Asia’s Water Crisis: Strategic Implications

Water emerges as a potential constraint on Asia’s rapid
growth

Brahma Chellaney

The Sunday Guardian, May 9, 2010

As the most-pressing resource, water holds the strategic
key to peace, public health and prosperity. With its availability coming under
pressure in many parts of the world due to greater industrial, agricultural and
household demands, water is likely to serve as the defining crisis of the
21st
 century. This is most evident when one looks at Asia, the world’s largest
continent.

In Asia, growing populations, rising affluence, changing
diets and the demands of development already are already putting strain on two
resources linked to climate change. One is energy, the main contributor to the
buildup of planet-warming greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And the other is
water, whose availability will be seriously affected by climate change,
increasing the likelihood of water-related conflicts there, as the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned.

The sharpening Asian competition over energy resources, driven
in part by high GDP growth rates and
in part by mercantilist attempts to
lock up supplies, has obscured the other danger — that water shortages
in much of Asia are
becom
ing a threat to rapid economic
modernization, prompt
ing the
build
ing of upstream
hydro-engineering projects on transnational rivers, with little concern for the
interests of co-riparian states. If water geopolitics were to spur
interstate tensions through reduced
water flows to neighboring countries, the Asian renaissance could stall in the
face of inter-riparian conflicts.

Today, no region better
illustrates the dangers of water wars in the future than Asia, which has less
fresh water — 3,920 cubic meters per person — than any other cont
inent, according to a 2006 United Nations report. This fact often
gets obscured by the spotlight on the sharpening energy competition. Indeed, at
a time when the assertive pursuit of national
interest has begun to replace ideology, idealism and
morality
in international relations, there is a danger that
interstate conflict in Asia
in the coming years could be driven by competition not so much
over political
influence as over
scarce resources.

The UN report has pointed
out that when the estimated reserves of lakes, rivers and groundwater are added
up, Asia has marg
inally less water
per person than Europe or Africa, one-quarter that of North America, nearly
one-tenth that of South America and 20 times less than Australia and Pacific
islands. Yet
Asia is home to almost 60 percent
of the world’s population.

In Asia, two broad water-related effects of climate change
can be visualized. First, climate change is likely to
intensify interstate and intrastate competition over water resources. That
in turn could trigger resource
conflicts with
in and between states,
and open new (or exacerbate exist
ing)
political disputes. Second, the likely increased frequency of extreme weather
events like hurricanes, droughts and flood
ing, as well as the rise of ocean levels, are likely
to spur greater
interstate and
intrastate migration — especially of
the poor and the vulnerable — from delta and coastal regions to the
h
interland. Such an influx of outsiders would socially swamp
inland areas, upsetting the existing fragile ethnic balance and provoking a backlash that strains internal and regional security. Through such
large-scale migration, the political stability and
internal cohesion of some nations could be
underm
ined. In some cases, this could
even foster or strengthen conditions that could make the state dysfunctional.

In water-deficient
Asia, most societies are agrarian, and the
demand for water for farming is soaring.
Asia’s
rapid
industrialization and
urbanization, additionally, are boost
ing demand for water considerably.

Household water consumption
in Asia is also rising rapidly, but such is the water paucity that not
many Asians can aspire for the lifestyle of Americans, who daily use 400 liters
per person, or more than 2.5 times the average
in Asia.
Agriculture, however, remains the major consumer of water. Some three-fourths of
all water withdrawals in
Asia are for
agriculture.

Asis’s vast irrigation
systems helped usher in the Green Revolution. Today, irrigated croplands produce
60 percent of
Asia’s rice, wheat and other
staple food grains. But in a new era of growing water shortages, the
water-intensive and wasteful nature of Asian irrigation practices are becoming
apparent, including the growing of rice in saturated paddy fields, old and
inefficient irrigation canals and the widespread use of electric and diesel
pumps to recklessly extract groundwater.

Add to this picture the
fast-rising demand for food in
Asia. But to
grow more food will require more water — a resource now under the greatest
strain. Pollution, too, is threatening
Asia’s
freshwater resources.

The spread of prosperity is
changing diets in
Asia, with people tending to
eat less grain and more meat, dairy products and fruit as they rise to the
middle class. In
China, for example, meat consumption
has doubled in the past 20 years and is expected to again double by 2035. A
shift from traditional rice and noodles to a meatier diet has helped double
East Asia’s “water footprint” for food
production since 1985, given the fact that it takes 12 times more water to grow
a kilogram of beef as compared to a kilogram of rice or wheat.

Take China and India, which
already are water-stressed economies.  As
China and India
gain economic heft, they are increasingly drawing international attention. The
two demographic titans are com
ing
into their own at the same time
in history, helping to highlight the
ongo
ing major shifts in global politics and economy.  However, when one
examines natural endowments — such as arable land, water resources, mineral
deposits, hydrocarbons and wetlands — the picture that emerges is not exactly
gratifying for
India and
China.

The two giants have entered
an era of perennial water shortages, which are likely to parallel, in terms of
per-capita water availability, the scarcity in the
Middle
East
before long. India and China
face the prospect that their rapid economic modernization may stall due to
inadequate water resources. This prospect would become a reality if their
industrial, agricultural and household demand for water continues to grow at the
present frenetic pace.

Water presents a unique
challenge. While countries can scour
the world for oil, natural gas and
minerals to keep their economic machines humming, water cannot be secured
through international trade deals. Sustainable and integrated management of
national water resources is essential to prevent degradation, depletion and
pollution of water. To meet the gap between supply and demand, water
conservation, water efficiency, rainwater capture, water recycling and drip
irrigation would have to be embraced at national, provincial and local levels.

One can hope that advances in clean-water
technologies would materialize before water conflicts flare.
Low-cost, energy-efficient technologies for treating and
recycling water could emerge from the scientific progress on nanoparticles and
nanofibres and membrane bioreactors. But until that becomes a reality, Asian
states have little choice but to upgrade their antiquated irrigation systems and
adopt more water-efficient agricultural practices.

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