BRAHMA CHELLANEY, A Project Syndicate column internationally syndicated

Photo of Brahma ChellaneyThe deteriorating situation in Ukraine and rising tensions between Russia and the United States threaten to bury US President Barack Obama’s floundering “pivot” toward Asia – the world’s most vibrant (but also possibly its most combustible) continent. Obama’s tour of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines will do little to rescue the pivot or put his regional foreign policy on a sound footing.

In fact, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is just the latest reason that the pivot – which has been rebranded as a “rebalancing” – has failed to gain traction. A slew of other factors – including America’s foreign-policy preoccupation with the Muslim world, Obama’s reluctance to challenge an increasingly assertive China, declining US defense outlays, and diminished US leadership on the world stage – were already working against it.

The reality is that rising anxiety among Asian countries about China’s increasingly muscular foreign policy has presented the US with an important opportunity to recapture its central role in the region by strengthening old alliances and building new partnerships. But the US has largely squandered its chance, allowing China to continue to broaden its territorial claims.

Indeed, over the last two years, America’s Asian allies and partners have received three jarring wake-up calls, all of which have delivered the same clear message: the US cannot be relied upon to manage China’s rise effectively.

0020ee8c19dde118eb74caa7b7874fa5.landscapeThe first such signal came in the form of Obama’s silence when China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in July 2012. The move – which established a model for China to annex other disputed territories – occurred despite a US-brokered deal for a mutual withdrawal of Chinese and Philippine vessels from the area. Obama’s apparent indifference to America’s commitment to the Philippines under the 1951 mutual-defense treaty, which it reaffirmed in 2011, encouraged China to seize the Second Thomas Shoal, which is also claimed by the Philippines.

America’s Asian allies received a second wake-up call when China unilaterally established an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering territories that it claims (but does not control) in the East China Sea – a dangerous new precedent in international relations. China then demanded that all aircraft transiting the zone – whether headed for Chinese airspace or not – submit flight plans in advance.

Instead of demonstrating its disapproval by postponing Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Beijing, the US government advised commercial airlines to respect China’s self-declared ADIZ. Japan, by contrast, told its carriers to disregard China’s demand – an indication of the growing disconnect in US-Japanese relations.

The third wake-up call comes from Ukraine. The US has responded to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea by distancing itself from the “Budapest Memorandum,” the pact that US President Bill Clinton signed in 1994 committing the US to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal.

The first two wake-up calls highlighted the Obama administration’s unwillingness to do anything that could disrupt its close engagement with China, a country that is now central to US interests. The third was even more ominous: America’s own vital interests must be directly at stake for it to do what is necessary to uphold another country’s territorial integrity – even a country that it has pledged to protect.

The world is witnessing the triumph of brute power in the twenty-first century. Obama was quick to rule out any US military response to Russia’s Crimea takeover. Likewise, as China has stepped up efforts to upend the regional status quo – both territorial and riparian – the US has dithered, doing little to reassure its jittery Asian allies.

Instead, the US has pursued a neutral course, which it hopes will enable it to avoid being dragged into a military confrontation over countries’ conflicting territorial claims. To this end, the US has addressed its calls for restraint not only to China, but also to its own allies.

But America’s own restraint – whether in response to Russia’s forcible absorption of Crimea or to China’s creeping, covert warfare – has brought no benefits to its allies. In fact, its efforts to avoid confrontation at all costs could inadvertently spur game-changing – and potentially destabilizing – geopolitical developments.

Most important, America’s sanctions-driven policy toward Russia is likely to force the Kremlin to initiate its own pivot toward Asia – particularly toward energy-hungry, cash-rich China. At the same time, a showdown with Russia will compel the US to court China more actively. In a new Cold War scenario, China would thus be the big winner, gaining a wide diplomatic berth to pursue its territorial ambitions.

While the US propitiates China, countries like Japan, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam are being forced to accept that they will have to contend with Chinese military incursions on their own. That is why they are stepping up efforts to build credible military capabilities.

This trend could lead to the resurgence of militarily independent Asian powers that remain close strategic friends of the US. In this sense, they would be following in the footsteps of two of America’s closest allies – the United Kingdom and France – which have built formidable deterrent capacities, rather than entrust their security to the US. This would be a game-changing development for Asia, the US, and the entire world.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

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Without action today, Asia’s future will be a dry one


BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Nikkie Asian Review

Asia is the world’s largest and most economically dynamic continent. But it is also the driest, and its future may depend on how well it deals with what a U.N. panel on climate change is calling a growing risk of drought-related water and food shortages.

Unusually dry weather is parching swaths of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Korean Peninsula, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. This trend threatens to further squeeze the availability of drinking water, hamper economic growth and — together with the drought in the American West and parts of Brazil — push up international food prices. Palm oil prices, for example, have already surged.

Clouds make a rare appearance over the Manila skyline on Feb. 26, when the metropolitan area received its first recorded rainfall of the year. © AP

Even farmers in Australia’s eastern states of New South Wales and Queensland are bracing themselves amid warnings that the drought may spread to other parts of Asia this year due to the potential return of the El Nino weather pattern.

Asia’s climatic extremes play a big role in its vulnerability to droughts and heighten the risk of natural disasters and agriculture-related trouble. When it rains, it tends to pour, with monsoon-season flooding endemic in the region. But the seasons are often punctuated by long dry spells, and weak monsoons can trigger serious droughts. This can be disastrous on a continent where the availability of fresh water is not even half the global average of 6,079 cu. meters per person a year.

Asia is home to some of the world’s biggest natural-disaster hot spots, and no other continent is more prone to the cumulative impact of droughts, flooding and large storms. This fragility is compounded by the region’s unmatched population size and density, and its concentration of people living in deltas and other low-lying regions.

Out of balance

The specter of a hotter, drier future for Asia can be seen in the degradation of watersheds, watercourses and other ecosystems, as well as in the shrinking forests and swamps and over-dammed rivers. Such developments undermine the region’s hydrological and climatic stability, fostering a cycle of chronic droughts and flooding. To make matters worse, Asia is likely to bear the brunt — as the report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns — of the global effects of extreme weather, rising seas and shortages of drinking water. Water wars may only be a matter of time.

Asia’s droughts are becoming longer and more severe, and the availability of water per capita is declining at a rate of 1.6% a year. This is a troubling trend for a region where agriculture alone guzzles 82% of the annual water supply. The rapid spread of irrigation since the 1960s has helped turn a continent once plagued by food shortages and famines into a food exporter. But it has also exacted a heavy toll on the environment and resources.

The spread of intensive irrigation to arid or semiarid regions, such as northern China, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan, has led to desertification in areas from which already-scarce water resources are being diverted. Meanwhile, the land being irrigated retains soluble salts, degrading the soil and the water table.

Six decades of aggressive irrigation have turned northern China into the country’s breadbasket, even though 80% of the nation’s water resources are in the south. But the north is drying up, with its lifeblood — the Yellow River — dying and most of the wetlands only a memory. The fine dust coating Beijing, carried on the wind from the bone-dry fields creeping ever closer to the capital, is the legacy of state-promoted irrigated farming.

Unquenchable thirst

Excessive use of water for agriculture has exacerbated Asia’s susceptibility to drought, leaving other sectors — industrial and municipal — struggling to meet demand. With rivers and reservoirs increasingly unable to supply enough water, the hunt for the precious resource has literally gone underground. In India, China and elsewhere, the widespread use of electric and diesel-fuel pumps has been sucking up massive volumes of groundwater, a resource better kept in reserve as insurance against droughts.

In Asia’s heavily populated coastal regions — home to almost half its population — the over-pumping of groundwater has caused seawater to seep into the water table, crimping the availability of drinking water in such cities as Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Dhaka and Karachi.

The upstream construction of giant dams and other water diversions is eating away at the shorelines of Asia’s 11 urban megadeltas, all fed and formed by rivers originating on the Tibetan plateau. Most of these megadeltas are also home to booming economic centers, including Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Bangkok and Kolkata.

Beyond the ecological fallout, the damming of shared rivers is also a big source of political tension. This is especially true for China and its neighbors. China already has more large-scale dams than the rest of the world combined, and it is building more. The focus of its latest construction push has shifted from dams along internal rivers to those straddling waterways that flow into other countries.

Asian hydropolitics promises to become only murkier as China completes more upstream dams on the Mekong, the Salween, the Brahmaputra and other rivers that flow to South, Southeast and Central Asia and to Russia.

Women and children await government relief in Pakistan’s drought-hit province of Sindh on March 11. Dozens of children have died of malnutrition and other causes in the country’s desiccated south, prompting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to distribute $10 million in emergency aid. © Reuters

Recurrent droughts in the downstream Mekong basin have created a public-relations headache for Beijing, which rejects allegations that its multitude of upriver dams has contributed to this phenomenon. But the claims have not stopped China from moving forward with projects to build three additional giant dams on the Mekong River, continental Southeast Asia’s lifeline.

In parts of Asia where access to water is limited, even small declines in its availability or annual variations in rainfall can threaten entire communities by creating droughtlike conditions. The struggle for water in some stricken areas has led villagers to hire security guards to protect their wells and other sources.

Other examples of the knock-on effects of droughts include water rationing in parts of Malaysia; the persistent haze caused by the annual forest fires that plague Riau, the second-largest province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra; and the high suicide rate among Indian farmers. Recurrent droughts since the 1990s are widely seen as a key factor in the suicides of more than 200,000 farmers in the country’s central and southern regions. And this year’s weak “northeast monsoon” could further hit agricultural output in Asia.

Then there is the problem of environmental refugees. The Yemeni city of Sanaa risks becoming the first capital to run out of water. Where will its citizens go if the water supply dries up? Meanwhile, China’s damming of the Brahmaputra could force an exodus of thirsty Bangladeshis living downstream, creating a potentially huge security problem for India.

Dig deep enough and conflicts over resources can often be found at the heart of civil wars. The internal strife in Yemen and Afghanistan illustrates the degree to which persistent droughts can poison interethnic relations and trigger bloodshed.

Two sides collide

In water-stressed South Korea, the government is encouraging big companies to move water-intensive production activity overseas, even if the products being made are for the domestic market. But this strategy is creating problems abroad. A business deal that gave the South Korean side the right to lease up to half of all arable land in Madagascar triggered a powerful grass-roots backlash that toppled the country’s democratically elected president in 2009.

In places where water is already hard to come by, plans to construct new factories often spark local protests. This happened when South Korean steelmaker Posco said it was building a plant in the drought-prone eastern Indian state of Odisha.

Given that Asia holds 60% of the world’s population, the region’s increasing vulnerability to droughts carries the potential for humanitarian disasters. That is because the poor are the ones hit hardest when the taps go dry. This vulnerability is a potential source of conflict and refugee crises.

Averting a water-related disaster requires long-term thinking and action. Governments throughout the region need to shore up the environment by restoring the ecosystem — including reconverting farmland into forests — introducing new drought-resistant crops and halting the degradation of freshwater and coastal ecosystems. Combating wild climatic fluctuations, as manifested by chronic droughts and flooding, demands such capital-intensive measures as building surface reservoirs and other infrastructure.

Asia will also have to adopt agricultural practices that use water more efficiently. That includes overhauling antediluvian irrigation systems. Most farmers in the region still use flood irrigation when drip systems and sprinklers could halve their water use. But as long as growers enjoy access to free or heavily subsidized water, they will have little incentive to change.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press, 2013), winner of the Bernard Schwartz Book Award.

(c) Nikkie Asian Review, 2014.

Can New Water Discoveries Save East Africa?


East Africa sees almost year-round skirmishes over water and grazing rights among the pastoral groups that live along the Ethiopia-Kenya and South Sudan–Central African Republic borders.

By Brahma Chellaney, Foreign Affairs, April (2014)

Water scarcity is becoming the defining international crisis of the twenty-first century. Water conflicts rage across the world as communities struggle to secure clean, reliable supply One of the world’s most water-stressed regions is East Africa.  Overexploitation of water resources there has been compounded by declining snowpacks on Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, which have shrunk since the late 1980s due to global warming.  Meanwhile, Lake Turkana — the world’s largest perennial desert lake — has largely disappeared from Ethiopian territory, retreating south into Kenya.


An armed Turkana man walks towards the shores of Lake Turkana, October 12, 2013. (Siegfried Modola / Courtesy Reuters)

In this light, the discovery of two significant aquifers in the largely arid Kenya by a Japanese-financed UNESCO project has been hailed as a potential game changer. The first, the Lotikipi Basin Aquifer, is situated just west of Lake Turkana. The second, the smaller Lodwar Basin Aquifer, is near Lodwar, the capital of Turkana county. The aquifers were discovered by a French firm, Radar Technologies International (RTI), using a space-based exploration technology called WATEX that was originally designed to reveal mineral deposits. The company blended satellite and radar imagery with geographical surveys and seismic data to detect moisture. Subsequent drilling by UNESCO confirmed the presence of aquifers. Three other suspected aquifers in the region have yet to be confirmed through drilling.

For parched and economically backward Turkana, more than one-third of whose residents are malnourished, the discovery of major groundwater reserves is a godsend. Not only will they provide lifesaving water, they will spur agricultural and hydrocarbon development and improve the lives of the impoverished residents in this conflict-ridden region, which extends from Kenya into the borderlands of Ethiopia and South Sudan. Turkana boasts hydrocarbon deposits.

Since the new water can be piped to other regions as well, the aquifer finds are good news for Kenya as a whole. Whereas global per-capita freshwater availability averages slightly above 6,000 cubic meters per year, in Kenya it has fallen well below the international water-poverty threshold of 1,000 cubic meters. Two-fifths of the country’s population thus lacks access to safe drinking water. In addition, more than half do not have adequate sanitation, and water scarcity acts as a serious constraint on socioeconomic development and environmental protection.

The water problem, of course, extends beyond Kenya’s borders, as highlighted by the current humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa wrought by prolonged drought and erratic rain patterns. Internal conflicts have exacerbated water and food crises. For example, with political conflict disrupting South Sudan fragile, agriculture-based economy, the country faces the specter of Africa’s worst starvation since the 1980s. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently warned of increased drought stress in the parched regions of Africa, such as East Africa.

East Africa sees almost year-round skirmishes over water and grazing rights among the pastoral groups that live along the Ethiopia-Kenya border and the South Sudan-Central African Republic border. As freshwater bodies dry up or recede, pastoralists have to search more widely for water and grazing land, bringing them in conflict with other herdsmen doing the same. Lake Turkana, for example, has progressively retreated from Ethiopia, and Ethiopian Dassanech tribes have moved further south with the water’s edge into Kenyan Turkana territory. In recent years, anger and frustration between the two groups has boiled over into recurrent armed clashes, aggravating military tensions between Kenya and Ethiopia.

More broadly, regional tensions between tribes and ethnic groups have been exacerbated by the hundreds of thousands of water refugees who have streamed across provincial and international frontiers since 2011 alone. For example, a severe drought and famine in 2011 forced tens of thousands to flee southern Somalia for Kenya and Ethiopia, where many still remain camped. In recent months, more than a quarter million South Sudanese have fled to neighboring countries and 30,000 Turkana pastoralists have taken their cattle to Uganda. The flow of thirsty refugees has stoked political and tribal tensions, and put a strain on their host governments.

The region is producing not only parched refugees, who seek to relocate far from their native villages, but also water warriors. Criminal gangs and warlords control many wells. Their guards have opened fire on thirsty villagers for trying to withdraw water. The use of such tactics in water-scarce areas means that the weakest and the poorest are the worst hit.

Against this grim reality, the aquifer finds in northern Kenya seem like a beacon of hope. The firm RTI estimates that its largest discovery — the Lotikipi aquifer — holds at least 250 billion cubic meters of water, which is equivalent in volume to Lake Turkana’s current capacity. It also contends that the aquifer has an impressive annual recharge rate of 3.4 billion cubic meters, which is the amount of water naturally replenished by rain and thus open to sustainable human extraction.

However, finding this hidden water wealth is just the first step. Only a detailed scientific study can reliably determine both the quantity and quality of the water underground. An independent study will also be needed to determine the real replenishment rate, a critical piece of information if Kenya is to sustainably exploit its new groundwater reserves. Reckless extraction could leave little water for future generations.

Further, even if RTI’s estimates are validated by further study, Lotikipi’s reserves are not as large as media reports (which routinely use adjectives such as “huge” and “massive”) have made them out to be. The estimated total reserves can meet the needs of the Turkana region’s residents for no more than 70 years. And the RTI-assessed recharge rate is equivalent to about two times the yearly water use of a large city such as Chicago or London. But there are 43 million people in Kenya, including about a million in Turkana, currently battling a year-long drought. In comparison to Lotikipi’s supposed reserves of 250 billion cubic meters, North Africa’s mammoth Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System — shared by Chad, Libya, Sudan, and Egypt — holds as much as 540,000 billion cubic meters, although the extractable quantity is estimated to be about 15,340 billion cubic meters.

Lotikipi’s reserves thus need to be exploited judiciously — an onerous challenge in a drought-ravaged region. The water must be used to douse the resource wars in Turkana. Developing agriculture in the region — which is currently nonexistent — and employing people to work on new farms could also help. Yet given the raging conflicts in the region, building the infrastructure to tap Lotikipi’s resources and then safeguard it will be no easy task.

One concern is that the real beneficiaries of the aquifer finds may not be the residents of Turkana, Kenya’s least-developed region, but the better-off Kenyans to the south. To prevent that, Kenya needs better governance and more equitable regional development.  Otherwise, it could breed internal conflict as has happened in some resource-rich regions of Africa. The continent has more recently become the scene of a resource-related Great Game among world powers seeking to extract resources in mineral-rich areas.

With the aquifer finds, Turkana now boasts both water and oil resources. Yet the challenges in this backwater mirror the larger challenges in Africa — how to prudently manage water and mineral resources and integrate them with development so that local communities, not outsiders, actually benefit.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY is a geostrategist and the author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) and Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press), which won the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Book Award.

(c) Foreign Affairs, 2014.

Why the U.S. must cut Afghanistan loose



Special to The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace and War.

Afghanistan’s presidential election, now apparently headed for a runoff stage, will mark the first peaceful transition of power in the history of that unfortunate country, ravaged by endless war since 1979. Displaying courage in the face of adversity, Afghans braved Taliban attacks and threats to vote in large numbers on April 5.

After almost 35 years of bloodletting, Afghans are desperate for peace. President Hamid Karzai’s successor will have his work cut out for him, including promoting national reconciliation by building bridges among the country’s disparate ethnic and political groups; strengthening the fledgling, multiethnic national army; and ensuring free and fair parliamentary elections next year.

The role of external players, however, overshadows these internal dynamics. Two external factors will significantly influence Afghanistan’s political and security transition: the likely post-2014 role of U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces; and interference by Pakistan, which still harbours militant sanctuaries and the command-and-control structure for Afghan insurgency.

Pakistani interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs can only be made to stop if U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration finally makes that a condition for continuing its generous aid to cash-strapped Pakistan – a remote prospect.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, has made a U-turn on the U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan and is now seeking bases there for a virtually unlimited period. He had declared in Cairo in 2009, “We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there.” But in a change of heart, he now wants bases there to house a fairly sizable U.S.-led NATO force armed with the authority to “conduct combat operations.”

The U.S. President is under political attack at home for having failed to persuade Mr. Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement, which is to provide the legal basis for keeping U.S. bases. The fact that the U.S. left no residual forces in Iraq when it ended its decade-long occupation of that country has made the appeal particularly strong to maintain bases in Afghanistan, where America is seeking to terminate the longest war in its history.

Although Kabul and Washington have finalized the terms of the bilateral agreement, Mr. Karzai withstood intense U.S. pressure to sign, leaving that critical decision to his successor. In truth, Mr. Karzai was afraid that if he did, he could go down in Afghan history as the second Shah Shuja. A puppet ruler installed by the British in 1839, Shah Shuja was deposed and assassinated three years later, but not before precipitating the First Anglo-Afghan War.

4_142014_b4-chell-toy-soldie8201_s640x539Mr. Obama now has little choice but to wait and try to persuade the next Afghan president to sign the accord. He has not, however, grasped the main reason why his county’s war has foundered – failure to reconcile military and political objectives. From the time it invaded in 2001, America pursued a military surge in Afghanistan, but an aid surge to the next-door country harbouring terrorist havens and the “Quetta Shura,” as the Afghan Taliban leadership there is known. The war was made unwinnable by Washington’s own refusal to target Pakistan for actively abetting elements killing or maiming U.S. troops.

Terrorism and insurgency have never been defeated in any country without choking transboundary sustenance and support. Afghans have borne the brunt from two fronts – U.S. military intervention and Pakistan’s use of surrogate militias.

Mr. Obama’s basing strategy could presage a shift from a full-fledged war to a low-intensity war, but without fixing the incongruous duality in American policy. Indeed, a smaller U.S. force in Afghanistan would only increase Washington’s imperative to mollycoddle Pakistani generals and cut a deal with the Quetta Shura in order to secure its bases.

Washington plans to gift Pakistan its surplus military hardware in Afghanistan, including several hundred mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. It has also agreed to taper off drone strikes in Pakistan.

Even more revealing is what the drones have not targeted. To preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, the U.S. has not carried out a single air, drone or ground attack against its leadership, which is ensconced in Pakistan’s sprawling Baluchistan province. U.S. drone strikes have been restricted to the Pakistani tribal region to the north, Waziristan, where they have targeted the Pakistani Taliban – the nemesis of the Pakistani military.

To make matters worse, the U.S. plans to start significantly cutting aid to Kabul beginning next year, which threatens to undermine Afghan security forces, a key part of keeping the Afghan Taliban at bay.

Last May, Mr. Obama recalled the warning of James Madison, America’s fourth president: that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Yet he now seeks a long-term military engagement in Afghanistan, which is good news for the Pakistani generals but not for U.S., Afghan or regional interests.

Admittedly, there are no good options. But an indefinite role for foreign forces would be the equivalent of administering the same medicine that has seriously worsened the patient’s condition.

It is past time for Afghanistan to be in charge of its own security and destiny. Outside assistance should be limited to strengthening the Kabul government’s hand.

Water Woes in Asia


By Brahma Chellaney, World Policy, Winter 2013/2014

Asia faces a dilemma. The continent has the lowest global per capita freshwater resources, less than half the global annual average of 222,480 cubic feet per head. At the same time, Asia has the fastest growing demand for water in the world. Asia can in no sense remain the engine of global economic growth without addressing its water crisis.

In an increasingly water-stressed Asia, the struggle for water is escalating political tensions and intensifying the impact on eco-systems. The water situation will worsen in the fastest growing Asian economies as well as in less developed countries where fertility rates remain high. In many Asian countries, decisions about where to place new manufacturing or energy plants are increasingly constrained by inadequate local water availability. The World Bank has estimated the economic cost of China’s water shortages at 2.3 percent of its GDP. China, however, is not yet under “water stress”—a term defined as the availability of less than 60,000 cubic feet of water per person per year. But already water-stressed economies, from South Korea to India, are paying a higher price.

It is against this background that water wars are being waged between competing states in several regions. Tactics include building dams on international rivers or, if the country is located downstream, resorting to coercive diplomacy to prevent such construction. In the case of Sino-Indian relations, water is becoming a key security issue and a potential source of serious discord. China, having established hydro-supremacy by annexing the starting places of multiple major international rivers, is now pursuing an increasingly ambitious dam-building program on the Tibetan plateau, which threatens to diminish international river flows into India and other states that share these same upland water sources.

Averting water wars demands rules-based cooperation, water sharing, and dispute settlement mechanisms. China, however, is working to get its hand on Asia’s water tap by constructing an extensive upstream hydro-infrastructure. China does not have a single water-sharing treaty with any of its neighbors.

India, by contrast, has water-sharing treaties with its two downstream neighbors—Pakistan and Bangladesh, covering the Indus and Ganges Rivers and setting new precedents in international water law. In the 1996 Ganges Pact, India guaranteed Bangladesh an equal share of the downstream flows during the difficult dry season. The 1960 Indus Treaty remains the world’s most generous water-sharing arrangement. India agreed to set aside 80 percent of the waters of the six-river Indus system for Pakistan indefinitely, in the hope that it could trade water for peace.

A central issue facing Asia is the need to persuade China’s leaders to institutionalize cooperation with neighboring states on shared resources. Given China’s centrality in Asia’s water map, its rush to build more giant dams promises to upset relations across Asia, imperiling prospects for establishing any rules-based Asian water regime.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) and the earlier book, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, which won the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.

(c) World Policy, 2013.

Plugging gaps in diplomacy

Modi can recoup India’s regional losses by staying focused on the key states and avoiding the “Pakistan itch” that derailed Vajpayee’s diplomacy

Brahma Chellaney, Hindustan Times, August 7, 2014

Narendra Modi took office with very high expectations. His cautious, measured start thus may disappoint those who expected his thumping electoral mandate to herald a paradigm shift in governance and policy. In truth, Modi appears to have embraced prudent gradualism.

On the economic front, Modi is seeking to erect the foundation for India’s sustained economic rise with a two-fold emphasis: improving the country’s woeful infrastructure by reversing declining public spending; and boosting manufacturing, including by liberalizing labour laws.

It is, however, on the diplomatic front that Modi is charting an assertive, dynamic approach, including regaining India’s clout in its own strategic backyard, where China stepped into a vacuum left by years of Indian neglect.

Modi has passed his first international test by resisting intense, US-led pressure not to block a new World Trade Organization accord. Members of the rich countries’ club, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, plus China provide the bulk of the world’s agricultural subsidies, estimated at $486 billion in 2012. Yet India would have taken the main hit had WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement gone through, losing potentially its sovereign right to stockpile food grains to a secure level. At Bali, Manmohan Singh’s government traded a firm commitment on trade facilitation for an empty assurance, agreeing to kick the can on a stockpiling deal to 2017. This put India’s food security at risk in case no deal was reached by 2017.

Unable to secure any concession, the Modi government vetoed the trade-facilitation accord in Geneva, a decision that has drawn America’s ire. Visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry told Modi that this sent a “wrong signal,” while the state department bluntly stated that the action “undermined the very image Prime Minister Modi is trying to send about India.” However, to Washington’s chagrin, the chief of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development has endorsed India’s stance, saying the real choice in Geneva was between “feeding” one’s own citizens and “creating jobs” for other countries.

Modi’s forward-looking diplomacy is apparent from his early-term focus on retrieving India’s lost ground in its immediate neighbourhood. After charming Bhutan on his first foreign trip, Modi has concluded a highly successful visit to Nepal.

Such had been New Delhi’s neglect of Nepal — a nation symbiotically tied to India — that this was the first bilateral visit by an Indian PM in 17 years, a period in which a waiting China strategically penetrated Nepal. Culturally, Nepal looks south at India. Much of its population is in the south. But China has been muscling in from the north.

Nepal, wracked by severe political flux since the 1990s, stands deeply divided. Yet it unitedly welcomed Modi, with the visit inspiring hope of a new dawn for bilateral ties. If there was any jarring note during the visit, it was a last-minute dispute that stalled signing of a hydropower trade accord. Water can be to Nepal what oil is to Arab sheikhdoms, if Nepal is willing to emulate the example of Bhutan, which has achieved South Asia’s highest per capita income by exploiting its hydropower reserves through small, environmentally sound projects.

By telling Nepal that he wishes to revise the 1950 bilateral treaty during his term in office, Modi, in essence, called Nepal’s bluff. It has become a bipartisan article of faith in Nepal that the treaty is “unequal” and loaded against Nepalese interests. Yet, despite India’s willingness to discuss revision, Nepal has shied away from entering into negotiations.

After independence, India could have sought to absorb Nepal. Jawaharlal Nehru, however, entered into a treaty to safeguard Nepal’s sovereignty. The treaty cemented a “special relationship”, granting Nepal preferential economic treatment. It allowed the Indian Army to enlist Gurkhas, prohibited Nepal from buying arms from a third country without Indian consent, and obligated Nepal not to permit entry into its territory of foreign elements deemed inimical by India to its interests. One glaringly unequal element in the treaty is that Nepalese get national treatment in India but not Indians in Nepal.

The treaty’s defence-related provisions, in reality, have largely fallen by the wayside. Nepal indeed has become a happy hunting ground for Pakistani and Chinese agents seeking to undermine India’s internal security and Indian interests in Nepal. The Modi-proposed treaty revision must not stop India from finding its own ways to secure its porous border with Nepal without affecting rights of Nepalese to travel to or work in India without visa.

Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj did well by making her first stand-alone foreign trip to Bangladesh, another key neighbour where India has lost substantial influence. Modi has accepted Bangladesh’s invitation to visit.

Modi must also visit Myanmar, critical to Indian interests. Although Myanmar shares a long, sensitive border with India, many in New Delhi don’t seem to regard it as a neighbour, a fact reflected in the failure to invite President Thein Sein to Modi’s swearing-in event. Distant Mauritius was invited to the event but not Myanmar, which has applied for SARRC membership.

Modi can recoup India’s regional losses by staying focused on the key states, without catching the “Pakistan itch”, which helped derail Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foreign-policy ambitions. Vajpayee’s roller-coaster policy on Pakistan traversed through Lahore, Kargil, Kandahar, Agra, Parliament and Islamabad, yielding only greater cross-border terrorism.

Next month, Modi faces a big test in diplomacy as he holds separate bilateral summits with three powers central to India’s strategic interests — Japan, China and America. Japan will be the easy part, with Modi’s visit likely to forge close strategic bonds with Asia’s oldest (and richest) democracy and clinch a long-elusive nuclear deal.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and writer.

(c) The Hindustan Times, 2014.

Deadly Geopolitical Games

If Libya, Syria and Iraq are coming undone and Ukraine has been gravely destabilized, it is the result of interventions by big powers that claim to be international-law enforcers when, in reality, they are law breakers

By Brahma Chellaney, The Hindu, July 31, 2014

Mideast Syria

A victory march by members of the brutal, medieval organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Big powers over the years have targeted specific regimes by arming rebel groups with lethal weapons, thereby destabilizing some states and contributing to the rise of dangerous extremists and terrorists. The destabilization of Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and Libya, among other states, is a result of such continuing geopolitical games.

It is the local people who get killed, maimed and uprooted by the interventions of major powers and their regional proxies. Yet those who play such games assume a moral posture to rationalize their interventionist policies and evade responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Indeed, they paint their interference in the affairs of other sovereign states as aimed at fighting the “bad” guys.

Take the blame-game over the downing of flight MH17, which was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SAM) allegedly fired by eastern Ukraine’s Russian-speaking separatists, a number of whom have clearly been trained and armed by Russia. Russia’s aid to the separatists and Washington’s security assistance to the government in Kiev, including providing vital intelligence and sending American military advisers to Ukraine, is redolent of the pattern that prevailed during the Cold War, when the two opposing blocs waged proxy battles in countries elsewhere.

Today, with the Ukrainian military shelling rebel-held cities and Russia massing heavy weapons and troops along the frontier, the crisis threatens to escalate to a direct U.S.-Russia confrontation, especially if Moscow directly intervenes in eastern Ukraine in response to the worsening humanitarian crisis there. The United Nations says the fighting in eastern Ukraine has uprooted more than 230,000 residents. Over 27,000 of them have taken sanctuary in Russia.

After the MH17 crash, U.S. President Barack Obama was quick to hold Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, guilty in the global court of opinion over the downing and to spotlight Russian aid to the separatists. Through sanctions and diplomacy, Obama has steadily ratcheted up pressure on Putin to stop assisting the rebels. Yet Obama has had no compunction in gravely destabilizing Syria through continuing covert aid to “moderate” militants there. The aid is being channelled through the Central Intelligence Agency and the jihad-bankrolling oil sheikhdoms.

Obama set out on the mission of regime change in Syria by seizing the opportunity that opened up in 2011, when popular protests broke out in some cities against President Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic rule. The detention and torture of a group of schoolchildren, who had been caught scribbling anti-government graffiti in the city of Deraa, led to protests and demands for political reforms and a series of events that rapidly triggered an armed insurrection with external assistance.

From bases in Turkey and Jordan, the rebels — with the clandestine assistance of the U.S., Britain and France — established a Free Syrian Army, launching attacks on government forces. Washington and its allies simultaneously mounted an intense information war demonizing Assad and encouraging officers and soldiers to desert the Syrian military and join the Free Syrian Army.

It is clear three years later that their regime-change strategy has backfired: Not only has it failed to oust Assad, it has turned Syria into a failed state and led to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — a brutal, medieval organization seeking to establish a caliphate across the Middle East and beyond. With radical jihadists now dominating the scene, the Free Syrian Army has become a marginal force, despite the CIA continuing to train and arm its members in Jordan.

Had Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande not embarked on this strategy — which helped instil the spirit of jihad against the Assad regime and opened the gates to petrodollar-financed weapons to Syrian jihadists — would murderous Islamists be in control of much of northern Syria today? It was this control that served as the staging ground for the rapid advance into Iraq of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This group now is in a position to potentially use water as a weapon through its control of the upstream areas along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Syria and Iraq, including important dams.

By inadvertently turning Syria into another Afghanistan — and a threat to regional and international security — the interveners failed to heed the lessons from the CIA’s funnelling of arms to the Afghan mujahideen (or self-proclaimed “holy warriors” of Islam) in the 1980s. The funnelling of arms — partly financed by Saudi Arabia and some other oil sheikhdoms — was a multibillion-dollar operation against Soviet forces in Afghanistan that gave rise to Al Qaeda and monsters like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar, the one-eyed chief of the Taliban who remains holed up in Pakistan. It ranked as the largest covert operation in the CIA’s history.

Now consider a different case where a regime-change strategy spearheaded by the U.S., Britain and France succeeded — Libya. The ouster of Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi’s government through U.S.-led aerial bombardment in 2011, however, ended up fomenting endless conflict, bloodletting and chaos in Libya.

The virtual crumbling of the Libyan state, more ominously, has had major international implications — from the cross-border leakage of shoulder-fired SAMs from the Qaddafi-built arsenal, including to Syrian jihadists, to the flow of other Libyan weapons to Al Qaeda-linked groups in the arid lands south of the Sahara desert known as the Sahel region. Nigeria’s Boko Haram extremists have also tapped the Libyan arms bazaar.

The weapons that Qatar and, on a smaller scale, the United Arab Emirates shipped to Libyan rebels with U.S. approval, including machine guns, automatic rifles and ammunition, have not only destabilized Libya but also undermined security in Mali, Niger and Chad. These weapons had been handed out like candy to foment the uprising against Qaddafi.

There cannot be better proof of how the toppling of Qaddafi has boomeranged than the fact that the U.S., whose ambassador was killed in a 2012 militant attack in Benghazi, the supposed capital of the Libyan “revolution,” has now shut its embassy in Tripoli, citing increasing lawlessness. The predawn evacuation of its entire embassy staff to Tunisia, with U.S. warplanes providing air cover, represented a public admission of defeat.

The plain truth is that it is easier for outside forces to topple or undermine a regime than to build stability and security in the targeted country. With neighbourhoods becoming battlefields, Iraq, Syria and Libya are coming undone. Another disintegrating state is Afghanistan, where Obama is seeking to end the longest war in American history.

Such is the United Nations’ marginalization in international relations that it is becoming irrelevant to the raging conflicts. To make matters worse, the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, although tasked by the UN Charter to preserve international peace and security, have helped spark or fuel regional conflicts and aided the rise of insurgent groups through their interventionist and arms-transfer policies. These five powers — all nuclear-armed — account for more than 80 per cent of the world’s official exports of conventional weapons and most of the unofficial transfers. Chinese arms, for example, have proliferated to a number of guerrilla groups active in Africa and Asia, including insurgents in India’s northeast.

The only mechanism to enforce international law is the Security Council. Yet its permanent members have repeatedly demonstrated that great powers use, not respect, international law. They have a long history of ignoring international rules when these conflict with their plans. In other words, the international-law enforcers are the leading law breakers.

Obama, in toppling Qaddafi through the use of air power, and Putin, in annexing Crimea, paradoxically cited the same moral principle that has no force in international law — “responsibility to protect.” Indeed, the transition from the 20th to the 21st centuries heralded the open flouting of international law, as represented by the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Against this background, it is scarcely a surprise that, despite the continuing rhetoric of a rules-based international order, the world is witnessing the triumph of brute force in the 21st century.

If the Security Council is to act more responsibly, its permanent members must look honestly at what they are doing to undermine international peace and security. This can happen only if the Council’s permanent membership is enlarged and the veto power abolished to make decision-making in that body truly democratic.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Oxford University Press, 2014).

(c) The Hindu, 2014.