The Communist Party of China’s 1951 annexation of the water-rich Tibetan Plateau – the starting point of Asia’s ten major river systems – gave China tremendous power over Asia’s water map. In the ensuing decades, the country has made the most of this riparian advantage, but at an enormous social and environmental cost.
On July 1, the Communist Party of China (CPC) will stage a patriotic extravaganza to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding. Among the achievements it will celebrate is the Baihetan Dam, located on the Jinsha River, on the southeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The dam will start operations on the same day.
The CPC loves a superlative. It is the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter, with the world’s largest foreign reserves. It boasts the world’s highest railway and the highest and longest bridges. It is also the world’s most dammed country, with more large dams than the rest of the world combined, and prides itself on having the world’s biggest water-transfer canal system.
The dams themselves are often superlative. The Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest power station, in terms of installed capacity, and the Baihetan Dam is billed as the world’s biggest arch dam, as well as the world’s first project to use a giant one-gigawatt (GW) hydro-turbine generator. With 16 such generators, Baihetan ranks as the world’s second-largest hydroelectric dam (behind the Three Gorges Dam, at 22.5 GW).
All of this make great fodder for CPC-fueled nationalism – essential to maintain support for the world’s longest-ruling party. China often flaunts its hydroengineering prowess, including its execution of the most ambitious inter-river water transfers ever conceived, to highlight its military and economic might. (To be sure, there are also superlatives China will not be flaunting at its upcoming centenary – beginning with the “world’s largest network of concentration camps.”)
But China’s dams are not merely symbols of the country’s greatness. Nor is their purpose simply to ensure China’s water security, as the CPC claims. They are also intended as a source of leverage that China can use to exert control over downstream countries.
The CPC’s 1951 annexation of the water-rich Tibetan Plateau – the starting point of Asia’s ten major river systems – gave China tremendous power over Asia’s water map. In the ensuing decades, the country has made the most of this riparian advantage. For example, by building 11 giant dams on the Mekong, just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia, China has secured the ability to turn off the region’s water tap.
But the CPC is failing to consider the high costs of its strategy, which extend far beyond political friction with neighbors. The party’s insatiable damming is wreaking environmental havoc on Asia’s major river systems, including mainland China’s dual lifelines: the Yellow and the Yangtze.
The social costs are no less severe. For starters, given shoddy construction in the first three decades of communist rule, about 3,200 dams collapsed by 1981, with the 1975 Banqiao Dam failure alone killing up to 230,000 people. Of course, China has raised its dam-building prowess dramatically since then, and Baihetan was completed in just four years. But as its early dams age, and weather becomes increasingly extreme, catastrophic failures remain a serious risk.
Moreover, dam projects have displaced an enormous number of Chinese. In 2007, just as China’s mega-dam-building drive was gaining momentum, then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao revealed that, since the CPC’s rise to power, China had relocated 22.9 million people to make way for water projects – a figure larger than more than 100 countries’ entire populations. The Three Gorges Dam alone displaced more than 1.4 million people.
This doesn’t seem to bother the CPC much. Baihetan’s inundation of vast stretches of a sparsely populated highland has forced local residents, mostly from the relatively poor Yi nationality, to farm more marginal tracts at higher elevations. As China shifts its focus from the dam-saturated rivers in its heartland to rivers in the ethnic-minority homelands the CPC annexed, China’s economically and culturally marginalized communities will suffer the most.
And there is little doubt that this will happen. The CPC has now set its sights on building the world’s first super-dam, on the Yarlung Zangbo river – better known as the Brahmaputra – near Tibet’s heavily militarized border with India.
The Brahmaputra curves around the Himalayas in a U-turn and forms the planet’s longest and deepest canyon, as it plunges from an altitude of 2,800 meters (9,200 feet) toward the Indian floodplains. Damming it means building at an elevation of more than 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) – the highest at which a mega-dam has ever been built. And because the gorge holds the world’s largest untapped concentration of river energy, the super-dam is supposed to have a hydropower generating capacity of 60 GW, nearly three times that of the Three Gorges Dam.
The fact that the gorge is one of the world’s most biodiverse regions seems to be of little concern to the CPC, which is far more interested in being able to use water as a weapon against India, its Asian rival. China has already set the stage for construction, recently completing a highway through the canyon and announcing the start of high-speed train service to a military town near the gorge. This will enable the transport of heavy equipment, materials, and workers to the remote region, which was long thought inaccessible because of its treacherous terrain.
The CPC views its centenary as cause for celebration. But the rest of the world should see the party for what it is: repressive, genocidal, and environmentally rapacious. And it should prepare for what the CPC’s second century may bring.
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).
China’s multi-pronged unconventional war against India has ranged from cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure and furtive territorial encroachments to strategic information warfare and an ongoing village-building drive to populate uninhabited but disputed borderlands. Water wars are a key component of such warfare because they allow China to leverage its upstream Tibet-centred power over the most-essential natural resource.
China knows its troops cannot fight and win decisively against the battle-hardened Indian military on a force-on-force basis, as the Galwan Valley clashes underscored. So, to contain India, it has been applying asymmetric warfare techniques to attack India’s weak points, in keeping with what Sun Tzu said: “All warfare is based on deception.”
India, instead of looking at China’s new face of war in totality and devising a comprehensive and proactive counter-strategy, has brought its security under increasing pressure through a disjointed and fragmented approach. Such is the absence of long-term strategic thinking and planning that, each time China opens a new front or pressure point, India searches for a stopgap or, worse still, seeks to paper over its weak spot.
China’s newly approved Brahmaputra mega-project, which will dwarf its Three Gorges Dam by generating almost three times more electricity, should shake India out of its ad hoc, compartmentalized approach to Chinese aggression. The project is to harness the force of a nearly 3,000-metre drop in the Brahmaputra’s height when the river, just before entering India, takes a U-turn around the Himalayas to form the world’s longest and steepest canyon. By setting out to dam the Brahmaputra there, China is seeking to effectively weaponize water against India.
Unidentified Chinese upstream activities in the past have triggered flash floods in Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh and, more recently, turned the water in the once-pristine Siang — Brahmaputra’s main artery — dirty and grey as it entered India. Indeed, such is China’s defiant unilateralism that, to complete a major dam project, it halted the flow of a Brahmaputra tributary, the Xiabuqu, in 2016 and then started damming another such tributary, the Lhasa River, into a series of artificial lakes.
In 2017, China openly demonstrated its use of water as as a tool of coercive diplomacy when, in breach of two bilateral accords, it punitively cut off the flow of hydrological data to India, an action that undermined downstream flood early-warning systems, resulting in preventable deaths in Assam. China reversed the data cutoff only after the 2018 Wuhan summit, which was held following its capture of Doklam behind the cover of the August 2017 disengagement agreement.
About a dozen small or medium-sized Chinese dams are already operational on the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches. But with its dam building now moving to the river’s India-bordering canyon region, China will be able to manipulate transboundary flows and leverage its claim to the adjacent Arunachal Pradesh.
The serious implications, however, are being obscured by misinformation or ignorance. For example, some in Indian policy and academic circles have conjectured that the Brahmaputra collects the larger share of its water in India. This water collection is mainly restricted to the four-month monsoon season. Fluvial ecosystems depend on perennial water sources, which, in the Brahmaputra’s case, are largely in Tibet.
The Brahmaputra, the world’s highest-altitude river, gathers extremely rich silt in its almost 2,200-kilometre Himalayan run. The silt-rich water from Tibet, not monsoon-water collection, is central to the river’s unique hydrology and biodiversity support. The canyon mega-project, like the Three Gorges Dam, will trap downstream flow of nutrient-rich silt. It will also disrupt the Brahmaputra’s annual flooding cycle, which helps to re-fertilize farmland naturally by spreading silt, besides opening giant fish nurseries. That, in turn, is likely to cause subsidence and salinity in the Brahmaputra-Ganges-Meghna Delta.
In the Mekong Basin, the environmental havoc unleashed by China’s upstream giant dams is becoming increasingly apparent. The environmental devastation could be worse in the Brahmaputra Basin, especially in densely populated Bangladesh, triggering a greater exodus of refugees to India, which is already home to countless millions of illegally settled Bangladeshis.
The Brahmaputra mega-dam, ominously, will be built in a seismically active area, thus implying a ticking “water bomb” for downstream communities. The dictatorship in Beijing is not deterred even by the fact that the project will desecrate territory that is sacred to Tibetans: the major mountains, cliffs and caves in the canyon region, known locally as Pemako, or the “Hidden Lotus Land,” represent the body of their guardian deity, the goddess Dorje Pagmo (Vajravarahi in Sanskrit), and the Brahmaputra represents her spine.
The expanding water war is clearly part of China’s integrated, multidimensional strategy against India, which seeks to employ all available means short of open war. Its unconventional war is profoundly impacting every core Indian interest. To deal with this structural challenge, India, in Sun Tzu style, must give China a taste of its own medicine. Two US reports, The Longer Telegram (published by the Atlantic Council) and the state department’s The Elements of the China Challenge, underline the imperative to target China’s weak spots.
India has little choice but to asymmetrically out-compete China’s asymmetric war by exploiting its internal vulnerabilities, fissures and fragilities, including in Tibet, the main launchpad for its unconventional warfare. India has the capabilities to outwit and deter China; what it needs is the vision and resolve.
The global shock brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, with its major economic and social disruptions, has ensured that 2020 will go down in history as a watershed year. Researchers believe that the impact of the pandemic has set in motion higher rates of birth, divorce, obesity, depression, bankruptcy, unemployment and domestic violence, among other things.
But one key implication of the pandemic has received little attention: increasing demand for safe water. Freshwater is not just the basis of cleanliness; it is an indispensable weapon in combating Covid-19 or any other disease.
More fundamentally, water is essential for economic growth and social stability. However, it has already become the world’s most exploited natural resource. Even before the pandemic flared, our water crisis was becoming more acute.
According to the British scientific journal Nature, about 53 per cent of the people across the globe go without safe sanitation services of any kind. The UN reports that about 40 per cent of global households lack access to basic handwashing facilities, while 28 per cent of the world’s population even lacks access to even safe drinking water.
Most striking is how unevenly and unequally water resources are distributed across the world. Some countries, notably Canada and Russia, are endowed with copious water resources. The poorest states in water resources, by contrast, are largely located in Middle East and North Africa. Natural water availability in these countries is just a fraction of 1 per cent of the per capita resources in, say, water-rich Brazil.
Water scarcity, already affecting two-thirds of the global population, is set is grow due to several factors. These include over-exploitation of the resources of rivers, aquifers and lakes; rising demands of economic development; changing diets, especially the increasing intake of meat, whose production is notoriously water-intensive; and global warming.
National paucity of water resources is driving some countries or companies to produce food for their home markets on overseas farmland, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
Meanwhile, the critical importance of water, coupled with its growing shortages, has resulted in grating “hydropolitics” in transnational basins.
Riparian neighbours are increasingly competing to appropriate resources of shared rivers and aquifers by building hydro-engineering structures, which are exacerbating the environmental impact. Not surprisingly, distrust and discord have begun to roil relations between upstream and downstream states.
In fact, just like arms racing, “dam racing” has emerged as a geopolitical concern in several river basins. In Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, water has become the most contested resource.
A report reflecting the joint judgment of US intelligence agencies warned in 2012 that the use of water as a weapon or a tool of terrorism will become more likely in some regions, with some countries using shared water resources to exert leverage over their neighbours and to secure regional influence. Since then, the water situation has become more dire and the hydropolitics murkier.
Another trend is the increasing commodification of water, as reflected in the dramatic rise of the bottled-water industry. The bottled-water industry’s rise over the past two decades has had two global implications.
First, bottled water has become a major source of plastic waste. And second, bottled mineral water is already more precious than crude oil. The current international spot price of crude oil is lower than the retail price of any mineral water in a convenience store or supermarket.
Yet more and more people are relying on bottled water even in cities in the developed world where tap water is safe and highly regulated.
Water remains the world’s most underrated and under-appreciated resource. The pandemic, though, may have helped raise global awareness about the centrality of water in our lives. But the pandemic has also underlined the challenge: how to meet the increasing demand for water?
One pathway is to use new clean-water technologies to tap non-traditional supply sources, such as seawater, brackish water, recycled wastewater, and atmospheric water. Scientific advancements have substantially improved the energy-water ratio of such technologies, thus increasing the commercial feasibility and attraction of utilising new supply sources.
These sources of supply, however, still remain more expensive than conventional water.
It has also become imperative to achieve greater water-use efficiency and productivity, including controlling wasteful practices. Because agriculture uses about 70 per cent of the world’s water supply, the greatest potential for easing the water crisis is through practices that cut the amount of water used in food and livestock production.
The sharpening hydropolitics, meanwhile, represents a formidable challenge. It has turned shared water resources into an engine of power struggles, with some upstream countries such as China and Turkey criticised for seeking to weaponise this most essential of natural resources.
There is no alternative to rules-based co-operation on shared water resources. Transparency on national projects, collaboration between co-riparian states on trans-boundary aquifers, rivers and lakes, sharing arrangements, and dispute-settlement mechanisms are the building blocks of water peace.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground.
Even after Asia’s economies climb out of the COVID-19 recession, China’s strategy of frenetically building dams and reservoirs on transnational rivers will confront them with a more permanent barrier to long-term economic prosperity: water scarcity. China’s recently unveiled plan to construct a mega-dam on the Yarlung Zangbo river, better known as the Brahmaputra, may be the biggest threat yet.
China dominates Asia’s water map, owing to its annexation of ethnic-minority homelands, such as the water-rich Tibetan Plateau and Xinjiang. China’s territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, where it has targeted even tiny Bhutan, has been accompanied by stealthier efforts to appropriate water resources in transnational river basins – a strategy that hasn’t spared even friendly or pliant neighbors, such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Kazakhstan, and North Korea. Indeed, China has not hesitated to use its hydro-hegemony against its 18 downstream neighbors.
The consequences have been serious. For example, China’s 11 mega-dams on the Mekong river, Southeast Asia’s arterial waterway, have led to recurrent drought downriver, and turned the Mekong Basin into a security and environmental hot spot. Meanwhile, in largely arid Central Asia, China has diverted waters from the Illy and Irtysh rivers, which originate in China-annexed Xinjiang. Its diversion of water from the Illy threatens to turn Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash into another Aral Sea, which has all but dried up in less than four decades.
Against this background, China’s plan to dam the Brahmaputra near its disputed – and heavily militarized – border with India should be no surprise. The Chinese communist publication Huanqiu Shibao, citing an article that appeared in Australia, recently urged India’s government to assess how China could “weaponize” its control over transboundary waters and potentially “choke” the Indian economy. With the Brahmaputra megaproject, China has provided an answer.
The planned 60-gigawatts project, which will be integrated into China’s next Five-Year Plan starting in January, will reportedly dwarf China’s Three Gorges Dam – currently the world’s largest – on the Yangtze River, generating almost three times as much electricity. China will achieve this by harnessing the power of a 2,800-meter (3,062-yard) drop just before the river crosses into India.
What the chairman of China’s state-run Power Construction Corp, Yan Zhiyong, calls an “historic opportunity” for his country will be devastating for India. Just before crossing into India, the Brahmaputra curves sharply around the Himalayas, forming the world’s longest and steepest canyon – twice as deep as America’s Grand Canyon – and holding Asia’s largest untapped water resources.
Experience suggests that the proposed megaproject threatens those resources – and China’s downstream neighbors. China’s past upstream activities have triggered flash floods in the Indian states of Arunachal and Himachal. More recently, such activity turned the water in the once-pristine Siang – the Brahmaputra’s main artery – dirty and gray as it entered India.
About a dozen small or medium-size Chinese dams are already operational in the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches. But the megaproject in the Brahmaputra Canyon region will enable the country to manipulate transboundary flows far more effectively. Such manipulation could leverage China’s claim to the adjacent Indian state of Arunachal, which is almost three times the size of Taiwan. Given that China and India are already locked in a tense, months-long military standoff, which began with Chinese territorial encroachments, the risks are acute.
And yet the country that will suffer the most as a result of China’s Brahmaputra dam project is not India at all; it is densely populated and China-friendly Bangladesh, for which the Brahmaputra is the single largest freshwater source. Intensifying pressure on its water supply will likely trigger an exodus of refugees to India, already home to millions of illegally settled Bangladeshis.
The Brahmaputra megaproject also amounts to a slap in the face of Tibet, which is among the world’s most biodiverse regions and has a deeply rooted culture of reverence for nature. In fact, the canyon region is sacred territory for Tibetans: its major mountains, cliffs, and caves represent the body of their guardian deity, the goddess Dorje Pagmo, and the Brahmaputra represents her spine.
If none of this deters China, the damage it is doing to its own people and prospects should. China’s over-damming of internal rivers has severely harmed ecosystems, including by causing river fragmentation and disrupting the annual flooding cycle, which helps to refertilize farmland naturally by spreading silt. In August, some 400 million Chinese were put at risk after record flooding endangered the Three Gorges Dam. If the Brahmaputra mega-dam collapses – hardly implausible, given that it will be built in a seismically active area – millions downstream could die.
The Great Himalayan Watershed is home to thousands of glaciers and the source of Asia’s greatest river systems, which are the lifeblood of nearly half the global population. If glacial attrition is allowed to continue – let alone to be accelerated by China’s environmentally catastrophic activities – China will not be spared.
For its own sake – and the sake of Asia as a whole – China must accept institutionalized cooperation on transnational riparian flows, including measures to protect ecologically fragile zones and agreement not to dam relatively free-flowing rivers (which play a critical role in moderating the effects of climate change). This would require China to rein in its dam frenzy, be transparent about its projects, accept multilateral dispute-settlement mechanisms, and negotiate water-sharing treaties with neighbors.
Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe this will happen. On the contrary, as long as the Communist Party of China remains in power, the country will most likely continue to wage stealthy water wars that no one can win.
While the international attention remains on China’s recidivist activities in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where it continues to incrementally expand its strategic footprint, Beijing is also quietly focusing its attention on the waters of rivers that originate in the resource-rich, Chinese-controlled territory of Tibet.
China has long pursued a broader strategy to corner natural resources. This has driven its expanding presence in faraway places, including Africa and Latin America. China’s newer obsession is freshwater, a life-creating and life-supporting resource whose growing shortages are casting a cloud over Asia’s economic future.
Peace and security in Asia both hinge on China’s willingness to embrace rules-based cooperation, which includes ceasing activities that threaten to turn internationally shared river-water resources into a Chinese political weapon. These activities range from building cascades of large dams on international rivers before they leave Chinese-controlled territory to the denial of or delayed transfer of hydrological data to downstream neighboring countries.
Most of Asia’s great rivers originate on the Tibetan Plateau. From there, they flow to a dozen countries, including mainland China. With its lofty terrain, featuring the world’s tallest mountain peaks and largest concentration of glaciers and riverheads, the Tibetan Plateau influences atmospheric circulation — and therefore climate and weather patterns — across the Northern Hemisphere.
Today, China has turned this ecologically -fragile plateau, which it invaded and occupied from 1950 to 1951, into the center of its mining and dam-building activities. With the plateau warming more than three times faster than the global average according to Chinese data, glacial recession, especially in the eastern Himalayas, and the thawing of Tibet’s permafrost (or permanently frozen ground) have accelerated.
More consequential for downstream countries is the fact that China, by building giant dams and other diversion structures on international rivers that start in Tibet, is becoming Asia’s upstream water controller. This action is arming Beijing with increasing leverage over the countries critically dependent on river flows from the Tibetan Plateau.
Take the Mekong River, continental Southeast Asia’s lifeline. A new study in the United States confirms what many in the region know — that China is damming the Mekong to environmental hell. According to the study, China’s cascade of upstream mega-dams, by limiting downstream flows, is causing recurrent droughts in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam by limiting downstream flows. Using a natural-flow data model, the study found that the 11 eleven Chinese mega-dams currently in operation on the Mekong are causing severe drought and devastation downstream. Yet an undeterred China is building more giant dams on the Mekong just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia. This study by the Eyes on Earth research and consulting company was conducted with funding from the State Department’s Lower Mekong Initiative.
It is not just the Mekong: China is constructing dams on multiple international rivers just before they leave its territory. China’s efforts to reengineer cross-border natural flows are roiling its relations with downstream neighbors. Its occupation of the sprawling Tibetan Plateau enlarged its landmass by more than one-third and fundamentally altered Asia’s geostrategic realities. It made China the neighbor of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Furthermore, China gained a throttlehold on the headwaters of Asia’s major river systems.
Tibet — the world’s highest and largest plateau — is also a treasure-trove of mineral resources, holding China’s biggest reserves of 10 ten different metals and serving as the world’s largest lithium producer. Today, Tibet is the focal point of China’s mining and damming activities, which threaten the plateau’s fragile ecosystems and endemic species. Tibet also remains at the center of the China-India divide, fueling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions, and feuds over river-water flows. Among the rivers China’s dam builders are targeting is the Brahmaputra, the lifeblood for Bangladesh and northeastern India. A series of dams are coming up on the Brahmaputra, known as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet.
Beijing’s unilateralist actions extend beyond dam building. In 2017, China refused to supply hydrological data to India in violation of the terms of two bilateral agreements, underscoring its readiness to weaponize the sharing of water data on upstream river flows. The data denial was said to be intended to punish India for boycotting China’s inaugural Belt and Road summit and for a military standoff between the two countries that year on the small, but strategically important, Himalayan plateau of Doklam. The withholding of data crimped India’s flood early-warning systems. That, in turn, resulted in preventable deaths as the monsoon-swollen Brahmaputra overran its banks, leaving a major trail of destruction, especially in India’s Assam state.
The Siang, the main artery of the Brahmaputra river system, represents another example of China’s unilateralist actions on internationally shared waters. In 2017, the Siang’s water turned dirty and gray as the stream entered India from Tibet. This raised concern that China’s upstream activities could be threatening the Siang in the same way Beijing has polluted its own domestic rivers, including the Yellow, the cradle of the Chinese civilization. Nearly three years later, the water in the once-pristine Siang has still not fully cleared.
According to Aquastat, a database of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 718 billion cubic meters of surface water a year flows out of the Tibetan Plateau and the Chinese-administered regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to neighboring countries. Of that amount, 48.33 percent% runs directly into India. In addition, Nepal’s Tibet-originating rivers drain into India’s Gangetic basin. This might suggest that no country is more vulnerable than India to China’s current focus on building cascades of large dams on international rivers. In reality, as China’s frenzied damming of the Mekong illustrates, its small, economically vulnerable neighbors are the most susceptible to its upstream hydroengineering activities. The greatest impact of the Brahmaputra’s damming, for example, will be borne not by India but by Bangladesh, which is located furthest downstream.
For years, China has been the global leader in dam building. It already boasts slightly more than half of the globe’s approximately 58,000 large dams. Yet its “dam rush” persists. The more dams it builds on international rivers, the greater becomes its capacity to use transboundary waters as a tool of coercive diplomacy against its neighbors. Every new dam, by augmenting China’s capacity to regulate transboundary flows, increases the potential use of shared waters as a political weapon by augmenting China’s capacity to regulate transboundary flows. This concern is underscored by China’s refusal to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighboring country. Even India and Pakistan have a water-sharing treaty.
China’s present path will likely lead to greater environmental degradation on the Tibetan Plateau, exacerbating Asia’s water challenges. Asia is the world’s largest and most-populous continent, with three-fifths of the global population, yet it has the lowest per capita freshwater availability — less than half the global average of 5,829 cubic meters.
At a time of increasing water stress in Asia, the growth of water nationalism as a driver of China’s policy highlights the linkage between water and peace. Cooperative institutional mechanisms and sustainable resource utilization constitute the building blocks of water peace.
If China does not abandon its current approach in favor of institutionalized cooperation with co-basin states, the prospects for a rules-based order in Asia could perish forever, while the likelihood of downstream countries facing a drier future would increase. Asia will be able to shape water for peace only if China comes on board by embracing transparency and collaboration, centered on water sharing, uninterrupted hydrological-data flow, and dispute-settlement mechanisms.
. . .
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, an independent think tank, and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press), the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.
The world’s rivers are under unprecedented pressure from contamination, damming, and diversion, which are straining water resources, destroying ecosystems, jeopardizing livelihoods, and damaging human health. International cooperation can save riparian systems, but first we must recognize the consequences of doing nothing.
From the Tigris to the Indus and the Yangtze to the Nile, rivers were essential to the emergence of human civilization. Millennia later, hundreds of millions of people still depend on rivers to quench their thirst, grow food, and make a living. And yet we are rapidly destroying the planet’s river systems, with serious implications for our economies, societies, and even our survival.
China is a case in point. Its dam-building frenzy and over-exploitation of rivers is wreaking environmental havoc on Asia, destroying forests, depleting biodiversity, and straining water resources. China’s first water census, released in 2013, showed that the number of rivers – not including small streams – had plummeted by more than half over the previous six decades, with over 27,000 rivers lost.
The situation has only deteriorated since then. The Mekong River is running at a historically low level, owing largely to a series of Chinese-built mega-dams near the border of the Tibetan Plateau, just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia. In fact, the Tibetan Plateau is the starting point of most of Asia’s major rivers, and China has taken advantage of that, not least to gain leverage over downstream countries.
China may be the world’s largest dam builder, but it is not alone; other countries, from Asia to Latin America, have also been tapping long rivers for electricity generation. The diversion of water for irrigation is also a major source of strain on rivers. In fact, crop and livestock production absorbs almost three-quarters of the world’s freshwater resources, while creating runoff that, together with industrial waste and sewage discharge, pollutes those very resources.
In total, almost two-thirds of the world’s long rivers have been modified, and some of the world’s longest – including the Nile and the Rio Grande – now qualify as endangered. Of the 21 rivers longer than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) that still flow freely from their mountain sources to the sea, most are in remote regions of the Arctic and in the Amazon and Congo basins, where hydropower development is not yet economically viable.
These trends strain water resources, destroy ecosystems, and threaten human health. For example, heavy upstream diversions have turned the deltas of the Colorado River and the Indus River into saline marshes. Moreover, lower river-water levels impede the annual flooding cycle, which in tropical regions helps to re-fertilize farmland naturally with nutrient-rich sediment. In periods of below-average rainfall, a number of rivers increasingly run dry before reaching the ocean, and even when they do make it, they are depositing less of the nutrients and minerals that are vital to marine life.
Globally, aquatic ecosystems have lost half of their biodiversity since the mid-1970s, and about half of all wetlands have been destroyed over the last century. A recent United Nations study warned that up to a million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.
Humans are hardly exempt from the health consequences of river destruction. In Central Asia, the Aral Sea has all but dried up in less than 40 years, owing to the Soviet Union’s introduction of cotton cultivation, for which water was siphoned from the sea’s principal sources, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Today, particles blown from its exposed seabed – thick with salts and agricultural chemical residue – not only kill crops; they are sickening local people with everything from kidney disease to cancer.
Free-flowing rivers play a critical role in moderating the effects of climate change, by transporting decaying organic material and eroded rock to the ocean. This process draws about 200 million tons of carbon out of the air each year.
In short, the case for protecting our rivers could not be stronger. Yet, while world leaders are often willing to pay lip service to the imperative of strengthening river protections, their rhetoric is rarely translated into action. On the contrary, in some countries, regulations are being rolled back.
In the United States, almost half of rivers and streams are considered to be in poor biological condition. Yet last October, President Donald Trump’s administration repealed “Waters of the US,” which had been introduced by his predecessor, Barack Obama, in order to limit pollution of streams, wetlands, and other bodies of water. Last month, the Trump administration replaced the rule with a far weaker version, called the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule.”
Likewise, in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has relaxed environmental rules in the name of economic growth. Among the casualties is the Amazon River, the world’s largest river in terms of discharge, which carries more water than the next ten largest rivers combined. Already, the Amazon basin in Brazil has lost forest cover over an area larger than the entire Democratic Republic of Congo – the world’s 11th-largest country.
The absence of water-sharing or cooperative-management arrangements in the vast majority of transnational river basins facilitates such destruction. Many countries pursue projects without regard for their cross-border or environmental effects.
One way to protect relatively undamaged river systems – such as the Amur, the Congo, and the Salween – would be to broaden implementation of the 1972 World Heritage Convention, and add these rivers to the World Heritage List, alongside UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This would be in line with recent efforts in some countries – Australia, Bangladesh, Colombia, India, and New Zealand – to grant legal rights to rivers and watersheds. For such initiatives to work, however, effective enforcement is essential.
As for the rivers that are already damaged, action must be taken to restore them. This includes artificially recharging rivers and aquifers with reclaimed wastewater; cleaning up pollution; reconnecting rivers with their floodplains; removing excessive or unproductive dams; and implementing protections for freshwater-ecosystem species.
The world’s rivers are under unprecedented pressure from contamination, damming, and diversion. International cooperation can save them, but first we must recognize the consequences of doing nothing.
The building of large dams has increasingly run into opposition in established democracies but gained momentum in autocratic states, which often tout their benefits for combating droughts and water shortages. But, as the Mekong basin illustrates, giant upstream dams can contribute to river depletion and intensify parched conditions. The spate of dam building in Asian autocracies is exacerbating already fraught water security disputes.
India, for its part, shows that dams and democracy normally do not go well together. Whereas China continues to build giant dams, trumpeting them as symbols of its engineering prowess, the public pressures generated by India’s democracy act as a brake on ambitious water projects that displace many people or flood vast areas.
India’s river-linking plan remains in the realm of fantasy but a similar programme in China has been transferring water domestically through the central and eastern routes.
In fact, given the power of non-governmental organisations in India, it has become increasingly difficult to build large dams there, blighting the promise of hydropower. Proof of this was the federal government’s 2010 decision to abandon three dam projects on the Bhagirathi River, a Ganges tributary, including one that was already half-built, with authorities having already spent US$139 million on construction work and ordered equipment worth US$288 million.
Cost and time overruns are common problems in every dam project in India. For example, the cornerstone of western India’s Narmada Dam – which is a fraction of the size of China’s Three Gorges Dam – was laid in 1961. More than 56 years later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the dam. The Narmada project, however, is still not fully complete.
The recent debut of the 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi Dam in Laos illustrates how autocracies defy protests and concerns to complete projects. Xayaburi – the first of at least nine Mekong dam projects in Laos – was commissioned despite concerns that it could worsen the drought in the downstream basin in Cambodia and Vietnam.
No nation, however, can match China’s dam-building frenzy. It is increasingly damming international rivers that serve as the lifeblood for the countries of Southeast and South Asia.
Take the Mekong: just before it crosses from the Tibetan plateau into Southeast Asia, China has erected a cascade of mega-dams. Its 11 Mekong dams have a capacity to generate more than 21,300MW of electricity – greater than the installed hydropower capacity of the downriver countries combined. It is working on at least eight more giant dams on the Mekong.
Ever since the cascade of Chinese dams came up on the Mekong, droughts have become more frequent and intense in the downriver countries. The Mekong, which is normally at least three metres (10 feet) high at this time of the year, is today running at a record low level, with its flow reduced to a trickle in some stretches. This has resulted in seawater intrusion into the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, with rice farmers there forced to switch to shrimp farming or growing reeds.
China has promised to release more dam water for the drought-stricken countries. The offer, however, highlights the new-found reliance of downriver countries on Chinese goodwill. By diverting river water to its mega-dams, China has emerged as Asia’s upstream water controller, arming it with powerful leverage.
The downriver countries have also been saddled with long-term environmental costs. For example, the Asian rivers’ monsoon season flooding cycle helps to re-fertilise farmland naturally by spreading nutrient-rich sediment, which rivers bring from the mountain ranges. The flooding cycle also opens giant fish nurseries. China’s dams, however, have disrupted the Mekong’s annual flooding cycle and impeded the flow of sediment, affecting even marine life.
The Mekong Delta exemplifies how heavy upstream damming, by reducing a river’s discharge of fresh water and sediment into the sea, causes a delta to retreat. Indeed, according to a Mekong River Commission study, the upstream dams’ cumulative effect would likely be the extinction of most migratory fish species in the basin. What is happening to the Mekong today could happen tomorrow to the Brahmaputra and other Tibet-originating rivers that are the target of China’s dam builders.
Simply put, the proliferation of upstream dams is beginning to impose costs across much of Asia. Dams are also set to exacerbate water-sharing disputes, which have already become common between Asian nations and provinces. Add to the picture the security dynamic: for example, the Mekong, like the South China Sea, is emerging as a new flashpoint, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slamming China’s dam frenzy for reducing the river’s flow to a record low.
Dams help generate electricity and store water for the dry season. But heavy upstream damming, by irreparably damaging a river system and wreaking broader environmental havoc, eventually leaves only losers.
To avert a parched future, defiant unilateralism must give way to basin-wide institutionalised collaboration, centred on a balance between each county’s rights and obligations.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.
Just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel reached New Delhi last week on a state visit, noxious smog blanketed the Indian capital, forcing a shutdown of schools for five days and a temporary ban on construction activity and millions of private vehicles. Indeed, Ms. Merkel’s two-day visit coincided with the declaration of a public health emergency in the city, prompting her to pitch for green urban transportation, including electric buses.
New Delhi’s buses are already green: They run on compressed natural gas. The city’s seasonal smog problem, which comes with cooler temperatures and slower winds in the post-monsoon period, is largely linked to a deleterious agricultural practice in nearby states — after harvest, farmers burn crop stubble to clear their fields.
The fumes from the stubble burnings mix with New Delhi’s vehicle emissions, construction dust and smoke from fireworks set off during Diwali, the festival of light. This creates an annual toxic haze that lingers for days or even weeks, partly due to topography. The cool air with its pollutants gets trapped by the hills that surround the Indian capital on three sides.
At the beginning of this month, New Delhi had the dubious distinction, in terms of the air quality index (AQI), of topping the list of the world’s most-polluted capital cities, with levels of deadly particulate matter reaching multiple times the global safety threshold. The opaque haze reduced visibility to such an extent that even some planes could not land at the international airport.
Add to the picture the gloom and doom on which Indian newspapers and opposition politicians thrive, which made the smog situation appear worse. “Capital Punishment,” screamed the front-page banner headline in the Hindustan Times, a leading English-language newspaper. The Indian capital’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, who belongs to a small regional party, claimed the city had turned into a “gas chamber.”
Since Tuesday, New Delhi’s AQI has significantly improved following light showers and strong breeze. (Wind, rain and snow act as pollution scrubbers.) More rain fell on Thursday. With the thick haze dissipating, a blue sky is again visible daytime and the moon at night. But the city’s environmental crisis is far from over.
Commercially available satellite imagery shows many crop-burning fires still raging in parts of northern India, especially Punjab state. This means air pollution levels remain high in the agricultural regions and cities of northwestern India.
Burning of crop stubble has long been an expedient way for Asian farmers to prepare fields for the next crop. While China has employed its authoritarian system in recent years to forcefully crack down on this polluting practice, thereby significantly reducing Beijing’s air contamination, democratic India has failed to stop the crop-stubble burnings.
Farmers, constituting the largest voting constituency in numbers, are politically powerful in India. State governments have recoiled from levying fines on stubble-burning farmers.
India’s Supreme Court this week ordered state governments to incentivize an end to stubble burnings by doling out cash rewards to farmers that do not burn their fields. “It has become a question of life and death for the common people,” the justices said while seeking accountability from federal and state governments over the smog.
The modest dole-outs the highest court has recommended, however, might not suffice to end the stubble-burning practice. Authorities also need to encourage farmers to buy machinery that helps turn stubble into mulch. This means subsidizing their machinery purchases.
Here’s the paradox: An environmentally conscious Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who initiated a “Clean India” campaign soon after coming to office in 2014, confronts a smog problem that has become acute on his watch.
India is one of the few countries trying to ban single-use plastic items. It has implemented a complete ban on import of plastic waste. And to control air pollution in New Delhi, a nearby coal-fired plant was shut down last year and the use of private vehicles restricted to alternating days during the pollution season, with cars with odd-number license plates allowed to drive only on odd dates and cars with even-numbered plates on even-numbered dates.
More fundamentally, New Delhi’s recurrent smog problem underscores the mounting costs India is paying for years of environmental neglect. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, India has the majority of the world’s most polluted cities, a fact that holds important consequences for public health in the country.
The WHO defines health as not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a state of complete physical, social and mental well-being. A sound natural environment is central to such well-being.
The Indian establishment, with its ostrich-like mindset, acts only when a problem turns into a crisis. As a result, the deteriorating air quality in New Delhi and other major northwestern Indian cities has became a national crisis, drawing international attention and affecting the flow of tourists to India.
In fact, unprecedented pressures on natural resources and ecosystems are triggering a broader range of adverse environmental impacts. Rapid development, breakneck urbanization, large-scale irrigated farming, lifestyle changes and other human impacts have resulted in degraded watersheds, watercourses and other ecosystems, as well as in shrinking forests and swamps. The illicit diversion of sand from riverbeds for the construction boom has damaged rivers and slowed the natural recharge of aquifers.
To be sure, India’s environmental challenges mirror those of many other developing countries, from Mexico and Peru to Indonesia and the Philippines. The imperative to develop environmentally friendly policies and practices, however, transcends the developing world. Wealthier countries with disproportionally large environmental footprints — from the United States to Australia — also need to embrace environmental protection in earnest.
Environmental protection, in the long run, is cheaper than environmental cleanup and restoration. If India’s national planners were more forward-looking, the country could avoid repeating the mistakes of other countries, instead of investing resources in tackling air, soil and water pollution and other environmental degradation. The degradation adversely affects climate, ecosystems, biodiversity and public health.
The fact that China’s environmental-contamination problems are worse than India’s, despite Beijing’s improved air quality, can give Indian authorities no comfort. As the world’s factory floor and largest exporter, including of coal-fired power plants, China is exacerbating the global environment crisis. India, with a services-led, import-dependent economy that relies largely on domestic consumption for growth, can scarcely defend its levels of air, soil and water pollution.
India needs a more holistic and integrated approach to development that places environmental protection at the center of strategic planning. Without such an approach, the linkages between a healthy natural environment and human health could trap India in a vicious cycle in which environmental degradation contributes to public health issues, and vice versa.
The New Delhi smog is a reminder that human health is inextricably linked to nature’s wealth, which we must cherish and protect.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”
Asia, the world’s driest continent in per capita terms, remains the global center of dam construction, boasting more than half of the 50,000 large dams across the globe. The hyperactivity on dams has only sharpened local and international disputes over the resources of shared rivers and aquifers.
The focus on dams reflects a continuing preference for supply-side approaches, which entail increased exploitation of water resources, as opposed to pursuing demand-side solutions, including smart water management and greater water-use efficiency. As a result, nowhere is the geopolitics over dams murkier than in Asia, the world’s most dam-dotted continent.
Improving the hydropolitics demands institutionalized cooperation, transparency on projects, water-sharing arrangements and dispute-resolution mechanisms. Asia can build a harmonious, rules-based water management regime only if China gets on board. At least for now, that does not seem likely.
This past summer, water levels in continental Southeast Asia’s lifeline, the 4,880-kilometer Mekong River, fell to their lowest in more than 100 years, even though the annual monsoon season stretches from late May to late September. Yet, after completing 11 mega-dams, China is building more upstream dams on the Mekong, which originates on the Tibetan Plateau. Indeed, Beijing is also damming other transnational rivers.
China is central to Asia’s water map. Thanks to its annexation of the water-rich Tibetan Plateau and the sprawling Xinjiang province, China is the starting point of rivers that flow to 18 downstream countries. No other country in the world serves as the riverhead for so many other countries.
By erecting dams, barrages and other water diversion structures in its borderlands, China is creating an extensive upstream infrastructure that arms it with the capacity to weaponize water.
To be sure, dam-building is also roiling relations elsewhere in Asia. The festering territorial disputes over Kashmir and Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley are as much about water as they are about land. Across Asia, states are jockeying to control shared water resources by building dams, even as they demand transparency and information on their neighbors’ projects.
A serious drought presently parching parts of the vast region extending from Australia to the Indian peninsula has underscored the mounting risks from the pursuit of dam-centered engineering solutions to growing freshwater shortages.
Asia’s densely populated regions already face a high risk that their water stress could worsen to water scarcity. The dam-driven water competition is threatening to also provoke greater tensions and conflict.
The rich, fertile soil in Asia’s food bowls — the lower basins of the major river systems — owes much to nature’s yearly gift of silt. But the heavy damming of rivers is impeding the movement of nutrient-rich silt, which rivers bring from the mountains. The flooding cycle of rivers helps to refertilize farmland naturally by spreading silt. But this cycle is also being disrupted by dams.
In the West, the building of large dams has largely petered out. The construction of large dams is also slowing in Asia’s major democracies, such as Japan, South Korea and India, because of increasing grassroots opposition.
For example, Japan’s Yamba Dam and the Narmada Dam in India have been in the making for decades, yet are still not complete because of delays caused by protests and controversies.
It is the construction in non-democracies that has made Asia the global nucleus of dam-building. China remains the world’s top dam-builder at home and abroad. In keeping with its obsession to build the tallest, largest, deepest, longest and highest projects, China completed ahead of schedule the world’s biggest dam, Three Gorges, touting it as the greatest architectural feat in history since the building of the Great Wall.
It is currently implementing the most ambitious inter-basin and inter-river water transfer program ever conceived in human history. Among its planned new dams is a massive project at Metog (or “Motuo” in Chinese) on the world’s highest-altitude major river, the Brahmaputra. The proposed dam, close to the disputed, heavily militarized border with India, will have a power-generating capacity nearly twice that of the Three Gorges Dam, the length of whose reservoir is longer than the largest of North America’s Great Lakes.
Several of the Southeast Asian dam projects financed and undertaken by Chinese companies, like in Laos and Myanmar, are intended to generate electricity for export to China’s own market.
Indeed, China has demonstrated that it has no qualms about building dams in disputed territories, such as Pakistan-administered Kashmir, or in areas torn by ethnic separatism, like northern Myanmar.
Every since China erected a cascade of giant dams on the Mekong, droughts have become more frequent and intense in the downriver countries. This has created a serious public-relations headache for Beijing, which denies that its upriver dams are to blame.
Indeed, seeking to play savior, it has promised to release more dam water for the drought-stricken countries. But this offer only highlights the newfound reliance of downriver countries on Chinese goodwill — a dependence that is set to deepen as China builds more giant dams on the Mekong. By diverting river waters to giant dams, China has emerged as the upstream water controller.
With water woes worsening across Asia, the continent faces a stark choice — stay on the present path, which can lead only to more environmental degradation and even water wars, or fundamentally change course by embarking on the path of rules-based cooperation.
The latter path demands not only water-sharing accords and the free flow of hydrological data but also greater efficiency in water consumption, increased use of recycled and desalinated water, and innovative conservation and adaptation efforts.
None of this will be possible without the cooperation of China, which thus far has refused to enter into water-sharing arrangements with any downstream neighbor. If China does not abandon its current approach, the prospects for a rules-based order in Asia could perish forever. Getting China on board has thus become critical to shape water for peace in Asia.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.