Pathways to tackling the plastic waste problem

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Beach pollution

Bottled water has a huge environmental footprint. About 1.6 liters of water are needed to produce one liter of bottled water, demand is depleting precious groundwater resources, and most of the recyclable PET bottles are buried in landfills or end up as litter.

Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

Is the human species becoming a cancer on the planet? This question arises from the grim findings of a new United Nations study that human actions are irremediably altering natural ecosystems and driving increasing numbers of plant and animal species to extinction.

“Nature across the globe has now been significantly altered,” with 75 percent of the land surface extensively modified, 85 percent of the wetlands lost, and two-thirds of the oceans bearing mounting cumulative impacts, according to the study’s just-released summary of findings. Another study published in this month’s Nature, the journal of science, reports that humans have modified the flows of most long rivers other than those found in remote regions.

Not surprisingly, biodiversity is declining rapidly across the world. Aquatic ecosystems, for example, have lost 50 percent of their biodiversity since the 1970s. One major driver is plastic pollution.

Bottled water has become an important source of plastic waste, along with single-use straws, cutlery, food containers and other plastic items. Plastic debris is clogging up landfills, blocking drains, polluting waterways and contributing to biodiversity loss. Plastic litter on roadsides and beaches and in other public spaces is an eyesore.

Mass production of plastics began just six decades ago. The bottled-water industry, however, took off after the commercial advent in the 1990s of single-serve bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), or polyester plastic. Fabricated from crude oil and natural gas, PET has helped turn water — and other drinks — into portable and lightweight consumer products. But PET takes hundreds of years to biodegrade and, if incinerated, generates toxic fumes.

Other forms of plastics are also polluting land and water. They include low-density polyethylene, which creates shopping bags, bubble wrap, flexible bottles and wire and cable insulation; high-density polyethylene used for making toys, garden furniture, trash bins, detergent and bleach bottles, buckets and jugs; and polypropylene found in bottle tops, diapers, drinking straws, lunch boxes, insulated coolers, and fabric and carpet fiber.

Barely 18 percent of plastic waste is recycled globally — and slightly more in Japan. The rest ends up as trash and litter. For example, tens of billions of easily recyclable PET bottles are discarded as garbage every year.

Chinese and Indian bans on import of plastic waste for recycling are accentuating the global plastic crisis. Many cities in advanced economies, faced with mountains of plastic waste, are struggling to expand landfill capacities. Japan, for example, confronts spiraling plastic waste despite shipping more such trash to Southeast Asia following China’s imposition of import restrictions in late 2017. Japan now must recycle more of its waste at home, an imperative that has prompted Japanese firms to pour investments into plastic recycling plants. With virgin plastic cheaper than recycled plastic, Japan could offer manufacturers tax concessions to switch to recycled plastic.

Against this background, about 180 countries agreed on May 10 to a new U.N. accord to regulate the export of plastic waste, some eight million tons of which ends up in the oceans each year — the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic being tipped into the sea every minute. The accord amends the 1989 Basel Convention on the control of hazardous wastes to include plastic trash.

Plastic pollution of oceans has increased tenfold since 1980 alone. By affecting many species of marine life, such pollution threatens human food chains. Microplastics, the tiny particles into which plastic degrades into, have been found in many fishes’ guts.

A similar challenge to human health is posed by a different class of plastic particles called microbeads, used as abrasives in cosmetics and toothpaste. Such fine particles are not filtered out by most wastewater treatment plants. Despite efforts in some countries to prohibit or regulate their use, microbeads have entered freshwater bodies, such as the Great Lakes, where they can become coated with cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs. Mistakenly eaten by fish, these particles then enter human bodies.

As the U.N. study warns, “Plastic microparticles and nanoparticles are entering food webs in poorly understood ways.”

Not enough is being done to address the plastic waste scourge. Some popular consumer products are a source of environmental degradation even without the plastic containers in which they are marketed. Bottled water is a prime example. Bottled water carries a large environmental footprint: It entails use of significant resources to source, process, bottle and transport the water. For example, 1.6 liters of water, on average, are used to package one liter of bottled water. Processing and transportation of bottled water result in a notable carbon footprint.

Much of the bottled water sold globally is extracted groundwater that has been subjected to reverse osmosis or other treatment of the kind given to tap water. Yet more and more people don’t trust tap water and rely on bottled water, making it the largest commercial growth area among drinks. Tapping subterranean water reserves on a large scale for bottling depletes not just aquifers but also rivers and streams that draw water from aquifers. Premium bottled water, sourced from glaciers’ runoff, is also compounding human impacts on fragile ecosystems.

It is past time for the international community to deal with its plastics-centered environmental health challenges. Why allow the use of plastics for products (including plates, cups, straws, cutlery, drink stirrers and cotton swabs) where non-plastic alternatives are available and commercially affordable? Beverage companies, for example, should be made to use biodegradable or eco-friendly reusable containers, instead of PET bottles.

In fact, there is a dire need for a global ban on single-use plastics, whose increasing use is triggering a slow-onset disaster. Japan and other countries may be reluctant, but a legally binding, global phase-out of most single-out plastics has become inescapable.

A global prohibition would need to be strictly enforced. In the absence of enforcement, current partial bans on single-use plastic shopping bags in more than 100 countries, for example, have proved ineffective.

Creating a more sustainable world demands effective management of plastic waste, innovations toward eco-friendly substitutes, and monetary incentives to help clear the plastic debris. It also calls for reducing consumer demand for environmentally harmful products that also generate a lot of plastic waste, like bottled water.

The right policies and regulations can promote high rates of recycling and prevent plastic waste in public spaces. Japan has been slow to respond to the plastic-waste crisis, although it produces the largest amount of such waste per capita after the United States. Japan could learn from Germany, the world’s recycling champion that recycles nearly all plastic bottles. In Berlin, for example, the poor perform an environmental service by scavenging public trash bins for bottles yielding deposit return from machines at supermarkets.

Imagine if an attractive monetary incentive was offered to the poor in all countries to collect bottles and other plastic waste and deposit them with retailers. It would help to dramatically control plastic trash and litter.

Waste pickers hold the key to effective waste management, including recycling, but they need a living wage to serve the public. Deposit return schemes are necessary but not sufficient as they are usually restricted to bottles. An environmental tax on plastics could help governments to raise sufficient money to incentivize the collection of all plastic debris. Consumer goods companies should also be made to help cover the costs of waste management and cleanup.

Make no mistake: The plastic waste scourge is seriously imperiling the world’s environmental well-being, including contaminating our freshwater and food chain. Without urgent action to arrest the problem, there will be, as research shows, more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans by 2050. And more people might be dying from cancer and other environmental diseases.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2019.

Indigenous groups are the world’s endangered environmental guardians

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Waiapi people pose in Manilha village in Amapa state, Brazil, Oct. 15, 2017.

Brahma Chellaney

The Globe and Mail

Brazil’s new President, Jair Bolsonaro – known for his misogynistic, racist, homophobic and anti-environmental comments – has raised questions about the future of the world’s fourth-largest democracy with his support for torture and his unapologetic nostalgia for the country’s 1964-85 military dictatorship. But no part of Brazil’s diverse society has more to dread from Mr. Bolsonaro’s coming to power than the country’s already beleaguered Indigenous groups.

Over the past five centuries, the number of Indigenous people in Brazil has shrunk from as much as five million to about 895,000, less than 0.5 per cent of the country’s population. Since 2006, their territory – the Brazilian part of the Amazon Basin – has lost forest cover over an area greater in size than the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the world’s 11th-largest country, according to satellite data.

Mr. Bolsonaro, perhaps the most right-wing leader of any democracy in the world, has vowed to open up the Amazon rain forest to developers by repealing constitutional safeguards for Indigenous lands, claiming the protected reserves amount to keeping Indigenous people in “zoos.”

As if to signal his intent to permit greater destruction of the world’s biggest rain forest, he has appointed a Foreign Minister who believes climate change is an anti-Christian plot by “cultural Marxists” seeking to criminalize red meat, oil and heterosexual sex. And he has appointed an anti-abortion evangelist to head a new ministry overseeing Indigenous groups, women and human rights.

To be sure, Brazil is not the only country where Indigenous tribes must confront mounting threats to their ways of life – and their lives. From Canada and the Philippines to Japan and Indonesia, Indigenous people face growing threats of discrimination, marginalization and forced assimilation. As a result, the world’s Indigenous communities are rapidly dwindling in numbers owing to encroachment and the exploitation of their natural resources.

With their combined share of the global population shrinking to 4.5 per cent, Indigenous communities are locked in modern-day David-versus-Goliath battles against mining companies, dam builders, oil-palm plantations, loggers, ranchers, hunters, evangelists and military forces. Their rights continue to be violated with impunity despite an international convention obligating governments to protect their lands, identities, penal customs and ways of life.

More fundamentally, at a time when environmental degradation and climate change have emerged as mortal threats to humankind, Indigenous peoples’ ways of life, with their premium on maintaining a balance between human needs and the preservation of ecosystems, serve as examples to the wider world.

Living close to nature, with their survival tied to ecosystem health, Indigenous communities respect nature as their teacher and protector. Consequently, they tend to understand nature better than modern societies, as was illustrated in late 2004, when a devastating tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean, killing more than a quarter million people across 14 Asian countries. On India’s remote Andaman archipelago, however, close to the epicentre of the earthquake that caused the tsunami, two of the world’s most isolated Indigenous tribes escaped harm by relying on traditional warning systems and moving to higher ground in time.

In fact, one of these two groups – the world’s last known pre-Neolithic tribal community, living on coral-fringed North Sentinel Island – made international headlines recently because of a Chinese-American missionary’s covert but fatal expedition to convert its 100 or so members to Christianity. John Allen Chau made repeated forays onto the island over three days, ignoring warnings from the Sentinelese tribe members to leave their community alone.

After the decimation of Indigenous tribes under European colonial rule, countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, India and Peru have pursued “no contact” policies toward isolated tribes. These policies are anchored in laws that protect the rights of Indigenous people to live in seclusion on their ancestral lands. Tribal reserves in India’s Andaman archipelago, for example, are off-limits to all outsiders. Intrusions are punishable with a prison sentence.

A man with the Sentinelese tribe aims his bow and arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter as it flies over North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Islands, Dec. 28, 2004.

Yet, with the support of a Kansas City-based missionary agency that trained him for the arduous undertaking, Mr. Chau dodged Indian laws and coastal security to make repeated incursions into North Sentinel to convert a highly endangered tribe to his religion, according to his own diary accounts. He undertook his mission just before American Thanksgiving, an annual whitewash of the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans.

Contrast the Sentinelese handling of the alien with punishments for unlawful activity or entry in the so-called civilized world: On Mr. Chau’s first intrusion into their peaceful world, the hunter-gatherer Sentinelese did not subject him to Abu Ghraib-style torture or to U.S. President Donald Trump’s “catch and detain” policy, applicable to anyone entering the United States illegally. The Sentinelese, as Mr. Chau acknowledged in his notes, let him go – with a warning not to return.

But an undeterred Mr. Chau, using a fishing boat and a kayak, repeatedly stepped ashore, disparaging the island as “Satan’s last stronghold.” The patience of the Sentinelese wore out, and he was likely shot with a bow and arrow. His body was reportedly buried on the beach, in the way the tribe disposes of its own dead.

Although local police have filed a case of murder against “unknown persons,” the Sentinelese acted in a way permitted by the “stand your ground” laws in states such as Florida. That self-defence law shields a person from both criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit “if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary” to use deadly force to prevent harm or death.

Mr. Chau – the son of a refugee father who fled China during the Cultural Revolution and converted to Christianity in the United States – described in his notes how he hid from Indian coastal patrols under cover of darkness to make his criminal forays into an island forbidden even to Indians, including military forces. By demonstrating the ease with which one can breach Indian tribal-protection laws and security, he helped highlight the vulnerability of India’s endangered tribes.

More broadly, his mission exemplified the threats to Indigenous people who live in total isolation. Today, most of such tribes live in the Amazon Basin, straddling Brazil’s borders with Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, or in the jungles of New Guinea and India.

The isolated tribes have rejected contact with the external world usually after experiencing ghastly violence and deadly diseases brought by outsiders from the time of European colonization, which wiped out many Indigenous communities from Australia to North America. To escape genocide, some tribes fled to the deepest and most inaccessible parts of jungles, where they still live.

For example, until 150 years ago, the Andaman archipelago was home to more than two dozen isolated aboriginal communities, whose ancestors left Africa tens of thousands of years ago in a major exodus that provided the earliest inhabitants of Asia and Oceania. Studies have identified a genetic affinity between the Andaman islanders, Malaysia’s tiny Orang Asli Indigenous population and Oceania’s Melanesians.

After British colonial excesses, only four Andaman tribes survive. Two of these groups were forcibly assimilated by the British and have become rootless and dependent on government aid. They are likely to vanish much ahead of the other two groups, which are self-sufficient and continue to live in complete isolation.

Likewise in Brazil, three-quarters of the Indigenous communities that were forced to open up to the outside world became extinct, with the rest suffering catastrophic population declines. Since the late 1980s, however, Brazil’s constitutional protections for Indigenous territories have helped many remaining tribes increase their populations – protections Mr. Bolsonaro has now threatened to repeal.

The examples from the Amazon Basin and the Andaman islands underscore the potent dangers of forced assimilation for isolated aboriginal people. Forced incorporation usually happens in the name of providing access to better technology, education and health care or, as Mr. Bolsonaro wants, to open up Indigenous lands to resource extraction and other development projects.

There are compelling anthropological and epidemiological reasons to prohibit outsiders from establishing contact with remote tribes. For example, the first waves of European colonization caused a calamitous depopulation of Indigenous societies by introducing smallpox, measles and other infectious diseases to which Indigenous people had no immunity.

Modern life is characterized by rampant use of antibiotics, including in meat production, with antibiotic resistance posing a major public-health challenge globally. Secluded people have no antibodies against the outside world’s deadly pathogens.

This helps explain why, even in death, Mr. Chau poses a potential threat to the Sentinelese community because of the pathogens he may have brought.

To be sure, contact may be perilous for isolated Indigenous groups, but leave-them-alone policies are no guarantee that remote-living tribes will survive. Small, highly inbred groups confront the spectre of dying out completely, irrespective of whether they stay in or come out of isolation.

Close rapport with alien culture, however, may be the worst option, speeding up their disappearance. An isolated Indigenous community’s embrace of modern culture usually dooms its existence. This is why remote-living groups choose to stay in isolation and – like the Sentinelese – fire warning arrows at those who seek to encroach on their habitats.

Constitutional or legal safeguards for indigenous lands, cultures and lifestyles, as in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, India and Peru, have allowed some endangered tribes to grow. When authorities look the other way, however, these tribes lose out in battles to defend their lands and cultures from miners, loggers, ranchers, evangelists and others.

The unpalatable fact is that the clearing of more forests and other ecosystems for cropland, mining, pasture and other purposes continues to contribute to the decimation of isolated Indigenous groups living in peace and contentment.

Most such groups are small and very vulnerable. Brazil, in addition to 238 “contacted” Undigenous tribes, has “23 confirmed and 47 potential” Indigenous groups living in complete isolation, according to one study, while Peru has about 15 such “uncontacted” tribes.

For scientists seeking to reconstruct evolutionary and migratory histories, tribes living in complete isolation are an invaluable biological asset. As another study has put it, “Isolated populations living in remote and/or inaccessible parts of the world are regarded as biological treasures from the genetic viewpoint. Many of these isolated human groups have remained relatively unknown until very recent times, so that the information provided by population genetic studies can help the scientists in the partial reconstruction of their demographic and evolutionary histories.”

The future of these highly endangered tribes hinges on policies and laws that adequately safeguard their seclusion and privacy from interlopers and encroachers, who bring violence, disease and rapacious exploitation.

Media labels such as “primitive” and “Stone Age” are racist tags that conjure up false images. Isolated tribe members certainly do not have the luxuries of modern life and use primal tools. But as Indian anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay, who studied the Andaman Indigenous groups, has said, “The tribes might be primitive in their technology but socially they are far ahead of us.”

Let’s be clear: Religion has little meaning for Indigenous societies that revere nature and serve as the world’s environmental sentinels. Where Indigenous communities have been converted to a religion – as on India’s now predominantly Christian Great Nicobar Island – the lifestyle changes have been so profound that the traditional Indigenous cultures have been uprooted.

Today, the world’s Indigenous groups, despite their small and declining share of the global population, manage 80 per cent of Earth’s biodiversity, in part because their ancestral lands make up 22 per cent of the world’s land surface. By preserving forests, lakes, rivers and other ecosystems on their territories, they play an indispensable role in climate-change mitigation and adaptation.

A critical part of the world’s cultural diversity and ecological harmony, Indigenous peoples have much to teach us about how to combat environmental degradation and climate change. In fact, their role as guardians of biodiversity is critical to the search of modern societies for more sustainable lifestyles.

Remake the terms of the Indus treaty

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, January 22, 2019

indusThe Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), the most generous water-sharing pact in modern world history, remains a large millstone around India’s neck. Far from seeking to get rid of that millstone, India next weekend will welcome a three-member Pakistani team for an inspection tour of Indian hydropower projects in the basin of the Chenab, the largest of the six Indus-system rivers in terms of the rate of cross-border flow.

Contrast this with the record of other powers on binding accords. China’s 2017 breach of bilateral accords by denying India hydrological data resulted in many preventable deaths in Assam floods. The U.S. is now dumping the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty after unilaterally terminating another IWT-style pact of unlimited duration — the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

A scofflaw Pakistan, despite being in dire financial straits, remains wedded to terrorism, including inflicting upon India death by a thousand cuts. Yet the much-larger India, instead of imposing deterrent costs, continues to treat Pakistan with kid gloves, as underscored by the impending visit of the Indus commissioner-led Pakistani team.

While Pakistan flouts international norms and rules, India adheres to the IWT’s finer details — and goes even beyond. For example, under IWT’s Article VIII, the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) is to meet once a year. Its next meeting was due in March 2019. But, thanks to India’s zealousness, the PIC met much earlier in August 2018, just five months after its previous meeting.

It was at that meeting that India agreed to advance Pakistan’s inspection tour to October 2018. The last such tour occurred in 2014 and the next one, in keeping with the IWT provision for a tour “once every five years”, was due by the end of 2019. The local bodies’ elections in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) forced the October tour to be deferred to January.

The Pakistani side, like in 2014, will use its upcoming tour to collect new information on Indian projects and then mount technical objections to their designs and seek international intercession. Even before the team’s visit, Pakistani officials have raised objections to the spillway or freeboard of the projects to be inspected.

The lopsided IWT, which keeps for India just 19.48% of the total Indus-system waters, is the world’s only inter-country water agreement embodying the doctrine of restricted sovereignty, which compels the upstream nation to forego major river uses for the benefit of the downstream state. India has failed to fully exercise even its IWT-truncated rights. For example, India has built no storage on the Chenab, Jhelum and the main Indus stream, although the IWT permits it to store 4.4 billion cubic meters of these rivers’ waters.

On the three rivers, India is allowed to build run-of-river hydropower plants without dam reservoirs. Yet India’s total installed generating capacity in J&K currently does not match the electric output of a single major dam in Pakistan, such as Tarbela, opened in 1976, or Diamer-Bhasha, whose construction is about to begin. In the lower basin, where India has full rights, the substantial waters of the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej untapped by it go to Pakistan as bonus outflows.

To bring Pakistan to heel, India needs to fashion water as an instrument of leverage. Such leverage can serve as the most potent instrument in India’s arsenal against Pakistan — more powerful than the nuclear-weapons option, which essentially is for deterrence. Building leverage in the Indus Basin is a cheaper option for India to reform Pakistan’s behaviour than fighting a war. Indeed, peaceful options — from mounting escalating riparian pressures to waging economic, cyber and diplomatic warfare — can effectively tame Pakistan.

India gains little from its present approach. For example, despite India’s scrupulous observance of the IWT provisions and its concessions, Pakistan accuses it of not fully complying with the treaty’s terms. Pakistan will never be satisfied. Nor will it stop “internationalizing” every disagreement as part of its water-war strategy against India. Add to the picture its proxy war by terror. While trampling on basic norms, Pakistan claims interminable water rights.

In this light, an increasingly water-stressed India should unilaterally remake the terms of the Indus engagement. Four of the six Indus-system rivers originate in India. The other two begin as small rivers in Tibet and gain major flows in India. For starters, India should keep its Indus commissioner’s post vacant. Without formally withdrawing from the IWT, India must assert its upper-riparian rights. India cannot keep bearing the IWT’s burdens without any tangible benefits accruing to it from the treaty.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

The Vital Isolation of Indigenous Groups

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After the American missionary John Allen Chau ignored successive warnings, the isolated Sentinelese people killed him. But the threat the world’s isolated tribes face is far from neutralized, as some have taken Chau’s death as an opportunity to argue that policies protecting them should be reversed.

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The remote, coral-fringed North Sentinel Island made headlines late last year, after an American Christian missionary’s covert expedition to convert its residents – the world’s last known pre-Neolithic tribal group – ended in his death. The episode has cast a spotlight on the threats faced by the world’s remote indigenous groups, which are already on the brink of disappearance.

The Sentinelese people targeted by the slain evangelist John Allen Chau are probably the most isolated of the world’s remaining remote tribes, and they are keen to stay that way. They shoot arrows to warn off anyone who approaches their island, and attack those, like Chau, who ignore their warnings.

It was not always this way. When Europeans first made contact with the Sentinelese, the British naval commander Maurice Vidal Portman described them in 1899 as “painfully timid.” But the profound shift is not hard to explain. Tribes like the Sentinelese have learned to associate outsiders with the ghastly violence and deadly diseases brought by European colonization.

British colonial excesses whittled down the aboriginal population of the Andaman Islands, which includes North Sentinel Island, from more than two dozen tribes 150 years ago to just four today. The tribes that escaped genocide at the hands of the colonizers did so largely by fleeing to the deepest and most inaccessible parts of jungles.

That was the story in North Sentinel, which Portman and his forces raided, abducting the few children and elderly who failed to flee into the dense rainforest in time. As a 2009 book by Satadru Sen notes, Portman used members of Andaman tribes as subjects in his supposed anthropometry research, forcibly measuring and photographing their bodies. The research, according to Sen, reflected a perverted “fascination” with “male genitalia.”

After the decimation of indigenous peoples under colonial rule, the countries where isolated tribes remain – including Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, India, and Peru – have pursued a “no contact” policy toward these groups. This policy is anchored in laws that protect indigenous people’s rights to ancestral lands and to live in seclusion, and reinforced by an international convention obligating governments to protect these communities’ lands, identities, penal customs, and ways of life.

It is illegal – and punishable by a prison sentence – for outsiders to enter India’s tribal reserves. Yet Chau dodged Indian laws and coastal security, according to his own diary accounts, to make repeated forays into North Sentinel over three days – an arduous effort that was facilitated by a Kansas City-based missionary agency, which trained him for his journey. The Sentinelese killed him only after he ignored repeated warnings to stop trespassing.

But the threat to the Sentinelese people – and, indeed, all isolated tribes – is far from neutralized, as some have taken Chau’s death as an opportunity to argue that we should reverse the policies protecting isolated tribes. And while some have good intentions – to provide access to modern technology, education, and health care – others do not. For example, Brazil’s new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has threatened to repeal constitutional safeguards for aboriginal lands in order to expand developers’ access to the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest.

Whatever the motivation, connecting with remote tribes would amount to a death sentence for them. The first waves of European colonization caused a calamitous depopulation of indigenous societies through violence and the introduction of infectious diseases like smallpox and measles, to which the natives had no immunity.

In Brazil, three-quarters of the indigenous societies that opened up to the outside world have become extinct, with the rest suffering catastrophic population declines. Over the last five centuries, Brazil’s total indigenous population has plummeted from up to five million to fewer than 900,000 people, with the introduction of constitutional protections for indigenous territories in the late 1980s aimed at arresting the decline.

In the Andaman chain, of the four tribes that survive, the two that were forcibly assimilated by the British have become dependent on government aid and are close to vanishing. Indigenous communities’ combined share of the world population now stands at just 4.5%.

To be sure, leaving secluded tribes alone is no guarantee that they will survive. These highly inbred groups are already seeing their numbers dwindle, and face the specter of dying out completely. But they will probably die a lot faster if we suddenly contact them, bringing with us modern pathogens against which they have no antibodies.

These tribes might be isolated, but their demise will have serious consequences. With their reverence for – and understanding of – nature, such groups serve as the world’s environmental sentinels, safeguarding 80% of global diversity and playing a critical role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. When the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck, more than a quarter-million people died across 14 countries, but the two isolated Andaman tribes, which rely on traditional warning systems, suffered no known casualties.

But, as Bolsonaro’s promises underscore, indigenous societies have been pitted directly against loggers, miners, crop planters, ranchers, oil drillers, hunters, and other interlopers. In the last 12 years alone, according to satellite data, Brazil’s Amazon Basin has lost forest cover equivalent in size to the entire Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s eleventh-largest country.

Indigenous people are an essential element of cultural diversity and ecological harmony, not to mention a biological treasure for scientists seeking to reconstruct evolutionary and migratory histories. The least the world can do is to let them live in peace in the ancestral lands that they have honored and preserved for centuries.

A mortal threat to Asia’s rise

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Governments must tackle environmental degradation as it threatens region’s future

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A man wears a mask as Tiananmen Square is shrouded in smog in Beijing in November. © Kyodo

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Many Asian cities will ring in the New Year with high levels of air pollution, which contributes to potentially life-shortening health problems, from heart disease to severe asthma. Seasonal cold weather impedes dispersal of pollutants in the air, and so tends to increase levels of carbon monoxide and particulates, including tiny particles that can find their way into human lungs.

Asia, given the contamination levels and large populations, is the epicenter of the global air pollution problem. City dwellers are breathing polluted air contaminated with particulates multiple times greater in concentration than the World Health Organization’s safe limit.

The air pollution problem is intimately linked to Asia’s larger crisis arising from its deteriorating natural environment. This degradation poses a potent threat to Asia’s future.

For example, one factor that has contributed to New Delhi’s dangerous air pollution levels is the disappearance of 31 hills in northwest India’s Aravalli range due to mining. India’s Supreme Court in October halted all further mining in the 690-kilometer-long range, which has lost its forest cover, resulting in summertime dust storms in the Indian capital and other cities in the region.

Similarly, the ever-increasing sand squalls that blanket Beijing are linked to misguided government policies that have inadvertently promoted desertification in China’s northwest, north and northeast (officially called the “three norths”). The Gobi Desert’s advance toward Beijing has been aided since the Mao Zedong era by subsidized natural resources to agriculture and industry, thus promoting inefficiency and waste.

In particular, state-fostered irrigated farming in the “three norths” has led to degradation or depletion of water, land and forest resources, decimating many aquatic, wildlife and plant species. The 5,830-kilometer Yellow River — the cradle of the Han civilization — was once known as China’s sorrow because of its recurrent flooding. But now it has become a source of sorrow for the opposite reason: With farms and industries siphoning off its waters, it is running dry.

Rapid expansion of intensive irrigation has helped turn China’s semiarid north into the country’s food bowl, although the south boasts fertile land and bounteous water. To sustain this environmentally damaging paradox, the elites, located in the north, have engineered huge water transfers from the south through the Great South-North Water Diversion Project, the world’s largest inter-river and inter-basin transfer program.

More broadly, economic and demographic expansion in Asia is increasingly damaging the environment, while promoting a scramble for limited supplies of commodities.

In per capita terms, Asia is the world’s most resource-poor continent. For example, Asia’s water availability is less than half of the global average of 5,829 cubic meters per person yearly. Thanks to increasing demand for tropical and other timbers, including teak, Asian countries have among the world’s highest deforestation rates. Asia is already the world’s largest importer of fossil fuels, including coal.

Asia’s overexploitation of its natural resources has created an environmental crisis that is contributing to regional climate change. For example, the Tibetan Plateau, which contains the world’s third largest store of ice after the two poles, is warming at almost three times the average global rate, largely because of Chinese policies that have led to intensive mining, giant dam projects, deforestation, elimination of grasslands, and introduction of Western-style agriculture.

Asia’s sharpening competition over commodities is also shaping resource geopolitics, including the construction of oil and gas pipelines. China is sourcing new hydrocarbon supplies from Central Asia and Russia via pipeline. But this option is not available to Asia’s other leading economies — Japan, India and South Korea — as they are not contiguous with suppliers in Central Asia, Iran or Russia.

Natural resources have long played a significant role in global strategic relations, including driving armed interventions and wars. At present, rising dependence on energy imports is being used by Asian powers to build greater naval capabilities, spurring new concerns about sea-lane safety and vulnerability to supply disruptions. One example is the growing tension in the South China Sea, a critical corridor linking the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Meanwhile, Asian challenges emerging from the close nexus between energy, water and food are underlining risks of unprecedented resource-related shocks. Asia is the biggest driver of increased global energy demand, while its food challenges are being compounded by rising incomes that are altering people’s diets, with a greater intake of animal-based proteins. For example, Chinese diets have changed so dramatically since the 1979 advent of economic modernization that China last year reportedly consumed twice as much pork, beef and poultry as the U.S.

Yesterday’s luxuries are becoming today’s necessities, putting greater demand on natural resources — from energy, food and water to metals and minerals — and thereby contributing to environmental degradation. Rising incomes are fueling consumption growth, which in turn is aggravating the environmental impacts.

Declining fertility rates, as in East Asia, are correlated with growing prosperity and greater consumption levels. Rising prosperity fuels resource demand. Changing diets are also an important driver of environmental degradation and resource stress. Humans have changed not only their diet but also the diet of the animals they raise for food: Livestock are often fed grain, not grass, their natural intake.

Because livestock require much more food, land, water and energy than plants, the spiraling Asian demand for meat harms ecosystems and fuels climate change. Meaty diets, in turn, are contributing to an obesity problem. Heavier citizens, with their greater demand on resources, carry a larger ecological footprint.

Simply put, the growing strains on environmental sustainability are tied to factors that extend far beyond population growth.

In fact, as more Asians prosper and seek the everyday comforts of modern life, environmental impacts are likely to be exacerbated in the coming years unless governments adopt a more comprehensive approach to the management of natural resources and to environmental protection. For example, the integration of energy, water and food in national policies is essential to advance synergies.

Asia cannot afford to let environmental issues fall by the wayside. While competition for resources will continue to shape Asia’s security dynamics, the fact is that Asian states cannot sustain their impressive economic growth without addressing their resource, environmental and security challenges in a cooperative framework, including by establishing norms and institutions and pursuing forward-looking policies. Energy, food and water resources must be managed jointly in policy terms.

The New Year should serve as a reminder for governments to adopt more sustainable practices and build healthier and more secure societies through participatory environmental management.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

Weaponizing water

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Brahma Chellaney, DNA newspaper

NIDS - CopyJust as China has changed the status quo in the South China Sea through an island-building strategy, it is working to re-engineer cross-border flows of international rivers that originate in Tibet, which Beijing annexed in 1951.

No country will be more affected by China’s dam frenzy than India because of one telling statistic: Out of the 718 billion cubic metres of surface water that flows out of Chinese-held territory yearly, 347 billion cubic meters (or 48.3% of the total) runs directly into India. Several major Indian rivers originate in Tibet, including the Brahmaputra, the Kosi, the Sutlej and the Indus.

China already boasts more large dams than the rest of the world put together. More importantly, it has emerged as the key obstacle to building institutionalized collaboration on shared water resources in Asia.

In contrast to the bilateral water treaties between many of its neighbours, China rejects the concept of a water-sharing arrangement or joint, rules-based management of common resources.

India has water-sharing treaties with both the countries located downstream to it: Pakistan and Bangladesh. These treaties govern the Indus and the Ganges.

By contrast, China, despite its unrivalled international status as the source of river flows to more than a dozen countries, stands out for not having a single water-sharing arrangement with any neighbour.

India’s treaties with Pakistan and Bangladesh have actually set new principles in international water law. The 1996 Ganges treaty — which coincided with the 25th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Indian-assisted independence — set a new standard by guaranteeing delivery of specific water quantities in the critical dry season.

The Indus treaty stands out as the world’s most generous water pact, in terms of both the sharing ratio (80.52% of the aggregate water flows in the six-river Indus system are reserved for Pakistan) and the total volume of basin waters for the downstream state (Pakistan gets 90 times greater volume of water than Mexico’s share under a 1944 pact with the US).

China, in rejecting the 1997 UN convention that lays down rules on shared water resources, contended that an upstream power has the right to assert absolute territorial sovereignty over the waters on its side of the international boundary — or the right to divert as much water as it wishes for its needs, irrespective of the effects on a downriver state.

Today, by building mega-dams and reservoirs in its borderlands, China is working to divert the flows of major rivers that are the lifeline of lower riparian states.

Since the last decade, China’s major dam building has moved from dam-saturated internal rivers to international rivers located in ethnic-minority homelands like Tibet. On the Brahmaputra, China is racing to complete several additional dams located in close proximity to each other. This cascade of dams is likely to affect the quality and quantity of downstream flows into India and Bangladesh.

Only five rivers in the world carry more water than the Brahmaputra and only one — mainland China’s Yellow River — carries more silt. The Brahmaputra is the world’s highest-altitude river. It represents a unique fluvial ecosystem largely due to the heavy load of high-quality nutrient-rich silt it carries from forbidding Himalayan heights.

The Brahmaputra’s annual flooding cycle helps to re-fertilize overworked soils in India’s Assam plains and large parts of Bangladesh, where the river is the biggest source of water supply. The silt-movement impediment by China’s upstream dam projects constitutes a bigger threat to the biophysical vitality of the river and to the soil fertility of downstream plains than even the likely diminution of cross-border flows.

China’s centralized, mega-projects-driven approach to water resources is the antithesis of the policy in India, where water is a state (not federal) subject under the Constitution and where anti-dam non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are powerful. India’s Narmada Dam project, which remains incomplete decades after its construction began, symbolizes the power of NGOs.

The largest dam India has built since independence — the 2,000-megawatt Tehri Dam on River Bhagirathi — pales in comparison to China’s giant projects, such as the 22,500-megawatt Three Gorges Dam and the new mega-dams on the Mekong like Xiaowan, which dwarfs Paris’s Eiffel Tower in height, and Nuozhadu, which boasts of a 190-square-km reservoir.

China’s population is just marginally larger than India’s, but its internally renewable water resources (2,813 billion cubic meters per year) are almost twice as large as India’s. In aggregate water availability, including external inflows (which are sizeable in India’s case), China boasts virtually 50% larger water resources than India.

India’s surface-water storage capacity — an important measure of any nation’s ability to deal with drought or seasonal imbalances in water availability — is one of the world’s lowest: Amounting to 200 cubic metres per head per year, it is more than 11 times lower than China’s. The 2030 Water Resources Group, an international unit, has warned that India is likely to face a 50% deficit between water demand and supply by 2030.

In the coming years, China, by ramping up construction of dams on trans-Himalayan rivers, could fashion water into a political weapon against India.

(He is author of award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground”.)

© DNA newspaper, 2018.

When one nation’s dam-building rage threatens an entire continent’s future

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rage

Brahma Chellaney, DailyO

China is the world’s biggest dam builder, with the country boasting more dams than the rest of the world combined. China is also the world’s largest exporter of dams.

In Nepal, where China-backed communists are in power, Beijing has just succeeded in reviving a lucrative dam project, which was scrapped by the previous Nepalese government as China had won the contract without competitive bidding. The reversal of the previous government’s cancellation of the $2.5 billion Budhi-Gandaki Dam project has come after Nepal’s communist rulers implemented a transit transport agreement with China to cut dependence on India.

China is building dams in two other countries neighbouring India, Myanmar and Pakistan, including in areas torn by ethnic separatism (as in northern Myanmar) and in a United Nations-designated disputed territory like the Pakistan-occupied portion of Jammu and Kashmir. Yet it loudly protests when the Dalai Lama merely visits Arunachal Pradesh, claiming it to be a “disputed territory”, although only Beijing disputes India’s control over Arunachal. The UN does not recognize Arunachal as disputed.

China has also held out threats against India jointly exploring with Vietnam for offshore hydrocarbons in Vietnam’s own exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Yet it has no compunctions about unveiling projects — under the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Domestically, most of China’s mega-water projects are now concentrated on the Tibetan Plateau, a sprawling region it forcibly absorbed in the early 1950s.

By building an array of new dams on rivers flowing to other countries, Beijing seems set to roil inter-riparian relations in Asia and make it more difficult to establish rules-based water cooperation and sharing.

China has emerged as the key impediment to building institutionalized collaboration in Asia on shared water resources. In contrast to the bilateral water treaties between many of its neighbours, China rejects the concept of a water-sharing arrangement or joint, rules-based management of common resources.

The long-term implications of China’s dam programme for India are particularly stark because several major rivers flow south from the Tibetan plateau. India has water-sharing treaties with both the countries located downstream from it: the Indus pact with Pakistan guarantees the world’s largest cross-border flows under any treaty regime, while the Ganges accord has set a new principle in international water law by granting Bangladesh an equal share of downriver flows in the dry season.

China, by contrast, does not have a single water-sharing treaty with any neighbour.

Yet most of Asia’s international rivers originate in territories that China annexed after its 1949 communist “revolution”. The Tibetan Plateau is the world’s largest freshwater repository and the source of Asia’s greatest rivers, including those that are the lifeblood of mainland China, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Other Chinese-held homelands of ethnic minorities contain the headwaters of rivers such as the Irtysh, Illy and Amur, which flow to Russia and Central Asia.

China’s dam programme on international rivers is following a well-established pattern: Build modest-size dams on a river’s uppermost difficult reaches, and then construct larger dams in the upper-middle sections as the river picks up greater water volume and momentum, before embarking on mega-dams in the border area facing the neighbouring country. The cascade of mega-dams on the Mekong River, for example, is located in the area just before the river enters continental Southeast Asia.

Many of China’s new dam projects at home are concentrated in the seismically active southwest, covering parts of the Tibetan Plateau. The restart of dam building on the Salween River after a decade-long moratorium is in keeping with a precedent set on other river systems: Beijing temporarily suspends a controversial plan after major protests flare so as to buy time — before resurrecting the same plan.

The Salween — Asia’s last largely free-flowing river — runs through deep, spectacular gorges, glaciated peaks and karst on its way into Myanmar and along the Thai border before emptying into the Andaman Sea. Its upstream basin is inhabited by 16 ethnic groups, including some, like the Derung tribe, with tiny populations numbering in the thousands. As one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions, the upper basin boasts more than 5,000 plant species and nearly half of China’s animal species.

China’s action in lifting the moratorium and starting work on dams on the Tibet-originating Salween threatens the region’s biodiversity and could uproot endangered aboriginal tribes. There is also the risk that the weight of huge, new dam reservoirs could accentuate seismic instability in a region prone to recurrent earthquakes.

No country is more vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of trans-boundary flows than India. The reason is that India alone receives nearly half of the river waters that leave Chinese-held territory. According to United Nations figures, a total of 718 billion cubic meters of surface water flows out of Chinese territory yearly, of which 347 billion cubic meters (or 48.3 per cent of the total) runs directly into India.

China already has a dozen dams in the Brahmaputra River basin and one each on the Indus and the Sutlej rivers. On the Brahmaputra, it is currently constructing several more. Its dam building is likely to gradually move to Tibet’s water-rich border with Arunachal as the Brahmaputra makes a U-turn to enter India.

If Asia is to prevent water wars, it must build institutionalized cooperation in trans-boundary basins in a way that co-opts all riparian neighbours. If a dominant riparian country refuses to join, such institutional arrangements — as in the Mekong basin — will be ineffective. The arrangements must be centred on transparency, unhindered information flow, equitable sharing, dispute settlement, pollution control, and a commitment to refrain from any projects that could materially diminish trans-boundary flows.

China, undeterred by the environmental degradation it is wreaking, has made the control and manipulation of river flows a pivot of its power. It is past time for New Delhi to speak up on China’s dam-building threat to India’s security and well-being.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground”.