A G-20 environmental meeting on June 16 failed to agree on concrete measures to tackle marine plastic litter. There is growing evidence that human actions are irremediably altering natural ecosystems and driving increasing numbers of plant and animal species to extinction. According to a major new UN study, “nature across the globe has now been significantly altered”, with 75% of the land surface extensively modified, 85% of the wetlands lost, and two-thirds of the oceans bearing mounting cumulative impacts. Another study published in last 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% of their biodiversity since the 1970s. One major driver is plastic pollution.
Bottled water has become an important source of plastic waste, a scourge made worse by single-use straws, cutlery, food containers and other plastic items. In India, plastic debris is clogging up landfills, blocking drains and polluting waterways. Plastic litter on roadsides and beaches and in other public spaces has become an eyesore.
The well-off in India increasingly rely on bottled drinking water, even as the poor struggle to get basic access to water for their daily consumption and household chores. 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 litres of water, on average, are used to package one liter of bottled water. Moreover, much of the bottled water is processed groundwater. Tapping subterranean water reserves on a large scale for bottling is depleting not just aquifers but also rivers and streams that draw water from aquifers.
Mass production of plastics began just six decades ago. The bottled-water industry took off after the commercial advent in the 1990s of single-serve bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), or polyester plastic. 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.
PET is just one type of plastic that is damaging the environment and threatening human health. The increasing plastic pollution of oceans (including from the chemicals added to plastics to provide malleability or other qualities) is affecting many species of marine life. That, in turn, affects human food chains. Microplastics, or the tiny particles into which plastic degrades into, have been found in the guts of many fish.
The global plastic-waste crisis has been accentuated by Chinese and Indian bans on the import of such trash for recycling. India, which long had been one of the world’s largest importers of plastic waste despite generating 26,000 tons of its own plastic garbage per day, banned all such imports only three months ago. It has now embarked on an ambitious plan to phase out single-use plastics by 2022.
But India still has no concrete national strategy to clear the plastic debris polluting its land and waterways. Nor is there a national policy mandating recycling of plastic bottles. Bans on plastic bags in some states have been enforced half-heartedly at best.
Indeed, just like the current disincentives in India to domestic manufacturing, which encourage industries to rely on imports to overcome issues ranging from raw materials, land and labour to taxes, the present Indian policy (or lack of it) makes it cheaper for producers of drinks to utilize PET than an eco-friendly material. Bottlers are not even required to operate a deposit return scheme, in which a small cash sum is returned for each empty bottle given back to retailers.
India can learn from Germany, the world’s recycling champion, as to how right policies and regulations can promote high rates of recycling. Germany 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 at supermarkets.
Imagine if a similar monetary incentive was offered to the poor in India to collect bottles — and all other plastic waste — and deposit them with retailers. It would help to dramatically control plastic trash and litter. 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.
India must remember that 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.
Through an environmental tax on plastics, India could raise money to incentivize and reward the collection of all plastic debris. Consumer goods companies should also be made to help cover the costs of waste management and cleanup.
The plastic-waste scourge is seriously imperilling India’s environmental well-being, including contaminating our freshwater and food chain. Without urgent action locally and globally 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.
Narendra Modi’s rise as the dominant force in Indian politics cannot obscure the daunting foreign-policy challenges he faces, including on transnational water issues. For example, communist-ruled Nepal’s tilt towards China is apparent not only from the mandatory Mandarin in many schools, but also from its resurrection of a scrapped deal with China to build the $2.5 billion, 1,200-megawatt (MW) Budhi-Gandaki Dam. Beijing’s dam-building frenzy on India’s periphery extends from Myanmar and Tibet to Pakistan-held Kashmir, where it is constructing the 720 MW Karot and the 1,124 MW Kohala (the largest Chinese investment under the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor).
South Asia accounts for about 22% of the world’s population but must manage with barely 8.3% of the global water resources. Water is becoming the new oil in this region. But unlike oil — dependence on which can be reduced by tapping other sources of energy — there is no substitute for water. India ought to make water diplomacy an important tool of its regional foreign policy so as to facilitate rules-based cooperation and conflict prevention.
India has a unique riparian status: It is the only regional country that falls in all three categories — upper, middle and lower riparian. Such is India’s geographical spread that it has a direct stake in all the important river basins in the region. India is potentially affected by water-related actions of upstream countries, especially China and Nepal, while its own room for manoeuvre is constricted by the treaty relationships it has with downstream Pakistan and Bangladesh on the Indus and the Ganges, respectively. Indeed, no country in Asia is more vulnerable to China’s reengineering of trans-boundary flows than India because it alone receives — directly or via rivers that flow in through Nepal — nearly half of all river waters that leave Chinese-controlled territory.
Yet hydro-diplomacy has scarcely been a major instrument of Indian foreign policy. Had India looked at water as a strategic resource and emphasized hydro-diplomacy to leverage bilateral relations, it would not have signed the one-sided Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), still the world’s most generous water-sharing pact. The chief Indian negotiator, Niranjan Gulhati, admitted in his book that the IWT was concluded without any study on its potential long-term impact on the Indian water situation. Today, deepening water woes in India’s lower Indus Basin have resulted in the world’s second-most rapid rate of groundwater depletion in the Punjab-Haryana-Rajasthan belt after the Arabian Peninsula.
Meanwhile, China and Pakistan are employing water as a tool against India. Pakistan’s water-war strategy is centred on invoking the IWT’s conflict-resolution provisions to internationalize any perceived disagreement with India. China’s cut-off of hydrological data to India in 2017 — an action that not only breached bilateral accords but also caused preventable flood-related deaths in Assam — helped highlight how Beijing is fashioning unconventional tools of coercive diplomacy.
Modi’s new, unified water power ministry aims to rectify a splintered, piecemeal approach that has compounded India’s water challenges. But without institutionalized, integrated policymaking, it will not be easy to develop a holistic approach to a critical resource increasingly in short supply or to fashion an effective hydro-diplomacy that advances long-term water interests.
India must build pressure on China to abide by international norms on shared water resources. With Pakistan, there is no need for India to bend over backwards. Two weeks before the Pulwama massacre, India hosted a team of Indus inspectors from Pakistan, although, under the IWT’s terms, such a visit could have waited until March 2020. The Permanent Indus Commission met in August 2018, just five months after its previous meeting, although its next meeting was not due until March 2019. In February, India gratuitously supplied Pakistan the design data of three tiny hydropower plants it plans to build. Pakistan, however, has indefinitely deferred Indian inspectors’ reciprocal visit.
In keeping with Modi’s preference for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or Bimstec, a forward-looking Indian diplomacy should promote multilateral cooperation on water and hydropower resources in the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Myanmar-Nepal growth corridor. Cooperation on water, energy, irrigation and flood control would facilitate joint initiatives on transportation and tourism. The ultimate goal should be a water and energy grid that turns Bimstec into Asia’s leading economic-growth zone. India has already issued a new cross-border power trading regulation that allows any neighbour to export electricity to third countries via Indian transmission lines.
Water-rich Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal sit on vast untapped hydropower reserves. While Nepal still imports electricity from India, the flourishing Bhutan-India relationship is underpinned by close collaboration on water and clean and affordable energy. Bhutan’s hydropower exports to India have been the primary driver of what is one of the world’s smallest but fastest-growing economies. From modest, environmentally friendly, run-of-river plants, Bhutan is stepping up its India collaboration with a reservoir-based, 2,585 MW project on River Sankosh — larger than any dam in India.
Water increasingly will be a critical factor in regional development. India must get its act together on hydro-diplomacy and exert stronger leadership on trans-boundary water issues.
The writer is the author of “Water, Peace, and War.”
Urgent action is needed to save the world’s rivers, including improving agricultural practices, which account for the bulk of freshwater withdrawals
Vessels head for the lock of the Three Gorges Dam in Yichang, in central China’s Hubei province. Sediment build-up in the dam’s reservoir stems from the silt flow disruption in the Yangtze River, Brahma Chellaney writes. Photo: Xinhua
Thanks to excessive damming and drastic overuse of water resources, an increasing number of major rivers across the world are drying up before reaching the sea. Nowhere is this more evident than in China, where the old saying, “Follow the river and it will eventually lead you to a sea,” is no longer wholly true.
While a number of smaller rivers in China have simply disappeared, the Yellow River – the cradle of the Chinese civilisation – now tends to run dry before reaching the sea. This has prompted Chinese scientists to embark on a controversial rainmaking project to help increase the Yellow’s flow. By sucking moisture from the air, however, the project could potentially affect monsoon rains elsewhere.
For large sections of the world’s population, major river systems serve as lifelines. The rivers not only supply the most essential of all natural resources – water – but also sustain biodiversity, which in turn supports human beings.
Yet an increasing number of rivers, not just in China, are drying up before reaching the sea. A major new United Nations study published early this month offers grim conclusions: human actions are irremediably altering rivers and other ecosystems and driving increasing numbers of plant and animal species to extinction. “Nature across the globe has now been significantly altered,” according to the study’s summary of findings.
Water sustains life and livelihoods and enables economic development. If the world is to avert a thirsty future and contain the risks of greater intrastate and interstate water conflict, it must protect freshwater ecosystems, which harbour the greatest concentration of species.
Yet, according to another study published in Nature this month humans have modified the flows of most long rivers, other than those found in the remote regions of the Amazon and Congo basins and the Arctic. Consequently, only a little more than one-third of the world’s 246 long rivers are still free-flowing, meaning they remain free from dams, levees and other man-made water-diversion structures that leave them increasingly fragmented.
Such fragmentation is affecting river hydrology, flow of nutrient-rich sediment from the mountains where rivers originate, riparian vegetation, migration of fish and quality of water.
Take the Colorado River, one of the world’s most diverted and dammed rivers. Broken up by more than 100 dams and thousands of kilometres of diversion canals, the Colorado has not reached the sea since 1998.
The river, which originates in the Rocky Mountains and is the lifeblood for the southwestern United States, used to empty into the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. But now, owing to the upstream diversion of 9.3 billion cubic metres (328.4 billion cubic feet) of water annually, the Colorado’s flow into its delta has been reduced to a trickle.
Other major rivers that run dry before reaching the sea include the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, the two lifelines of Central Asia; the Euphrates and the Tigris in the Middle East; and the Rio Grande, which marks the border between Texas and Mexico before heading to the Gulf of Mexico. The overused Murray in Australia and Indus in Pakistan are at risk of meeting the same fate.
More fundamentally, altered flow characteristics of rivers are among the most serious problems for sustainable development, because they seriously affect the ecosystem services on which both humans and wildlife depend. Free-flowing rivers, while supporting a wealth of biodiversity, allow billions of fish – the main source of protein for the poor – to trek through their waters and breed copiously.
Free-flowing rivers also deliver nutrient-rich silt crucial to agriculture, fisheries and marine life. Such high-quality sediment helps to naturally re-fertilise overworked soils in the plains, sustain freshwater species and, after rivers empty into seas or oceans, underpin the aquatic food chain supporting marine life.
China’s hyperactive dam building illustrates the high costs of river fragmentation. No country in history has built more dams than China. In fact, China today boasts more large dams than the rest of the world combined.
China’s chain of dams and reservoirs on each of its long rivers impedes the downstream flow of sediment, thereby denying essential nutrients to agricultural land and aquatic species. A case in point is China’s Three Gorges Dam – the world’s largest – which has a problematic build-up of sediment in its own massive reservoir because it has disrupted silt flows in the Yangtze River.
Likewise, China’s cascade of eight giant dams on the Mekong, just before the river enters Southeast Asia, is affecting the quality and quantity of flows in the delta, in Vietnam. Undeterred, China is building or planning another 20 dams on the Mekong.
How the drying up of rivers affects seas and oceans is apparent from the Aral Sea, which has shrunk 74 per cent in area and 90 per cent in volume, with its salinity growing nine-fold. This change is the result of the Aral Sea’s principal water sources, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, being so overexploited for irrigation that they are drying up before reaching what was once the world’s fourth-largest inland lake.
Compounding the challenges is the increasing pollution of rivers. Aquatic ecosystems have lost half of their biodiversity since the mid-1970s alone.
Urgent action is needed to save the world’s rivers. This includes action on several fronts, including improving practices in agriculture, which accounts for the bulk of the world’s freshwater withdrawals.
Without embracing integrated water resource management and other sustainable practices, the world risks a parched future.
Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including Water, Peace, and War.
Major river systems are the lifelines of large sections of the world’s population. They not only supply the most essential of all natural resources – water – but also sustain biodiversity, which in turn supports human beings.
However, the old saying, “Follow the river and it will eventually lead you to a sea”, is no longer wholly true. Owing to excessive damming and drastic overuse of water resources, an increasing number of rivers are drying up before they reach the sea.
A new United Nations study offers grim conclusions: human actions are irremediably altering rivers and other ecosystems and driving increasing numbers of plant and animal species to extinction. According to the study’s summary of findings, released last week: “Nature across the globe has now been significantly altered.”
Water sustains life and livelihoods and enables economic development. If the world is to avert a thirsty future and contain the risks of greater intrastate and interstate water conflict, it must protect freshwater ecosystems, which harbour the greatest concentration of species.
Yet, according to another study published in this month’s Nature journal, humans have modified the flows of most long rivers, other than those found in the remote regions of the Amazon and Congo basins and the Arctic. Consequently, only about one third of the world’s 246 long rivers can still be described as free-flowing, meaning that they remain clear of dams and other man-made diversions.
Instead of flowing freely, rivers are becoming increasingly fragmented by dams and other hydro-engineering structures. Such fragmentation is affecting the flow of nutrient-rich sediment from the mountains where rivers originate, riverside vegetation, the migration of fish and quality of water.
For example, the Colorado River, which is broken up by more than 100 dams and thousands of kilometres of diversion canals, has not reached the sea since 1998. The river, which originates in the Rocky Mountains and is the lifeblood for the south-western United States, used to empty into the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Now, because of the upstream diversion of 9.3 billion cubic metres of water annually, the Colorado’s flow into its delta has been reduced to a trickle.
Others that run dry before reaching the sea include the Yellow River, the cradle of the Chinese civilisation; the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya – the two lifelines of Central Asia; the Euphrates and the Tigris in the Middle East; and the Rio Grande, which marks the entire Texas-Mexico border before heading to the Gulf of Mexico. The over-utilised Murray in Australia and the Indus in Pakistan are at risk of meeting with the same fate.
Shared water resources are often siphoned off by upstream powers with little consideration for the interests of downstream states. For example, Mexico has long complained that it is not getting its share of the Colorado River’s waters under the terms of a 1944 water-sharing treaty with the US.
More fundamentally, altered flow characteristics of rivers are among the most serious problems for sustainable development, because they seriously affect the ecosystem services on which both humans and wildlife depend. Free-flowing rivers, while supporting a wealth of biodiversity, allow billions of fish – the main source of protein for the poor – to swim through their waters and breed.
Free-flowing rivers also deliver nutrient-rich silt crucial to agriculture, fisheries and marine life. Such high-quality sediment helps to naturally refertilise overworked soils in the plains, to sustain freshwater species and, after rivers empty into seas or oceans, to underpin the aquatic food chain supporting marine life.
China’s hyperactive dam building illustrates the high costs of river fragmentation. No country in history has built more dams than China. Today, it has more large dams than the rest of the world combined.
China’s chain of dams and reservoirs on each of its long rivers impedes the downstream flow of sediment, thereby denying essential nutrients to agricultural land and aquatic species. For example, by disrupting silt flows in the Yangtze River, the Three Gorges Dam – the world’s largest – has caused a problematic build-up of sediment in its own massive reservoir.
Likewise, China’s eight giant dams on the Mekong, just before the river enters south-east Asia, is affecting the quality and quantity of flows in the delta in Vietnam. An undeterred China, however, is building or planning another 20 dams on the Mekong.
How the drying up of rivers impacts seas and oceans is apparent from the Aral Sea, which has shrunk 74 per cent in area and 90 per cent in volume, with its salinity growing nine-fold. This is because the Aral Sea’s principal water sources, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, are so over-exploited for irrigation that they dry up before reaching what was once the world’s fourth-largest inland lake.
Then there is the matter of pollution, which, along with the disruption of natural river flows, has adversely affected traditional agriculture and grazing, devastated fisheries and marginalised rural communities.
Meanwhile, the continued shrinkage and degradation of freshwater habitats – including rivers, lakes, wetlands and ponds – is accelerating biodiversity loss extending to the seas. Aquatic ecosystems have lost 50 per cent of their biodiversity since the mid-1970s alone.
Urgent action is needed to save the world’s rivers. It must be taken on several fronts, including improving practices in agriculture, which accounts for the bulk of the world’s freshwater withdrawals. Without embracing integrated water resource management and other sustainable practices, the world risks a parched future.
Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including Water, Peace, and War.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including the award-winning Water, Peace, and War.
The 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.