Shed the Indus albatross

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India, March 20, 2017

At a time when India is haunted by a deepening water crisis, the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) hangs like the proverbial albatross from its neck. In 1960, in the naïve hope that water largesse would yield peace, India entered into a treaty that gave away the Indus system’s largest rivers as gifts to Pakistan.

Since then, that congenitally hostile neighbour, while drawing the full benefits from the treaty, has waged overt or covert aggression almost continuously and is now using the IWT itself as a stick to beat India with, including by contriving water disputes and internationalizing them.

A partisan World Bank, meanwhile, has compounded matters further. Breaching the IWT’s terms under which an arbitral tribunal cannot be established while the parties’ disagreement “is being dealt with by a neutral expert,” the Bank proceeded in November to appoint both a court of arbitration (as demanded by Pakistan) and a neutral expert (as suggested by India). It did so while admitting that the two concurrent processes could make the treaty “unworkable over time”.

World Bank partisanship, however, is not new: The IWT was the product of the Bank’s activism, with US government support, in making India embrace an unparalleled treaty that parcelled out the largest three of the six rivers to Pakistan and made the Bank effectively a guarantor in the treaty’s initial phase. With much of its meat in its voluminous annexes, this is an exhaustive, book-length treaty with a patently neo-colonial structure that limits India’s sovereignty to the basin of the three smaller rivers.

The Bank’s recent decision was made more bizarre by the fact that while the treaty explicitly permits either party to seek a neutral expert’s appointment, it specifies no such unilateral right for a court of arbitration. In 2010, such an arbitral tribunal was appointed with both parties’ consent. The neutral expert, however, is empowered to refer the parties’ disagreement, if need be, to a court of arbitration.

The uproar that followed the World Bank’s initiation of the dual processes forced it to “pause,” but not terminate, its legally untenable decision. Stuck with a mess of its own making, it is now prodding India to bail it out by compromising with Pakistan over the two moderate-sized Indian hydropower projects. But what Pakistan wants are design changes of the type it enforced years ago in the Salal project, resulting in that plant silting up. It is threatening to target other Indian projects as well.

Yet Indian policy appears adrift. Indeed, India is backsliding even on its tentative moves to deter Pakistani terrorism. For example, after last September’s Uri attack, it suspended the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) with Pakistan. Now the suspension has been lifted, allowing the PIC to meet in the aftermath of the state elections.

In truth, the suspension was just a charade, with the PIC missing no meeting. Prime Minister Narendra Modi reversed course in time for the PIC, which meets at least once every financial year, to meet before the current year ended on March 31 in order to prepare its annual report by the treaty-stipulated June 1 deadline. But while the suspension was widely publicized for political ends, the reversal happened quietly.

Much of the media also fell for another charade that Modi sought to play to the hilt in the Punjab elections: He promised to end Punjab’s water stress by utilizing India’s full IWT-allocated share of the waters. His government, however, has initiated not a single new project to correct India’s abysmal failure to tap its meagre 19.48% share of the Indus waters.

Instead, Modi has engaged in little more than eyewash: He has appointed a committee of secretaries, not to find ways to fashion the Indus card to reform Pakistan’s conduct, but farcically to examine India’s own rights under the IWT over 56 years after it was signed. The answer to India’s serious under-utilization of its share, which has resulted in Pakistan getting more than 10 billion cubic meters (BCM) yearly in bonus waters on top of its staggering 167.2 BCM allocation, is not a bureaucratic rigmarole but political direction to speedily build storage and other structures.

Despite Modi’s declaration that “blood and water cannot flow together,” India is reluctant to hold Pakistan to account by linking the IWT’s future to that renegade state’s cessation of its unconventional war. It is past time India shed its reticence.

Pakistan’s interest lies in sustaining a unique treaty that incorporates water generosity to the lower riparian on a scale unmatched by any other pact in the world. Yet it is undermining its own interest by dredging up disputes with India and running down the IWT as ineffective for resolving them. By insisting that India must not ask what it is getting in return but bear only the IWT’s burdens, even as it suffers Pakistan’s proxy war, Islamabad itself highlights the treaty’s one-sided character.

In effect, Pakistan is offering India a significant opening to remake the terms of the Indus engagement. This is an opportunity that India should not let go. The Indus potentially represents the most potent instrument in India’s arsenal — more powerful than the nuclear option, which essentially is for deterrence.

The writer is a geostrategist and author.

© The Times of India, 2017.

Nepal’s water curse

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Nepal needs bridge over troubled waters

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People ride on a boat to reach the bank of the Rapti River at Sauraha in Chitwan, south of Kathmandu. © Reuters

By Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Nepal sits on vast water resources. The United Nations describes the landlocked Himalayan state as “one of the Asian countries with the highest level of water resources per inhabitant.” Water can potentially be to Nepal what oil is to Arab sheikhdoms.

Nepal’s renewable water resources are estimated at 7,372 cubic meters per capita annually, or several times higher than those for the two demographic titans between which it is sandwiched — China and India. Yet Nepal, oddly, seems afflicted by a water curse. A failure to adequately harness water resources has left the nation acutely energy-starved, and water shortages are endemic in major Nepalese cities, including the capital, Kathmandu.

Meanwhile, as it increasingly becomes a theater of geopolitical competition between China and India, Nepal is tilting more toward Beijing and away from India, its main partner through the centuries. China, blending economic and security policies, is steadily making strategic inroads. Beijing’s latest deal with Nepal to build another largely Chinese-owned dam there highlights its growing success in clinching major infrastructure contracts in India’s backyard to advance its foreign policy and commercial interests.

Had India tried to secure a contract to set up a largely Indian-owned dam in Nepal, it would likely have faced a nationalistic backlash. Maoists, communists and nationalists in Nepal portray India as a regional hegemon and have seriously impeded its hydropower development plans. China, however, does not face such opposition in communist-dominated Nepal. This helps to explain why the new deal over the planned 750-megawatt West Seti Dam is not the first Chinese hydropower project in the country.

China, through construction projects by Chinese state-run companies and large loans to finance them, is quietly enlarging its presence in and leverage over the increasingly indebted Nepal, which risks becoming its client state. Already, Beijing has used its clout to push Nepal to crack down on Tibetans traveling through Nepal to India, where the Dalai Lama is based.

While dressing its investments in the cloak of economic aid, China is imposing stiff commercial terms on Nepal, plus taking majority project ownership upfront. For example, its state-run China Three Gorges Corporation has picked up a 75% stake in the West Seti Dam project.

Nepal holds up to 83,000 megawatts of hydropower reserves, which, if tapped partially, can make it a major exporter of electricity. By harnessing the natural bounty of the Himalayas to produce renewable electricity, Nepal could emulate the success of Bhutan in generating the hydro dollars to fuel its rapid economic development. Small Bhutan has effectively turned its rich water resources into “blue gold,” achieving the highest per capita income in South Asia.

Power shortages

Nepal, however, produces barely 800 megawatts of electricity for its 30 million citizens from all sources of energy, with the result that long power outages are common even in Kathmandu. Nepal controls the headwaters of, or serves as the corridor for, several rivers that flow into India, yet it imports electricity from that country.

As opposed to China’s water megaprojects at home, smaller and ecologically friendly projects in the Himalayas — if properly planned and designed and conforming to thorough and impartial environmental impact assessments — can yield major benefits without carrying significant environmental and social costs. Environmentally sound hydropower is particularly attractive because, despite the high upfront capital costs, a hydropower plant has a life span almost double that of a nuclear power reactor and generates electricity with no fuel cost.

India, as the subcontinent’s largest energy consumer, has sought to incentivize a subregional energy grid. Yet the vast majority of its own Himalayan hydropower projects have been delayed, suspended or shelved, largely due to grass roots opposition.

India has employed water collaboration as a tool of its diplomacy with Nepal and Bhutan. In Bhutan, India has subsidized the development of environmentally friendly hydropower by providing 60% of the investment for each project as a grant and the remaining amount as a low-interest loan. The projects have helped power Bhutan’s success story.

By contrast, the political dividends from Indo-Nepalese water cooperation have declined over the years, partly because of political constraints in Nepal and partly because India has not been sensitive to Nepalese concerns. Several joint projects have either not been completed or failed to live up to their promise, leaving a troubled legacy that has increasingly weighed down bilateral cooperation.

Bangladesh has actively sought the start of water projects in Nepal to augment the lean-season flows of the Ganges River at Farakka, the critical downriver point where the waters are equally shared between India and Bangladesh under a 1996 treaty. The treaty — which coincided with the 25th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Indian-assisted independence — has set a new principle in international water law by guaranteeing delivery of specific water quantities to downstream Bangladesh in the critical dry season.

Hundreds of rivers, some them originating in Tibet, crisscross Nepal. The country has five major river basins, from the Mahakali in the west to the eastern Kosi. All its river systems empty into the Ganges basin in India. Nepal is also rich in groundwater resources in the southern plains along its long border with India.

Resource curse

Whereas countries afflicted by what development economists call the “resource curse” find it difficult to break out of slow rates of economic growth and high levels of income inequality, despite relying on major exports of natural resources, Nepal’s water curse has come without exploiting its resource reserves for its own needs, let alone exporting hydropower.

No less significant is the fact that Nepal has several water treaties with India but none with China, which has dammed the Karnali River just before it enters Nepal. China is also planning to build a cascade of five dams on the upper reaches of the Arun River. The construction of that cascade, by diminishing flows into the Ganges, could potentially affect India’s Ganges water-sharing arrangement with Bangladesh.

Nepal’s water curse has been compounded by severe political turmoil for the past quarter century. It remains today in a politically shaky position — wracked by underdevelopment, poverty, poor governance and lawlessness and increasingly divided by its murky politics.

The sorry state of affairs in Nepal has seriously hampered its hydropower and irrigation expansion, even though progress in these areas is essential to obtain much-needed revenue and development and to help tame the transboundary rivers that often overrun their banks in Nepalese and Indian areas during the monsoons.

Indeed, the integrated development of the Ganges basin demands trilateral institutional collaboration between the three basin states — Nepal, India and Bangladesh — with cooperation extending to energy, transit and port rights. However, the entry of a non-basin state, China, is muddying the waters. Both through its unilateral dam-building activities in Tibet on the rivers that flow to Nepal, India and Bangladesh, and its entry in the Nepalese hydropower sector, China is compounding the challenges of regional integration.

Breaking the water curse is critical to Nepal’s future. While the mighty Himalayas separate it from Chinese-ruled Tibet, Nepal is tied to India by geography, including multiple shared river basins. Water cooperation with India and Bangladesh can help harness the waters of the common rivers for shared benefit.

But if Nepal remains battered by political turmoil, it risks becoming a failed state — a development that will carry major security implications for India, given the open Indo-Nepalese border that permits passage without documentation or registration.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

Reclaiming India’s leverage on Tibet

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Brahma Chellaney, Mint, January 4, 2017

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Central governments come and go in New Delhi but India’s instinctive chariness and reserve on the issue of Tibet still persist, despite an increasingly muscular China upping the ante against it. Tibet’s annexation has affected Indian security like no other development, giving China, for the first time under Han rule, a contiguous border with India, Bhutan and Nepal and facilitating a Sino-Pakistan strategic axis through a common land corridor.

Even as the then-independent Tibet’s forcible absorption began just months after the 1949 communist victory in China, India — despite its British-inherited extraterritorial rights in Tibet — watched silently, even opposing a discussion in the UN General Assembly on the aggression. Since then, India has stayed mum on increasing Chinese repression in Tibet. But now it is allowing itself to come under Chinese pressure on the Dalai Lama’s activities and movements within India.

Consider the recent development when the Dalai Lama attended a public event at the Rashtrapati Bhawan and met with President Pranab Mukherjee: The government did the right thing by permitting the Dalai Lama to participate in the event, especially since it was organized for children’s welfare by Nobel laureates, a group that includes the Dalai Lama himself.

But after China protested the Dalai Lama’s presence at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, India gratuitously responded rather than disregarding Beijing’s silly gripe, which was couched in imperious terms.

Demanding that India respect China’s “core interests” to avoid “any disturbance” to the bilateral ties, the Chinese foreign ministry stated, “China has urged India to clearly recognize the Dalai Lama’s anti-Chinese and separatist nature, to respect China’s core interests and concerns, to take effective measures to eliminate the negative influences of the incident, and to avoid disturbing China-India ties,” adding: “Recently in disregard of China’s solemn representation and strong opposition, the Indian side insisted on arranging for the 14th Dalai Lama’s visit to the Indian presidential palace, where he took part in an event and met President Mukherjee.”

The ministry of external affairs responded not to censure China for seeking to interfere in India’s internal affairs or for dictating terms to it; rather, it responded to explain the matter to Beijing, saying: “India has a consistent position. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is a respected and revered spiritual leader. It was a non-political event organized by Nobel laureates dedicated to the welfare of children.”

Where was the need for India to explain apologetically that it was “a non-political event” — that too to a country that has no compunction in blocking UN sanctions on Pakistan-based terrorists or in frustrating India’s admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group? The way to deal with China on such an issue is to ignore its protests and keep doing more frequently what it finds objectionable so as to blunt its objections. This approach is necessary in order to send a clear message that China cannot arrogantly lay down terms for India to follow.

Just as China has perfected the art of creeping, covert warfare through which it seeks to take one “slice” of territory at a time, by force, its objections regarding the Dalai Lama have similarly advanced in a crawling form. From objecting to official discussions between the Dalai Lama and a foreign head of state or government, China’s opposition has progressed to protesting his presence at any state-linked event or even his purely spiritual visit to another country, as to Mongolia recently. It has also sought to crimp his freedom within a free India.

Take Mongolia, which has had close links with Tibet ever since the great Mongol king, Altan Khan, converted to Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, the fourth Dalai Lama was born in Mongolia. But when Mongolia in November stood up to China by permitting the Dalai Lama to undertake a four-day religious tour involving no official meeting, Beijing responded as a typical bully by freezing ties and seeking to throttle its economy — dependent on commodity exports to China — by slapping punitive tariffs and shutting a key border crossing point. And it kept up the coercive pressure until Mongolia, battling a recession, agreed not to allow the Dalai Lama in again even for a religious tour.

Far from being vulnerable to Chinese economic blackmail, India is in a position to employ trade as a political instrument against China, given the lopsided nature of the bilateral commerce. Fattened by a rapidly growing trade surplus with India that now totals almost $60 billion yearly, China has been busy undermining Indian security, either directly or through its surrogate Pakistan. China’s surplus has actually doubled just since Narendra Modi assumed office.

India not only needs to fix the increasingly asymmetrical trade relationship with China but must also reclaim its leverage on the Tibet issue. Tibet is a major instrument of leverage that India has against China. Yet India remains very reluctant to exercise that leverage. Had China been in India’s place, it is unthinkable that it would have shied away from employing the Tibet card or the trade card.

Tibet is to India against China what Pakistan is to China against India. But China has had no hesitation to play the Pakistan card against India, including by building Pakistan as a military balancer on the subcontinent through continuing transfers of nuclear-weapon, missile and conventional-weapon technologies.

Way back in 1965, then education minister and soon to be external affairs minister M.C. Chagla declared, “The conditions under which we recognized China’s suzerainty no longer exist.” Yet today India recognizes Tibet as part of China even as Beijing openly challenges India’s unity and territorial integrity, including by occupying the Aksai Chin plateau and claiming an entire Indian state.

Without India asserting itself by reopening the Tibet issue, China will continue to breathe down its neck and seek to dictate terms. For example, when the Dalai Lama tours Arunachal Pradesh shortly, Beijing will again unleash its diplomatic fury by hectoring India.

© Mint, 2016.

India may be parched yet it is remarkably short-sighted on water resources

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Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today, December 30, 2016

imagesThe inter-ministerial task force set up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for correcting India’s under-utilization of its allocated share of waters under the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) has just held its first meeting. The water-related issue facing India, however, is much larger: The continuing absence of institutionalized, integrated policymaking in India, which has prevented proper management of the country’s increasingly scarce water resources. Indeed, India stands out for its lack of a national action plan to build water security.

When the Indian Republic was established, the framers of its Constitution did not visualize water scarcity in the decades ahead, given the relative abundance of water resources then. Therefore, they left water as a state-level subject, rather than making it a federal issue.

Similarly, the IWT, under which India bigheartedly agreed in 1960 to the exclusive reservation of the largest three of the six Indus system rivers for Pakistan, was negotiated in a period when water shortages were uncommon in most parts of India. This led India to sign an extraordinary treaty whose terms commit India to indefinitely reserve over four-fifths of the total waters of the Indus system for Pakistan.

The treaty uniquely parceled out entire rivers to Pakistan. It granted Pakistan virtually exclusive rights to use the waters of the Chenab, the Jhelum, and the main Indus stream — known together as the “western rivers”. The average replenishable flows of the three western rivers total 167.2 billion cubic meters (BCM) per year. As its own share, India settled for a mere 40.4 BCM, or the total yearly flows of the three so-called eastern rivers — the Sutlej, the Beas, and the Ravi.

Four of these six rivers originate in India (three of them in Himachal Pradesh), and two (the main Indus stream and the Sutlej) originate in Tibet. Only the Jhelum originates in Jammu and Kashmir.

clipboard01Today, the national water situation in India is far worse than in China. China’s population is not even 10 per cent larger than India’s but its internally renewable water resources (2,813 BCM) are almost twice as large as India’s. In aggregate water availability, including external inflows (which are sizeable in India’s case), China boasts virtually 50 per cent larger resources than India.

Yet India serves as a case study of how a disjointed policy approach and lack of vision on managing water resources can exact serious costs by creating water shortages across much of the country. In a sense, India’s fragmented approach is exactly the opposite of China’s highly centralized approach centred on mega-projects.

The startling fact is that the responsibility for water issues is so fragmented within India’s central government that 12 different departments or ministries deal with different segments of water resources. To promote clear responsibility and accountability in national water management and to facilitate integrated policymaking, India must end its present fragmented approach on water issues.

As for India’s under-utilization of its IWT-allocated water share, the task facing the task-force is formidable. For example, the waters of the three eastern rivers not utilized by India aggregate to 10.37 BCM yearly according to Pakistan or, according to the UN, 11.1 BCM. These bonus outflows to Pakistan alone amount to six times Mexico’s total water share under its treaty with the US, and are many times greater than the total volumes spelled out in the Israel-Jordan water arrangements.

Although the IWT permits India to store 4.4 BCM of waters from the Pakistan-reserved rivers, a careless India has built no storage. And despite the treaty allowing India to build hydropower plants with no dam reservoir, India’s total installed generating capacity in J&K currently does not equal the size of a single new dam in Pakistan like the 4,500-megawatt Diamer-Bhasha, whose financing for construction was approved recently.

Against this background, the task force set up by Modi, with his principal secretary as its chairman, may be a step in the right direction. But constituting this committee is hardly an adequate response to fixing the anomaly as reflected in India’s under-utilization of its water share.

Made up of senior bureaucrats who are already busy attending to other tasks, the committee cannot by itself remove the bureaucratic hurdles in the proper utilization of water resources. India’s political negligence on this issue has been so deep and extensive that it can be remedied only through hands-on political direction and in coordination with the state chief ministers.

More fundamentally, water scarcity is a looming challenge across India. The water wars between various Indian states are highlighting how the competition over shared water resources is sharpening in an alarming manner.

India must treat water as a strategic resource for its own well-being. If the current compartmentalized approach to managing water resources persists, water shortages are going to exact growing economic and social costs in India.

© Mail Today, 2016.

The Great Water Folly

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

imagesThe linkages between water stress, sharing disputes and environmental degradation threaten to trap Asia in a vicious cycle. In a continent where China’s unilateralism stands out as a destabilizing factor, only four of the 57 transnational river basins have a treaty on water sharing or institutionalized cooperation. Indeed, the only Asian treaties incorporating specific sharing formulas are between India and its downriver neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

When Pakistan was carved out of India as the first Islamic republic of the post-colonial era, the partition left the Indus headwaters in India, arming it with formidable water leverage over the newly-created country. Yet India ultimately agreed under World Bank and US pressure in 1960 to what still ranks as the world’s most generous (and lopsided) water-sharing pact.

The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) reserved for Pakistan the largest three rivers that make up more than four-fifths of the Indus-system waters, leaving for India just 19.48% of the total waters. After gifting the lion’s share of the waters to the congenitally hostile Pakistan, India also contributed $173.63 million for dam and other projects there. The Great Water Folly — one of the major strategic problems bequeathed to future Indian generations by the Nehruvian era — began exacting serious costs within a few years.

Far from mollifying an implacable foe, the IWT whetted Pakistan’s territorial revisionism, prompting its 1965 military attack on India’s Jammu and Kashmir. The attack was aimed at gaining political control of the land through which the three largest rivers reserved for Pakistani use flowed, although only one of them originates in J&K. The 1965 attack was essentially a water war.

India’s naïve assumption that it traded water munificence for peace in 1960 has backfired, saddling it with an iniquitous treaty of indefinite duration and keeping water as a core issue in its relations with Pakistan. As for Pakistan, after failing to achieve its water designs militarily in 1965, it has continued to wage a water war against India by other means, including diplomacy and terrorism. Put simply, 56 years after the IWT was signed, Pakistan’s covetous, water-driven claim to India’s J&K remains intact.

Pakistan has cleverly employed the IWT to have its cake and eat it too. While receiving the largest quantum of waters reserved by any treaty for a downstream state, it uses the IWT to sustain its conflict and tensions with India. Worse still, this scofflaw nation repays the upper riparian’s unparalleled water largesse with blood by waging an undeclared, terrorism-centred war, with the Nagrota attack the latest example.

Pakistan has recently succeeded — for the second time in this decade — in persuading a partisan World Bank to initiate international arbitral proceedings against India. Seeking international intercession is part of Pakistan’s ‘water war’ strategy against India, yet it is the World Bank’s ugly role in the latest instance that sticks out. This should surprise few.

After all, it was the World Bank’s murky role that spawned the inherently unequal IWT. Whereas the British colonial government was the instrument in India’s 1947 land partition, the Bank served as the agent to partition the Indus-system rivers, floating the river-partitioning proposal and ramming it down India’s throat. India’s full sovereignty rights were limited to the smallest three of the six rivers, with the Bank uniquely signing a binational treaty as its guarantor.

Since then, World Bank support enabled Pakistan not only to complete mega-dams but also to sustain its ‘water war’ strategy against India by seeking to invoke international intercession repeatedly. Now, in response to Pakistan’s complaint over the design features of two midsized Indian hydropower projects, the World Bank has sought to initiate two concurrent processes that mock the IWT’s provisions for resolving any ‘questions’, ‘differences’ or ‘disputes’ between the parties: It is appointing both a court of arbitration (as sought by Pakistan) and a neutral expert (as suggested by India), while admitting that “pursuing two concurrent processes under the treaty could make it unworkable over time”.

India says it “cannot be party to actions” by the World Bank that breach the IWT’s terms, implying that it might not accept the arbitral tribunal. India’s bark, however, has always been worse than its bite. While protesting the Bank’s “legally untenable” move in the latest case, India has shown little inclination to respond through punitive counter-measures.

Had China been in India’s place, it would have sought to discipline the Bank and Pakistan. Indeed, it is unthinkable that China would have countenanced such an egregiously inequitable treaty. While mouthing empty rhetoric, India still allows Pakistan to draw the IWT’s full benefits even as Pakistan bleeds it by exporting terrorists.

The truth is this: The IWT symbolizes India’s enduring strategic naiveté and negligence. Despite water shortages triggering bitter feuds between Punjab and some other states, India has failed to tap even the allocated 19.48% share of the Indus Basin resources.

For example, the waters of the three India-earmarked rivers not utilized by India aggregate to 10.37 billion cubic metres (BCM) yearly according to Pakistan, and 11.1 BCM according to the UN. These bonus outflows to Pakistan alone amount to six times Mexico’s total water share under its treaty with the US, and are many times greater than the total volumes spelled out in the Israel-Jordan water arrangements. Although the IWT permits India to store 4.4 BCM of waters from the Pakistan-reserved rivers, a careless India has built no storage. And despite the treaty allowing India to build hydropower plants with no dam reservoir, its total installed generating capacity in J&K currently does not equal the size of a single new dam in Pakistan like the 4,500-megawatt Diamer-Bhasha, whose financing for construction was approved last week.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2016.

A Water War in Asia?

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

Tensions over water are rising in Asia — and not only because of conflicting maritime claims. While territorial disputes, such as in the South China Sea, attract the most attention — after all, they threaten the safety of sea lanes and freedom of navigation, which affects outside powers as well — the strategic ramifications of competition over transnationally shared freshwater resources are just as ominous.

Asia has less fresh water per capita than any other continent, and it is already facing a water crisis that, according to an MIT study, will continue to intensify, with severe water shortages expected by 2050. At a time of widespread geopolitical discord, competition over freshwater resources could emerge as a serious threat to long-term peace and stability in Asia.

Already, the battle is underway, with China as the main aggressor. Indeed, China’s territorial grab in the South China Sea has been accompanied by a quieter grab of resources in transnational river basins. Reengineering cross-border riparian flows is integral to China’s strategy to assert greater control and influence over Asia.

China is certainly in a strong position to carry out this strategy. The country enjoys unmatched riparian dominance, with 110 transnational rivers and lakes flowing into 18 downstream countries. China also has the world’s most dams, which it has never hesitated to use to curb cross-border flows. In fact, China’s dam builders are targeting most of the international rivers that flow out of Chinese territory.

Most of China’s internationally shared water resources are located on the Tibetan Plateau, which it annexed in the early 1950s. Unsurprisingly, the plateau is the new hub of Chinese dam building. Indeed, China’s 13th five-year plan, released this year, calls for a new wave of dam projects on the Plateau.

Moreover, China recently cut off the flow of a tributary of the Brahmaputra River, the lifeline of Bangladesh and northern India, to build a dam as part of a major hydroelectric project in Tibet. And the country is working to dam another Brahmaputra tributary, in order to create a series of artificial lakes.

China has also built six mega-dams on the Mekong River, which flows into Southeast Asia, where the downstream impact is already visible. Yet, instead of curbing its dam-building, China is hard at work building several more Mekong dams.

Likewise, water supplies in largely arid Central Asia are coming under further pressure as China appropriates a growing volume of water from the Illy River. Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash is now at risk of shrinking substantially, much like the Aral Sea — located on the border with Uzbekistan — which has virtually dried up in less than 40 years. China is also diverting water from the Irtysh, which supplies drinking water to Kazakhstan’s capital Astana and feeds Russia’s Ob River.

For Central Asia, the diminished transboundary flows are just one part of the problem. China’s energy, manufacturing, and agricultural activities in sprawling Xinjiang are having an even greater impact, as they contaminate the waters of the region’s transnational rivers with hazardous chemicals and fertilizers, just as China has done to the rivers in its Han heartland.

Of course, China is not the only country stoking conflict over water. As if to underscore that the festering territorial dispute in Kashmir is as much about water as it is about land, Pakistan has, for the second time this decade, initiated international arbitral tribunal proceedings against India under the terms of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. The paradox here is that downstream Pakistan has used that treaty — the world’s most generous water-sharing deal, reserving for Pakistan more than 80% of the waters of the six-river Indus system — to sustain its conflict with India.

Meanwhile, landlocked Laos — aiming to export hydropower, especially to China, the mainstay of its economy — has just notified its neighbors of its decision to move ahead with a third controversial project, the 912-megawatt Pak Beng dam. It previously brushed aside regional concerns about the alteration of natural-flow patterns to push ahead with the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dam projects. There is no reason to expect a different outcome this time.

The consequences of growing water competition in Asia will reverberate beyond the region. Already, some Asian states, concerned about their capacity to grow enough food, have leased large tracts of farmland in Sub-Saharan Africa, triggering a backlash in some areas. In 2009, when South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics Corporation negotiated a deal to lease as much as half of Madagascar’s arable land to produce cereals and palm oil for the South Korean market, the ensuing protests and military intervention toppled a democratically elected president.

The race to appropriate water resources in Asia is straining agriculture and fisheries, damaging ecosystems, and fostering dangerous distrust and discord across the region. It must be brought to an end. Asian countries need to clarify the region’s increasingly murky hydropolitics. The key will be effective dispute-resolution mechanisms and agreement on more transparent water-sharing arrangements.

Asia can build a harmonious, rules-based water management system. But it needs China to get on board. At least for now, that does not seem likely.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

Asia’s megacities are running out of water

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clipboard01Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Asia’s cities are ballooning, and the accompanying upsurge in the consumption of water and production of waste in urban areas is placing new pressures on the environment.

Home to 53% of the world’s urban population, Asia has the highest concentration of megacities, including Shanghai, Tokyo, Karachi and Beijing. Not only are Asia’s cities big and numerous, they are among the most polluted. The urban explosion has made providing safe water and sanitation a massive challenge for the region.

Historically, the availability of local water resources has determined not only where major cities have been established but how well they have fared. But in Asia, rapid — and often unplanned — urban growth in recent decades has overwhelmed water systems.

20161006freshwaterhoriz_article_main_imageAsia’s per capita water availability is already the lowest of any continent. Fast economic growth, coupled with breakneck urbanization and changing lifestyles, has made a difficult situation worse. In 2012, slightly over half of the world’s population lived in urban areas. By 2050, that ratio is projected to jump to more than two-thirds, with much of that growth taking placing in Asia.

The region’s urbanization is fueling demand for water not just for municipal use but also for manufacturing and agriculture. And changing diets, especially an increased preference for meat — the production of which is notoriously water-intensive — are compounding water challenges. Asia needs to make substantial water savings in agriculture to quench the thirst of its expanding cities. Some of the largest urban centers — from Beijing and Manila to Jakarta and Dhaka — are already at risk of running out of water.

The challenge of providing safe drinking water is compounded by the growing incidence of floods and droughts in Asia. According to the Asian Development Bank, people living in the Asia-Pacific region are “four times more likely to be affected by natural disasters than those living in Africa, and 25 times more likely than those living in Europe or North America.” Most Asian megacities are in coastal areas, making them vulnerable to global warming-induced rises in ocean levels.

As cities across the region struggle to access adequate water supplies, many of their residents are beginning to rely on bottled water. This practice, however, has fueled a serious waste-management problem. Due to very low recycling rates, billions of plastic bottles end up as garbage every year, taking up increasing space in landfills or even littering the landscape. Some cities are running out of places to put those bottles.

The environmental problems do not end there: The retreat of megadeltas due to China’s upstream damming of rivers originating on the Tibetan Plateau has become a serious issue. According to several scientific studies, heavy upstream damming, which can obstruct the flow of silt to plains and estuaries, is contributing to the retreat and subsidence of Asia’s big deltas, which are home to such megacities as Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Bangkok, Kolkata and Dhaka. This development, in turn, is causing seawater to flow into coastal freshwater aquifers, affecting municipal supplies.

UNCOVENTIONAL SOLUTIONS

Yet despite this deepening crisis, a water-stressed Asia continues to live beyond its means environmentally, overexploiting water resources while hoping to postpone the day of reckoning. Some countries have responded to these challenges by implementing grand but environmentally questionable projects, from China’s South-North Water Transfer Project (the world’s biggest hydraulic initiative) to India’s now-stalled proposal to link up its most important rivers.

With the first two of its three legs already operational, the $62 billion Chinese undertaking is aimed at moving water from the south to the parched north, all the way to Beijing and Tianjin. But the environmental costs are mounting: Energy-hogging treatment plants along the transfer routes seek to tackle water degradation and pollution, even as water quality deteriorates in the source river, the Yangtze. Given the project’s energy intensity, swelling costs and environmental impact, a better alternative for China would have been desalination, wastewater treatment and recycling, and reduced irrigated farming in its arid north.

Asian cities have little choice but to tap unconventional sources for their water supply. One such option is recycled — or “reclaimed” — water. Singapore has embraced, on a commercial scale, the use of chemical processes to turn wastewater into clean water. The water-scarce city-state has found this option to be less expensive than desalinating seawater.

The toilet-to-tap concept has long been in use in manned spacecraft. Still, the public is far less keen on recycled water than on desalinated water. To help ease the “yuck factor” among reluctant citizens, Singapore — like London and San Diego — mixes treated wastewater with conventional water in the city’s supply system.

Even if the reclaimed water is channeled strictly for nonportable uses, such as gardening, flushing toilets and doing laundry, it can help alleviate a city’s water crisis. Reclaimed water can also be used to artificially replenish aquifers, rivers and reservoirs and for ecological purposes, such as restoring or enhancing wetlands and riparian habitats. With many Asian cities increasingly desperate for additional water resources, more metropolises will likely be forced to recycle wastewater to augment their supplies.

Another option for Asian cities is rainwater harvesting, a relatively low-cost technique invented in Asia in the 9th or 10th centuries. Some cities are already trying it. For example, new apartment complexes and commercial buildings in the southern Indian metropolises of Bangalore and Chennai are required to have rainwater-harvesting systems. In much of Asia, heavy rains in the monsoon season make it easier to trap and store rainwater for dry-season use.

Most Asian cities also need greater public and private investment to upgrade and maintain water-distribution networks so as to plug leakages and prevent contamination. In Asia, losses of treated water from leaky distribution were conservatively estimated at $9 billion in 2011, according to the Asian Development bank.

Water scarcity is set to become Asia’s defining crisis, creating an obstacle in the continent’s path toward continued economic growth. Competition between cities, industries and farms over limited water resources is already intensifying. Addressing these challenges demands new skills, technologies, management practices and approaches, including building demand-side efficiency and tapping nontraditional water sources.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2016.