Beware of Water Wars
China’s hydro-engineering projects in Tibet raise serious concerns
The Times of India, November 24, 2008
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s disclosure that during his recent Beijing visit he raised the issue of international rivers flowing out of Tibet underscores the enormous implications of China’s hydro-engineering projects and plans. Through its control over the Tibet plateau, China controls the flow of several major river systems that are a lifeline to southern and southeastern Asia. Yet China is toying with massive inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects. Its Great South-North Water Transfer Project is an overly ambitious engineering attempt to take water through manmade canals to its semi-arid north. The diversion of waters from the Tibetan plateau in this project’s third leg is an idea enthusiastically backed by President Hu Jintao, a hydrologist by training whose 1989 martial-law crackdown in Tibet helped facilitate his swift rise in the communist party hierarchy.
Water is getting tied to security in several parts of the world. The battles of yesterday were fought over land. Those of today are over energy. But the battles of tomorrow will be over water. And nowhere else does that prospect look real than Asia, the largest and most densely populated continent that awaits a future made hotter and drier by global warming. According to a 2006 UN report, Asia has less fresh water — 3,920 cubic metres per person — than any other continent other than the Antarctica.
With the world’s fastest-rising military expenditures, most-dangerous hot spots and fiercest resource competition, Asia appears the most likely flash-point for water wars — a concern underscored by attempts by some states to exploit their riparian position or dominance. Riparian dominance impervious to international legal principles can create a situation where water allocations to co-riparian states become a function of political fiat.
Upstream dams, barrages, canals and irrigation systems can help fashion water as a political weapon — a weapon that can be wielded overtly in a war, or subtly in peacetime to signal dissatisfaction with a co-riparian state. Even denial of hydrological data in a critically important season can amount to the use of water as a political tool. Such leverage could in turn prompt a downstream state to build up its military capabilities to help counterbalance the riparian disadvantage.
Except for Japan, Malaysia and Burma, Asian states already face water shortages. A different water-related problem confronts some low-lying states like Bangladesh and the Maldives, whose very future of is at stake due to creeping saltwater incursion and frequent flooding. Bangladesh today has too much water, yet not enough to meet its needs. Born in blood in 1971, it faces the spectre of a watery grave.
China and India already are water-stressed economies. The spread of irrigated farming and water-intensive industries and a rising middle class are drawing attention to their serious struggle for more water. The two giants have entered an era of perennial water shortages, which before long are likely to parallel, in terms of per-capita availability, the Mideast scarcity. Their rapid economic growth could slow if their demand for water continues to grow at the present frenetic pace. Water shortages, furthermore, threaten to turn food-exporting China and India into major importers — a development that would seriously accentuate the global food crisis.
Even though India’s usable arable land is larger than China’s — 160.5 million hectares compared to 137.1 million hectares — the source of all the major Indian rivers except one is the Tibetan plateau. While the Ganges originates on the Indian side of the Himalayas, its two main tributaries flow in from Tibet. This is the world’s largest plateau, whose vast glaciers, huge underground springs and high altitude have endowed it with the greatest river systems. Almost all the major rivers of Asia originate there. Tibet’s status thus is unique: No other area in the world is a water repository of such size, serving as a lifeline for much of an entire continent.
In the stark words of Premier Wen Jiabao, water scarcity threatens the very “survival of the Chinese nation”. But in seeking to address that challenge, China’s gargantuan projects threaten to damage the delicate Tibetan ecosystem. They also carry seeds of inter-riparian conflict. The hydropolitics in the Mekong river basin, for example, can only get sharper as China, ignoring the concerns of downstream states, completes more upstream dams on the Mekong.
While making half-hearted attempts to stanch Indian fears about the prospective diversion of the Brahmaputra northward, Beijing has identified the bend where the Brahmaputra forms the world’s longest and deepest canyon, just before entering India, as holding the largest untapped reserves for meeting China’s water and energy needs. A Sino-Indian conflict over the sharing of the Brahmaputra waters, for instance, would begin no sooner than China begins to build the world’s largest hydropower plant on the river’s Great Bend. Upstream projects already have been held responsible for flash floods in Arunachal and Himachal Pradesh.
The way to forestall or manage water disputes in Asia is to build cooperative river-basin arrangements involving all riparian neighbours. Such institutional arrangements ought to centre on transparency, information sharing, pollution control and a pledge not to redirect the natural flow of trans-boundary rivers or undertake projects that would diminish cross-border flows. The successful interstate basin agreements (such as over the Indus, the Nile and the Senegal) are founded on such principles. In the absence of institutionalized cooperation over shared resources, peace will be the casualty in Asia as water becomes the new battleground.
The writer is a strategic affairs analyst.
(c) Times of India, 2008.