The Battle for Scarce Water

Brahma Chellaney, OPEN magazine

The sharpening geopolitical competition over natural resources has turned some strategic resources into engines of power struggle. This is scarcely a surprise: Access to natural resources has historically been a major factor in peace and war. Resource considerations were a major driver of many armed interventions and wars, including the European colonial conquests and a number of the wars of the last century.

Water is the most-critical resource for human well-being, sustainable livelihoods and biodiversity support. Yet, access to adequate supplies of freshwater poses a particularly difficult challenge in several parts of the world because of spreading water shortages. Hydropolitics has consequently become murkier.

It might be cliché but water is the new oil of the twenty-first century. Today, water resources shared between nations are at the centre of increasing competition and conflict, triggering a dam-building race and prompting growing calls for the United Nations to make water a key security concern.

China, which dominates Asia’s water map because of its 1951 annexation of the water-rich Tibetan Plateau, is driving the sharpening hydropolitics in Asia. Almost all of Asia’s major rivers originate on the Tibetan Plateau, and China is erecting an expansive hydro-infrastructure to make itself the upstream water controller. In recent days, its rubber-stamp parliament has ratified a controversial plan to build a mega-dam on the Brahmaputra (known as Yarlung Tsangpo to Tibetans) just before the world’s highest-altitude river crosses into India.

This plan, which is likely to unleash environmental havoc in downstream regions, comes after one of the most pristine Himalayan rivers mysteriously turned black when entering India from Tibet, highlighting how China’s upstream tunnelling, damming and mining activities might be causing major environmental contamination. The plight of the Siang, and the Brahmaputra mega-project, serve as 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 is increasingly in short supply, with nearly two-thirds of the global population living in water-stressed conditions. Asia, home to 60% of the world’s population, has less freshwater per capita than any other continent. Its annual freshwater availability per person is less than half the global average of 5,829 cubic metres.

Yet Asia, the global economic locomotive, has experienced the world’s most rapid growth in water withdrawals from rivers, lakes and aquifers. Its dramatic economic rise has resulted in its water usage rate surpassing renewable stocks. By digging deeper wells, overexploiting river resources and maintaining generous irrigation subsidies, Asia is accelerating water-resource depletion and environmental degradation.

To be sure, the water crisis extends beyond Asia. Even in the relatively water-rich United States, water-sharing disputes are becoming rife. In fact, national paucity of water and arable land is driving some wealthier countries to produce food for their home markets on farmland acquired overseas, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

Such land grabs by outsiders are effectively water grabs because the farmland leases come with the right to harness local water resources for cultivation. According to a couple of studies, at least 20 states in sub-Saharan Africa have leased fertile land measuring more than Spain’s landmass to outside governments and agribusiness firms. One mammoth lease in the Indian Ocean island nation of Madagascar by the South Korean corporate giant Daewoo triggered a powerful grassroots backlash, which helped to topple the country’s democratically elected president in 2009.

A potent example of the world’s deepening water crisis is the dramatic rise of the bottled water industry over the past two decades. Bottled water, in fact, has become a major source of plastic waste, with plastic debris clogging up landfills, blocking drains, polluting waterways and contributing to biodiversity loss. Such is the low recycling rate in many countries that, for example, 80% of all plastic water bottles sold in the United States become litter.

Bottled water carries a large environmental footprint that extends beyond plastic waste. Significant resources are needed to source, process, bottle and transport such water, including 1.6 litres of water, on average, to package one litre of bottled water. Add to the picture the carbon footprint from processing and transporting bottled water.

Much of the bottled water sold across the world is extracted groundwater that, before being bottled, has been subjected to reverse osmosis or other treatment. Tapping subterranean water reserves on a large scale for this purpose depletes not just aquifers but also rivers and streams that draw water from aquifers. Premium bottled water, sourced from glaciers’ runoff, is also compounding adverse impacts on fragile ecosystems.

Yet, more and more people are relying on bottled water even in those Western cities where tap water is safe and highly regulated. This has created a strange paradox: While the prosperous in the world now depend largely on bottled drinking water, the poor struggle to get basic access to water for their daily consumption and household chores.

This month’s 10th anniversary of the Fukushima disaster was a reminder of another water-related paradox: Water is a life preserver but also becomes a life destroyer if it carries deadly bacteria or takes the form of tsunamis, flash floods, storms and hurricanes. Fukushima’s triple nuclear meltdown was triggered not by the earthquake that struck the area but by the tsunami that followed.

Global warming, for its part, is set to worsen the water crisis. As oceans rise and the intensity and frequency of storms and other extreme weather events increases due to global warming, freshwater resources will come under increasing strain.

Jakarta demonstrates how human-induced changes in the hydrological cycle are helping to foster threats from global warming. The Indonesian capital, home to more than 10 million people, is sinking faster than any other major city in the world because of stepped-up groundwater depletion. Tens of thousands of wells across Jakarta are pumping out groundwater at such an alarming rate that as much as two-fifths of the city is now said to be below sea level. Groundwater depletion is also aiding the rise of the Java Sea, thus worsening Jakarta’s plight.

One study has estimated that groundwater depletion alone contributes 0.8 millimetre per year to the rise of ocean levels globally, or about a quarter of the total rise of the oceans. Groundwater depletion, by inviting seawater intrusion into aquifers, is already compounding freshwater shortages in coastal 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 mega-cities like Bangkok, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Kolkata, Shanghai and Tianjin.

The current freshwater shortages are clearly being exacerbated by water pollution. Water contamination until now had largely been a domestic issue, as highlighted by the pollution problems affecting the Yellow River in China and the Ganges in India and Bangladesh. But the contamination of the Siang has shown that this problem is becoming a transboundary issue.

Against this background, water wars in a political and economic sense are already being waged in several regions, including by building dams on international rivers and by resorting to coercive diplomacy or other means to prevent such construction. One example of a silent water war has been Ethiopia’s dam building on the Blue Nile and the consequent Egyptian threats of covert or overt reprisals.

A report reflecting the joint judgment of US intelligence agencies warned a few years ago that the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism would become more likely in some regions. The InterAction Council, comprising more than 30 former heads of state or government, has underscored the imperative for urgent action, saying some countries battling severe water shortages are at risk of failing.

The risks of water conflicts are especially pronounced in the world’s most water-stressed regions — North Africa, the Middle East, and much of Asia. Asia cannot continue to drive global economic growth without finding ways to sustainably alleviate its water crisis.

Water discord, meanwhile, is fuelling China-India tensions. In recent years, Beijing increasingly has been employing its water leverage against India.

In 2017, in breach of two bilateral accords, China withheld hydrological data from India on upstream river flows. This undermined India’s flood early-warning systems during the critical monsoon season. Many of the deaths in Assam, which suffered record flooding that year despite below-normal monsoon rainfall, were preventable. The data denial was apparently intended to punish India for boycotting China’s inaugural Belt and Road summit and for the border standoff at Doklam.

The India-Pakistan water dynamic is driven by different factors. When Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947 as the first Islamic republic of the post-colonial era, the partition left the headwaters of the six-river Indus system on the Indian side of the border but the basin’s larger segment in the newly-created country. This division armed India with tremendous water leverage over Pakistan. But India, without any quid pro quo, ceded that leverage by signing what still remains the world’s most generous water-sharing pact: The 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) has indefinitely reserved for Pakistan more than 80% of the total Indus-system waters.

 Not content with securing the lion’s share of the Indus waters, Pakistan has continued to play the water card against India. From waging conventional wars against India in the past to sustaining a protracted proxy war by terror since the 1980s, Pakistan has in parallel started waging a water war. Its strategy has centred on repeatedly invoking the IWT’s conflict-resolution provisions to internationalize any perceived disagreement so as to keep India under intense pressure.

Asia illustrates that once shared water becomes a diplomatic battleground between countries, it begins to exact geopolitical costs in ways not dissimilar to the legacies of armed conflicts. The casualty usually is sub-regional stability and cooperation. SAARC, for example, has no future; it will remain a stunted initiative.

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 India, Japan and South Korea, driving up project costs and acting as a damper on hydropower expansion. But dam building remains unconstrained in countries where grassroots empowerment is absent, such as China, Pakistan, Myanmar and Laos.

Activist non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — many foreign funded — have made it difficult for India to build large dams. This has only compounded India’s energy conundrum. India’s inability to stem disruptive NGO activism will continue to blight the promise of hydropower in the country.

In contrast, China stands out as the global leader in dam building, boasting more large dams than the rest of the world combined. The focus of China’s dam frenzy has ominously shifted over the past decade from domestic rivers to transboundary rivers. This carries serious implications for downstream neighbours. For example, as downstream droughts become more frequent due to China’s dam network on the Mekong River, China is leveraging its upstream water control to influence policies of downstream states.

The environmental degradation on the world’s largest and highest plateau, Tibet, due to Chinese damming and mining activities carries wide implications. With its height and other unique features, the Tibetan Plateau influences climatic and rainfall patterns across Asia.

To be sure, other countries also are contributing to environmental degradation and thereby undermining Asia’s hydrological and climatic stability. In a number of countries, watersheds, watercourses, coastal environment and other ecosystems are being degraded, resulting in shrinking wetlands and forests, increased water pollution and other ecological problems.

Given that Asia is likely to face a hotter, drier future, governments must initiate plans now to mitigate the effects. 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, non-traditional measures, from recycling of water to rainwater capture, must be embraced.

Rainwater harvesting is an ancient technique that originated in Asia, especially India. Rainwater capture is also the cheapest and most-sustainable option to address water shortages and replenish groundwater. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Catch the Rain” initiative, by achieving demonstrable results on the ground, can serve as a model for other countries.

India must elevate water as a strategic resource. The Modi-created new, unified water power ministry is seeking to rectify a splintered, piecemeal approach that has compounded India’s water challenges. But without institutionalized, integrated policymaking, it will not be easy for India to develop a holistic approach to an increasingly scarce resource or fashion an effective hydro-diplomacy that advances the country’s long-term water interests.

Water increasingly will be a critical factor in regional development. So, India needs to get its act together on transboundary water issues. It should, for example, build sustained pressure on China to abide by international norms on shared water resources. Indian diplomacy ought to promote multilateral cooperation on water and hydropower resources in the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Myanmar-Nepal growth corridor. Such collaboration will also boost BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation).

More broadly, three interconnected crises — a water crisis, an environmental crisis and a climate crisis — are threatening Asia’s economic, social and ecological future. Wasteful practices and mismanagement of water resources need to be addressed across Asia, or else the water crisis will worsen and spark raging conflicts. Cooperative institutional mechanisms and sustainable practices constitute the building blocks of water peace. Water indeed is a key test of whether Asian leaders have the political will and good sense to think and act long term.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of two award-winning books on water: “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield) and “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).

© Open magazine, 2021.