Jakarta Post interview with Professor Brahma Chellaney

Water, the future’s gold?

Jakarta Post, 09/30/2008

Attention is regularly paid to the energy crisis, especially in regards to world oil reserves — yet water continues to be taken for granted. Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, India, talked about averting water wars in Asia during a recent water seminar in Bali. He spoke with The Jakarta Post’s Stevie Emilia about the looming threat of the water crisis.

The Jakarta Post: It seems like the energy problem gets more attention than the water crisis. What are your thoughts?

Chellaney: If you look at the world 25 years ago, people did not believe that energy would become a major concern internationally, that there would be competition for energy, and that energy sources would become scarce.

The issue 25 years ago was about the price of oil, not about oil scarcity, not about demand outstripping supply. People thought that more and more oil would be discovered and there would be enough oil for all of us until new technology was developed for generating energy, especially technology to harness nature to generate electricity, for example.

It is similar about water today. We take water for granted. We do not recognize that many parts of the world are experiencing water scarcity, especially in Asia.

Large parts of Asia are water-stressed and unless this issue is taken seriously and we manage over water resources wisely, I think in years to come we will face acute water scarcity that will affect our economic development and in turn, other aspects in our life — from public health to sanitation.

Are you suggesting the water problem be given more attention?

You see, the battle 50 years ago was fought over land. The battle of today is over energy. The battle of tomorrow will be fought over water.

So the question is, do we wait until tomorrow arrives or do we prepare to address water issues today in a more sensible way because to some extent, the water scarcity is caused by poor water management by countries.

Will there be any alternatives?

This is the big difference between energy and water. If the energy supplies stop, the economy stops. If water supplies stop, then life itself stops because water is essential to our very existence. It is essential to good health, it is essential for the economy. Without water, we cannot survive.

We have developed technology to harness nature, there is wind power, solar power and geothermal energy, but for water, we have no such substitute. Water is irreplaceable. So sensibly conserving water, recycling water, rainwater harvesting and drinking water management are the only choices we have. We have no other options.

What is the water situation in Asia today?

Per capita availability of water in Asia today is rivalling water scarcity in the Middle East. People do not realize this. Water scarcity in the Middle East is acute. In Asia, uneven distribution of water makes per capita availability of water in countries like China and India almost close to water scarcity in the Middle East.

Do you think Asians are aware of such a fact? I don’t think so, because water is an issue which is looked at on a sub-regional or sub-national level. Water scarcity in Thailand, for instance, is already an issue there, but it is not an issue that the whole of Thailand is looking at. The situation is similar in India.

People take water for granted. Sadly, water is not priced properly. There is no market price for water.

Water will become an increasingly competitive commodity. There will be competition for water sources, competition within countries and between countries. This can create potential for water-related tension and water conflicts. Water insecurity in general is a factor that will create instability and tension.

How can a water crisis trigger a war?

Some countries are located upstream on international rivers and such countries have the control over the water sources.

They can, for instance, fashion water into a weapon against countries located downstream. They can do it by building dams, canals and other facilities that divert waters or help to control water flow to a co-riparian state.

How can we avert a water war in Asia?

There are three things that can be done. First is to efficiently manage water resources by looking at long-term implications of water and security. Water management will have to be an important policy priority. As part of water management, we’ll have to look at water conservation, water efficiency, recycling and rainwater harvesting.

Second is to build institutional cooperation over the sharing of international rivers — there are 57 interstate river basins in Asia — to ensure there will be no conflicts over sharing of river waters from interstate basins.

Third is to set international rules to govern shared water resources. At present, international law is very weak, almost nonexistent on water issues. We need to create international norms or international legal principles on issues like sharing of water from interstate rivers and aquifers.

When should we start doing these three things?

We have to start doing these things because if we do not grapple with these issues now, then in 10 to 15 years from now, water-security issues will become a very destabilizing factor in Asia.

Copyright © 2008 The Jakarta Post – PT Bina Media Tenggara. All Rights Reserved.

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