Shanghai Daily on Professor Brahma Chellaney’s speech

Asia’s deep water crisis and elusive solutions

Wan Lixin

OPINION PAGE Shanghai Daily Thursday 11 September 2008

WHILE many wars of last century were fought over oil, the wars of this century will be waged over water.

This vision had been visited several times during the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung seminar “The Strategic Importance of Water in Asia,” held in Bali, Indonesia, August 21-23. There cannot be a better place than Asia to hold this seminar.

According to a 2006 United Nations report, Asia has less fresh water than any other continent outside of Antarctica. In his speech “Averting water wars in Asia,” Brahma Chellaney elaborated on the implications of this imminent energy and water crisis, with a strong emphasis on the situation confronting China and India. Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, India.

It is well known that Asia is emerging as the world’s main creditor and economic engine.

Chellaney said that unlike the past situation, the qualitative reordering of world power now underway is not due to battlefield victories or military realignments but to a peaceful factor unique to the modern world: Rapid economic growth. Economists tend to explain this rapid rise in terms of labor costs and capital inflow. But fundamentally it represents the triumph of consumerism that effectively overcomes our traditional inhibitions and distrust towards unnecessary spending.

When this consumption aspiration manifests itself in such progressive epithets as GDP growth and modernization, the whole nation becomes co-opted into this process. Consuming easily becomes a sweeping force that quickly neutralizes ideological differences, as we usher in the so-called\ “Pax Americana.”

But as Chellaney sees it, Asia’s success is threatened by resource constraints — especially water and energy. “Water shortages in much of Asia are becoming a threat to rapid economic modernization,” Chellaney said. Or maybe more accurately, Asia’s rapid economic modernization is worsening water shortages in much of Asia.

Anyway, in this new game of globalization, the niche assigned to some Asian countries is to export their resources — and clean air and water — for dollars that are becoming cheaper by the day.

Instead of embarking on an uncertain journey of finding a “fix” in Asia for the economy to continue its impressive growth and to head off a slump, the real solution can be conceptual, starting with, for instance, what is implied in “progress.’’

Chellaney noted that in emerging economies there is a growing middle class seeking high water-consuming comforts like dishwashers and washing machines. This can be a very important observation, depending on the moral to be derived from it. If 10 percent of Asian people begin to use airconditioners, 20 percent begin to drive cars and 30 percent begin to use flush toilets, it will be interesting to assess the environmental implications.

As Chellaney pointed out, despite the fact that total consumption of energy in the Asia-Pacific has grown by 70 percent between 1992 and 2005, per capita energy consumption is still relatively low by international standards: 749 kilograms of oil equivalent (kgoe) in 2005, compared with the global average of 1,071 kgoe. According to a UN report, although household water consumption in Asia is rising rapidly, not many Asians can aspire to the lifestyle of Americans who daily use more than 2.5 times the average in Asia. Citing a McKinsey Quarterly article, Chellaney noted that “On the supply side, Asia’s strong demand environment for energy and basic materials, coupled with its low labor costs, mean that the region will increasingly become a global producer of aluminum, chemicals, paper, and steel.”

It becomes apparent that water-related issues will worsen steadily even in the most conservative scenarios.

Many still pin hope for our future on a wonder technology that would magically meet our current needs for resources without further compromising our environment.

Chellaney chimed in by observing, “Human adaptation and technological innovation will increasingly hold the key to dealing with water-related challenges.” Or would the answer lie in a new outlook and a humble perception of the niche assigned to human race in the whole ecosystem?

Both India and China have been grossly neglected in terms of their cultural legacy, and deliberately overestimated in terms of their manufacturing capacity. In an article published on September 4 in Xinmin Evening News, well-known Sanskrit scholar Ji Xianlin, citing accelerating ecological deterioration, compared our plight to “a blind man riding a blind horse in total darkness already teetering on the edge of a precipice.”

“Some people still dream of averting the crisis by resorting to Western sciences, and I think this is totally impossible. This catastrophe has been caused in the first place by nature-conquering Western sciences,” he wrote.

Such flashes of insight, regretfully, are discordant with the all-consuming optimism, boosterism and cheerleading that deafens us. Given this situation, talks of safeguarding energy supplies and maximizing resource conservation and efficiency can easily degenerate into excuses for not taking more drastic actions that the situation urgently deserves.

Both China and India are already water-stressed economies, and both nations have shared cultural legacy and values that can constitute medicine for the spreading cancer of consumerism.

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