Interview: Schwartz Book Award Winner Brahma Chellaney on Asia’s Water Future

Asia Society, November 9, 2012, by Suzanne DiMaggio

Future site of the Xayaburi Dam in Laos. (International Rivers/Flickr)

Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and one of India’s leading strategic thinkers and analysts, was awarded Asia Society’s 2012 Bernard Schwartz Book Award for Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press), in which he describes water stress as Asia’s defining crisis of the 21st century. Chellaney will be honored and presented with a $20,000 prize at a special event to be held at Asia Society New York on January 23, 2013.

After being named the 2012 Award winner, Chellaney spoke to Asia Society Vice President of Global Policy Programs Suzanne DiMaggio about Asia’s water security challenges.

As compared to other regions in the world, what makes Asia particularly susceptible to conflict over water resources?

Water has emerged as a critical issue that will determine if Asia is headed toward greater cooperation or greater competition. Asia, with the lowest per capita freshwater availability among all continents, is at the center of global water challenges. In an ever-deeper search for water, millions of pump-operated wells threaten to suck Asia’s groundwater reserves dry, even as the continent confronts river depletion.

Few seem to know that the driest continent in the world is not Africa but Asia, where availability of freshwater is not even half the global average. Asia has less than one-tenth of the water of South America, Australia, and New Zealand, less than one-fourth of the water of North America, almost one-third of the water of Europe, and 25% less water than Africa per inhabitant. Yet it has the world’s fastest-growing demand for water for food and industrial production and municipal supply. To compound matters, Asia already has the world’s largest number of people without basic or adequate access to water, in addition to very high water-distribution losses, a lack of 24/7 supply in many cities, and drinking-water contamination due to unregulated industrial and agricultural practices.

Where in Asia is the potential for interstate water conflict greatest? What priority measures are needed to prevent “water wars?”

Water — the most essential of all natural resources — is vital to produce virtually all the goods in the marketplace, to generate electricity, to mine energy resources, and to refine oil and gas. Most states in Asia, other than China and archipelagos like Japan and Indonesia, have a high national dependency on waters from transnational rivers or aquifers. Often, securing a larger portion of the shared water resources has become a flashpoint in inter-country relationships.

Water indeed is a new arena in the Asian Great Game. Water shortages were relatively unknown in Asia — other than in arid regions — before the era of rapid economic growth began in earnest about three decades ago. Thanks to Asia’s dramatic economic rise, water resources have come under increasing pressure in almost all of the important Asian economies. As a result, the risk of water becoming a trigger for conflict or diplomatic strong-arming is high across large parts of the continent.

Brahma Chellaney

The security risks are underlined by the fact that only four of the 57 transnational river basins in continental Asia have treaties covering water sharing or other institutionalized cooperation. These four are the Mekong, where the non-participation of upper-riparian China has stunted the development of a genuine basin community; the Ganges, where there is a treaty between Bangladesh and India; the Indus, which boasts the world’s greatest water-sharing treaty in terms of the quantum of cross-border flows; and the Jordan, a four-nation basin whose resources are the subject of a peace-treaty-related arrangement between Israel and Jordan. The exact number of transnational groundwater basins in Asia is unknown because there has been no scientific assessment. But a number of the transnational river basins in Asia have emerged as potential flashpoints for serious water conflict — a specter reinforced by the strained inter-riparian relations in several basins and the broader absence of an Asian security architecture. In fact, Asia is the only continent other than Africa where regional integration has yet to take hold, largely because Asian political and cultural diversity has hindered institution building. Managing the water competition in Asia is thus becoming increasingly challenging.

You note that water disputes are also fueling conflict within countries. Where are the potential “hot spots” for instability? What solutions can governments in the region implement in order to reduce internal tensions?

Intra-country water disputes are rife across much of Asia — from Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia and China. In fact, intrastate water conflicts tend to be more frequent and violent than interstate conflicts. Yet intrastate conflicts rarely get the kind of international attention that interstate discords do. This is partly because inter-country water disputes carry greater security and economic risks.

As Asia illustrates, water conflict within multi-ethnic nations often assumes ethnic or sectarian dimensions, thereby accentuating internal-security challenges. One frequent source of intrastate water conflict is a government or corporate decision to set up a water-intensive plant in an already water-stressed area, or a national supply-side project. When water availability is already low, new plants or projects tend to spur greater competition over scarce water resources. Yet the lopsided availability of water within some Asian nations (abundant in some areas but deficient in others) has given rise to megaprojects or grand diversion plans. The building of large dams and other diversion structures has run into grassroots opposition in a number of Asian nations, especially those that are democratic, due to displacement and submergence issues.

You make the case that viewing water scarcity issues through an environmental lens is insufficient and call for a more comprehensive approach framed within the context of peace and security. Do you see any evidence that policymakers in Asia or other parts of the globe are moving in this direction?

In Asia, water has gone from being just an environmental issue to becoming a strategic issue. Governments have been slower than public opinion in recognizing this shift. Yet the rise of nontraditional security issues has promoted the quiet “securitization” of water.

What is needed is a holistic, long-term approach so that national policies on water, energy, and food are harmonized to help achieve greater water efficiency. Whereas Asia’s population growth has slowed, its consumption growth has taken off due to rising prosperity. An average Asian is consuming more resources, including water, food, and energy. What were luxuries earlier have become necessities today, bringing the availability of water and other natural resources under strain. To protect Asia’s economic growth and development goals, private-public partnerships are necessary to create synergy in the water, energy, and food sectors, to improve water productivity, and to optimize water availability. A comprehensive framework is also required to help advance internal and external security, including through inter-riparian cooperation.

Another issue that must be addressed is the increasingly apparent environmental impact of the Asian economic-growth story, including on watersheds, riparian ecology, and water quality. Rising prosperity in Asia, by aggravating the environmental impacts of human activities, is deepening the water crisis.

State policies have unwittingly contributed to the environmental degradation. State subsidies, for example, have helped weaken price signals, encouraging farmers to over-pump groundwater. Provision of subsidized electricity and diesel fuel to farmers in several Asian countries has promoted the uncontrolled exploitation of groundwater.

Water abstraction in excess of the natural hydrological cycle’s renewable capacity is affecting ecosystems and degrading water quality in large parts of Asia. The overexploitation of groundwater, for example, results not only in the depletion of a vital resource, but also leads to the drying up of wetlands, lakes, and streams that depend on the same source. The human alteration of ecosystems, in fact, invites accelerated global warming.

In the interstate context, a dam-building race is now on. The countries likely to bear the brunt of such water diversion are those located farthest downstream on rivers like the Brahmaputra, Mekong, and Tigris-Euphrates: Bangladesh, whose very future is threatened by climate and environmental change; Vietnam, a rice bowl of Asia; and Iraq, still internally torn. China’s water appropriations from the Illy River threaten to turn Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash into another Aral Sea.

The book recommends a cooperative, rule-based approach to addressing water resource concerns in Asia. How realistic is it to expect regional cooperation on water when countries are so focused on pursuing their own national interests?

This is a good question. There is little incentive to conserve or protect supplies for users beyond national borders, unless, of course, specific water-sharing arrangements are in place. The focus on narrowly defined national interests is the main reason why most transnational basins lack any cooperative regime. Often, commercial contracts, joint research, flood-control projects, and non-binding memorandums of understanding masquerade as water agreements. Yet there are just a handful of water treaties in Asia that actually incorporate a sharing formula on transboundary basin resources or provide for institutionalized cooperation.

Inter-country water institutions facilitate constructive dialogue and structured cooperation and thereby help moderate the risk of disputes flaring into overt confrontation or armed conflict. The way to avert or manage water disputes in Asia is to build basin-level arrangements involving all important riparian neighbors. The arrangements must be centered on transparency, information sharing, equitable distribution of benefits, dispute settlement, pollution control, joint projects, and a mutual commitment to refrain from building projects that would materially diminish transboundary flows. If a dominant riparian refuses to join or the common rules are breached, an institutional arrangement can hardly be effective.

Admittedly, it is not easy to build water institutions because of the complex physical, geopolitical, and economic factors usually at play. Still, to contain the security risks, Asian states have little choice but to invest more in institutionalized cooperation. Only such collaboration can help underpin peace and security, protect continued economic growth, and promote environmental sustainability.

You argue that “the big issue in Asia, apart from climate change, is whether China will exploit its control of the Tibetan Plateau to increasingly siphon off for its own use the waters of the international rivers that are the lifeblood of the countries located in a contiguous arc from Vietnam to Afghanistan.” What is required of China for these policies to change?

Brahma Chellaney

Asia clearly is on the frontlines of climate change. In the nearer term, however, China looms large as a common factor in more than a dozen crucial river basins in Asia that lack any kind of institutionalized cooperation among all key co-riparian states. China does not have a single water-sharing treaty with any co-riparian country, and is currently involved in water disputes with multiple neighbors, including Kazakhstan, Russia, India, Nepal, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

Asia’s water map fundamentally changed after the 1949 Communist victory in China. Most of Asia’s important international rivers originate in territories that were forcibly absorbed by the People’s Republic of China. The Tibetan Plateau is the world’s largest freshwater repository and the source of Asia’s greatest rivers, including those that are the lifeblood for mainland China. Although China is now the source of cross-border water flows to the largest number of countries in the world, it rejects the very notion of water sharing or institutionalized cooperation with downriver countries.

With several nations jockeying to control transnational water resources, the political obstacles in Asia go beyond China. Still, given China’s unique riparian position and its assertion of absolute territorial sovereignty over the upstream waters, it will not be possible to transform the Asian competition into cooperation without China’s participation in water institutions. Persuading China to halt further unilateral appropriation of shared waters has emerged as a central challenge.

How is the United States affected by water resource concerns in Asia? What policies can the U.S. adopt or support to help address these concerns?

U.S. officials have spotlighted Asia’s water challenges, and the State Department announced in 2010 that it was upgrading water scarcity to “a central U.S. foreign policy concern.” A 2012 report reflecting the joint judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies pointed to the water-related security risks in several Asian basins.

Water discord impinges on U.S. interests, including by impeding collaboration between U.S. allies and friends in the region. For example, dam building is creating new inter-country tensions and challenges in Asia and complicating U.S. diplomacy.

The United States, although relatively well-endowed with water resources, is itself facing increasing water stress, especially in the southwest. But it has old, functioning water institutions with Canada and Mexico. The Canada-U.S. International Joint Commission (IJC) has successfully managed the world’s largest water resources governed by a bilateral mechanism. U.S. policy could seek to promote institutionalized water cooperation in Asia that draws on the ICJ’s productive features. At a time when new upstream Chinese dams have helped stir popular passions in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, the United States has sought to diplomatically cash in on downstream concerns by launching the Lower Mekong Initiative, or LMI. Seeking to promote integrated cooperation among Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam in the areas of environment, education, health, and infrastructure, LMI emphasizes sustainable hydropower development and natural-resource management, including improving institutional capacity to address connected transnational issues.