Water shortages could trigger Asia conflicts

A number of factors threaten environmental stability and spur climate change


Asia exemplifies that dams and democracy do not go well together. Dam building has run into major grassroots opposition in major Asian democracies. But it continues unhindered in countries where grassroots empowerment is absent.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

In recent weeks, one of the most pristine Himalayan rivers has mysteriously turned black when entering India from Tibet, highlighting how China’s upstream tunneling, damming and mining activities might be causing major environmental contamination. The plight of the Siang, the central artery of the Brahmaputra river system — the lifeline of northeastern India and Bangladesh — is a stark reminder that transboundary river water issues in Asia are no less important than the regional maritime issues of the South and East China seas and the Indian Ocean, which have attracted greater global attention.

Freshwater, or water that is not salty, is a life-supporting resource. But it is increasingly in short supply in Asia. Although home to 60% of the world’s population, Asia has less freshwater per capita than any other continent. Its annual freshwater availability of 2,697 cubic meters per person is less than half the global average of 5,829 cubic meters. Yet Asia has experienced the world’s most rapid growth in freshwater withdrawals from rivers, lakes and aquifers since its economic rise.

The region’s freshwater usage rate exceeds its renewable stocks. By digging deeper wells and overexploiting river resources, combined with irrigation subsidies, Asia is accelerating water resource depletion and environmental degradation.

Transboundary problem

Water contamination until now has been mainly a domestic issue as highlighted by the pollution problems affecting the Yellow River in China and the Ganges in India. But the contamination of the Siang signals that this problem is becoming a transboundary problem, which will increase tensions and discord between neighboring countries.

Sino-India tensions have already increased due to freshwater disputes. Beijing has withheld hydrological data from New Delhi on upstream river flows in 2017 in breach of two bilateral accords. This undermined India’s flood early-warning systems during the critical monsoon season. In India’s Assam state, which suffered record flooding despite below-normal monsoon rainfall, many deaths were preventable. The data denial was apparently intended to punish India for boycotting China’s Belt and Road summit and for the border standoff on the remote Himalayan plateau of Doklam.

Asia’s water crisis, meanwhile, has given rise to grand but environmentally problematic projects such as China’s South-to-North Water Diversion Project. China has already completed two of the three legs of the world’s most ambitious water transfer program, which is now diverting billions of cubic meters of river waters yearly to its parched north. Because this program’s highly controversial third leg is to divert waters from rivers flowing to other countries from the Tibetan Plateau, China refuses to divulge any details about it.

More broadly, even as threats to Asia’s sustainable water supply are intensifying, geostrategic factors are raising the specter of water wars. Dam building and other diversions are often at the center of tensions and recriminations between states.

Asia illustrates that once shared water becomes a political and diplomatic battleground between countries, it begins to insidiously exact geopolitical costs in ways not dissimilar to the legacy of an armed conflict. The casualty usually is sub-regional stability and cooperation.

Asia also exemplifies another important trend — that dams and democracy do not go well together. Dam building has run into major grassroots opposition in Asian democracies like Japan, South Korea and India, driving up project costs and acting as a damper on hydropower expansion. In the absence of grassroots empowerment, however, there are few impediments to dam construction in Laos, Myanmar, Pakistan, China and elsewhere.

Indeed, China has become the global leader in dam building, boasting more large dams than the rest of the world combined. What is intensifying concern among downstream nations about China’s dam frenzy is the shift in its focus from domestic rivers to ones that cross borders. The Siang River’s contamination triggered a political furor and grassroots protests in India’s northeast, forcing Beijing to break its long silence and claim that a Nov. 18 earthquake in southeastern Tibet “might have led to the turbidity (clouding)” of the river. But the river waters turned dirty and gray before the quake struck.

The plain fact is that the environmental futures of China and its many neighbors are inextricably linked. Environmental degradation on the world’s largest and highest plateau — Tibet (which is warming at a rate three times the global average) — carries pan-Asian implications. With its height and other unique features, the Tibetan Plateau influences climatic and rainfall patterns across Asia.

Several other developments are also undermining Asia’s hydrological and climatic stability and fostering a cycle of chronic flooding and droughts. In many Asian countries, watersheds, watercourses, coastal ecosystems and the broader environment are being degraded, resulting in shrinking wetlands and forests, increased water pollution and other ecological problems.

These developments spur global warming. Natural water flows, evaporation and condensation help to propel the earth’s biogeochemical cycles and regulate its climate. Environmental degradation creates a vicious circle. It affects the hydrological cycle that shapes regional climate. A warming climate, in turn, has a significant impact on water resources.

Demand-side options

Jakarta illustrates how Asia’s mounting threats from climate change are fostered by changes in the hydrological cycle. The Indonesian capital, home to nearly 30 million people, is sinking faster than any other major city in the world because of accelerated groundwater depletion. Tens of thousands of wells across Jakarta pump out groundwater at such a rate that it is causing large-scale subsidence, with as much as 40% of the city now said to be below sea level. Groundwater depletion is also contributing to the rise of the Java Sea, thus exacerbating Jakarta’s troubles. Some of the waters extracted from Jakarta’s underground aquifers ultimately end up in the sea.

A surfeit of water but not enough to drink is a scenario likely to confront many coastal Asian cities. One study estimates that groundwater depletion contributes 0.8 millimeters per year to the rise of ocean levels globally, or about a quarter of the total rise. Groundwater depletion, by inviting seawater intrusion into aquifers, is already compounding freshwater shortages in some Asian cities. Meanwhile, the plethora of upstream dams on rivers is causing a perceptible retreat of Asia’s heavily populated deltas that are home to megacities like Bangkok, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Kolkata, Shanghai and Tianjin.

Given that Asia is likely to face a hotter, drier future, governments there must initiate action to mitigate the impacts. The freshwater crisis that many Asian countries already confront should be tackled in a way that contributes to combating climate change. The imperative is to move from purely supply-side approaches to demand-side options that emphasize water conservation and quality as much as quantity. Even on the supply side, nontraditional measures, from recycling of water to rainwater capture, must be embraced.

If unsustainable practices and mismanagement of water resources are not addressed, freshwater will become a precious commodity whose control will spark conflicts in Asia. The rise of water nationalism at a time of increasing water stress highlights the linkage between water and peace. Cooperative institutional mechanisms and sustainable resource utilization constitute the building blocks of water peace. Water is a key test of whether Asian leaders have the political will and good sense to think and act long term. What Asia confronts today, other continents are likely to face tomorrow.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategic and author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

China’s actions risk creating a coalition of democratic powers

Brahma Chellaney, Professor, Center for Policy Research

The United States, Japan, India and Australia have renewed efforts toward a strategic constellation of democracies in the Indo-Pacific region, with their diplomatic officials meeting jointly on the sidelines of the recent East Asia Summit in Manila. The future of this currently low-key quadrilateral initiative (or “quad”) will be shaped largely by China’s actions, which are acting as a spur to establish what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once called a “democratic security diamond.”

If China moderates its behavior by respecting international law, the quad is unlikely to gain traction. But if Beijing continues to flout established rules and norms on territorial, maritime and trade issues, the apparition of what it sees as an “Asian NATO” might eventually come true.

Today, the specter of a destabilizing power imbalance looms large in the world’s most dynamic region. In this light, close strategic collaboration among the major democracies can help institute power stability in the Indo-Pacific region and contain the challenges that threaten to disrupt stability and impede economic growth.

Let’s be clear: the alternative to a liberal, inclusive, rules-based order is an illiberal, hegemonic order with Chinese characteristics. Few would like to live in such an order.

Yet, this is precisely what the Indo-Pacific region might get if regional states do not work to counter the growing challenge to the rules-based order. China has prospered under the present order. But having accumulated economic and military power, it is now insidiously challenging that order through its actions.

Before the Manila summit, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pitched for a concert of democracies. “The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific,” a development that demands “greater engagement and cooperation” among democratic powers, Tillerson said in his first Asia-Pacific policy speech since taking office.

To succeed, such an endeavor must reckon with certain realities, including by drawing lessons from the failed effort a decade ago to sustain a similar quadrilateral initiative. After the original quad held its inaugural meeting in May 2007, Beijing was quick to cry foul and mount intense diplomatic and economic pressure on the member-states. Ultimately, it succeeded in unraveling the quad.

From the beginning, Australia appeared ill at ease in the original quad, given that its economic boom was tied to China’s ravenous commodity imports. America’s own support to the quad was less than unreserved, in light of its economic co-dependency with China. As for India, its approach was low-key — tacitly supportive of the quad, but hesitant to do anything openly that could instigate China to step up direct or surrogate military pressure on it. That left Japan as the only enthusiastic member of the original quad. Indeed, the quad idea was conceived by Abe in his book, Utsukushii Kuni-e (Toward A Beautiful Country), which was published just months before he became prime minister for the first time in 2006.

Eventually, the Kevin Rudd government in Australia pulled the rug from under the quad in a vain attempt to appease Beijing. With his visiting Chinese counterpart by his side, then Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said, “I indicated when I was in Japan that Australia would not be proposing to have a dialogue of that nature.” He went on to label the inaugural quad meeting as “a one-off” affair.

Did the disbanding of the original quad help change China’s behavior in a positive direction? Actually China’s behavior changed for the worse.

Had the quad members stood up to the Chinese pressure, China would likely have had less space to strategically alter the status quo in the South China Sea in its favor. China’s success in extending its control in the South China Sea by artificially creating seven islands and militarizing them has only emboldened its aggressive designs in the Himalayas and the East China Sea.

The lost decade since the first quad experiment means that democratic powers cannot afford to fail again. They need to come together through meaningful collaboration and coordination, because no single power on its own has been able to stop China’s territorial and maritime creep or rein in its increasingly muscular approach. The rebirth of the quad is an attempt to provide an initial framework to institute such collaboration among an expanding group of democracies.

To be sure, a democratic coalition is unlikely to take the shape of a formal alliance. A loose coalition of democracies can draw strength from the concept of democratic peace, which holds special relevance for the region. Shared values and interests are likely to drive democratic powers to promote maritime security, stability, connectivity, freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the region.

Democratic powers must proceed slowly, but surely, without unduly publicizing their meetings or intentions, in view of their failed experiment a decade ago and the current geopolitical challenges that are largely centered on China’s recidivist actions.

Japan and India, facing direct Chinese military pressure, have a much greater interest in the formation of a concert of democracies than the geographically distant U.S. and Australia.

An ongoing political crisis in Australia could trigger an election early next year, potentially bringing to power the opposition Labor Party, which seemingly favors a China-friendly foreign policy. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s job approval rating has slumped to a new low. Australia, having caused the collapse of the first quad experiment, remains the weak link in the reconstituted quad.

Meanwhile, the praise Trump lavished on China and its neo-Leninist dictator, Xi Jinping, during his Beijing visit raised the question of whether he fully shares Tillerson’s Indo-Pacific vision. To be sure, the success of the reconstituted quad depends on the U.S. being fully on board.

Major Asia-Pacific powers, of course, will continue to seek opportunities to balance against China, with or without the U.S. being on board. Two recent examples from the region — the revival of the quad and the movement toward concluding a final Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement among the 11 remaining members — indicate a clear determination to block the emergence of a China-led future.

The plain fact is that the Indo-Pacific democracies are natural allies. And given that contrasting political values have become the main geopolitical dividing line in the Asia-Pacific region, establishing a community of values can help underpin regional stability and power equilibrium. Such a community can also ensure that China’s defiant unilateralism is no longer cost-free.

But whether a constellation of democracies actually emerges or remains just an attractive concept hinges on China’s willingness to play by the rules. In that sense, the ball is in Beijing’s court.

© China-US Focus, 2017.