Stuck in a haze: New Delhi’s smog is the cost of environmental neglect

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Brahma Chellaney, The Globe and Mail

Just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel reached New Delhi last week on a state visit, noxious smog blanketed the Indian capital, forcing a shutdown of schools for five days and a temporary ban on construction activity and millions of private vehicles. Indeed, Ms. Merkel’s two-day visit coincided with the declaration of a public health emergency in the city, prompting her to pitch for green urban transportation, including electric buses.

New Delhi’s buses are already green: They run on compressed natural gas. The city’s seasonal smog problem, which comes with cooler temperatures and slower winds in the post-monsoon period, is largely linked to a deleterious agricultural practice in nearby states — after harvest, farmers burn crop stubble to clear their fields.

The fumes from the stubble burnings mix with New Delhi’s vehicle emissions, construction dust and smoke from fireworks set off during Diwali, the festival of light. This creates an annual toxic haze that lingers for days or even weeks, partly due to topography. The cool air with its pollutants gets trapped by the hills that surround the Indian capital on three sides.

At the beginning of this month, New Delhi had the dubious distinction, in terms of the air quality index (AQI), of topping the list of the world’s most-polluted capital cities, with levels of deadly particulate matter reaching multiple times the global safety threshold. The opaque haze reduced visibility to such an extent that even some planes could not land at the international airport.

Add to the picture the gloom and doom on which Indian newspapers and opposition politicians thrive, which made the smog situation appear worse. “Capital Punishment,” screamed the front-page banner headline in the Hindustan Times, a leading English-language newspaper. The Indian capital’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, who belongs to a small regional party, claimed the city had turned into a “gas chamber.”

Since Tuesday, New Delhi’s AQI has significantly improved following light showers and strong breeze. (Wind, rain and snow act as pollution scrubbers.) More rain fell on Thursday. With the thick haze dissipating, a blue sky is again visible daytime and the moon at night. But the city’s environmental crisis is far from over.

Commercially available satellite imagery shows many crop-burning fires still raging in parts of northern India, especially Punjab state. This means air pollution levels remain high in the agricultural regions and cities of northwestern India.

Burning of crop stubble has long been an expedient way for Asian farmers to prepare fields for the next crop. While China has employed its authoritarian system in recent years to forcefully crack down on this polluting practice, thereby significantly reducing Beijing’s air contamination, democratic India has failed to stop the crop-stubble burnings.

Farmers, constituting the largest voting constituency in numbers, are politically powerful in India. State governments have recoiled from levying fines on stubble-burning farmers.

India’s Supreme Court this week ordered state governments to incentivize an end to stubble burnings by doling out cash rewards to farmers that do not burn their fields. “It has become a question of life and death for the common people,” the justices said while seeking accountability from federal and state governments over the smog.

The modest dole-outs the highest court has recommended, however, might not suffice to end the stubble-burning practice. Authorities also need to encourage farmers to buy machinery that helps turn stubble into mulch. This means subsidizing their machinery purchases.

Here’s the paradox: An environmentally conscious Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who initiated a “Clean India” campaign soon after coming to office in 2014, confronts a smog problem that has become acute on his watch.

India is one of the few countries trying to ban single-use plastic items. It has implemented a complete ban on import of plastic waste. And to control air pollution in New Delhi, a nearby coal-fired plant was shut down last year and the use of private vehicles restricted to alternating days during the pollution season, with cars with odd-number license plates allowed to drive only on odd dates and cars with even-numbered plates on even-numbered dates.

More fundamentally, New Delhi’s recurrent smog problem underscores the mounting costs India is paying for years of environmental neglect. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, India has the majority of the world’s most polluted cities, a fact that holds important consequences for public health in the country.

The WHO defines health as not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a state of complete physical, social and mental well-being. A sound natural environment is central to such well-being.

The Indian establishment, with its ostrich-like mindset, acts only when a problem turns into a crisis. As a result, the deteriorating air quality in New Delhi and other major northwestern Indian cities has became a national crisis, drawing international attention and affecting the flow of tourists to India.

In fact, unprecedented pressures on natural resources and ecosystems are triggering a broader range of adverse environmental impacts. Rapid development, breakneck urbanization, large-scale irrigated farming, lifestyle changes and other human impacts have resulted in degraded watersheds, watercourses and other ecosystems, as well as in shrinking forests and swamps. The illicit diversion of sand from riverbeds for the construction boom has damaged rivers and slowed the natural recharge of aquifers.

To be sure, India’s environmental challenges mirror those of many other developing countries, from Mexico and Peru to Indonesia and the Philippines. The imperative to develop environmentally friendly policies and practices, however, transcends the developing world. Wealthier countries with disproportionally large environmental footprints — from the United States to Australia — also need to embrace environmental protection in earnest.

Environmental protection, in the long run, is cheaper than environmental cleanup and restoration. If India’s national planners were more forward-looking, the country could avoid repeating the mistakes of other countries, instead of investing resources in tackling air, soil and water pollution and other environmental degradation. The degradation adversely affects climate, ecosystems, biodiversity and public health.

The fact that China’s environmental-contamination problems are worse than India’s, despite Beijing’s improved air quality, can give Indian authorities no comfort. As the world’s factory floor and largest exporter, including of coal-fired power plants, China is exacerbating the global environment crisis. India, with a services-led, import-dependent economy that relies largely on domestic consumption for growth, can scarcely defend its levels of air, soil and water pollution.

India needs a more holistic and integrated approach to development that places environmental protection at the center of strategic planning. Without such an approach, the linkages between a healthy natural environment and human health could trap India in a vicious cycle in which environmental degradation contributes to public health issues, and vice versa.

The New Delhi smog is a reminder that human health is inextricably linked to nature’s wealth, which we must cherish and protect.

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

© The Globe and Mail, 2019.

China is weaponizing water and worsening droughts in Asia

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Its dams are provoking regional tensions, so Beijing needs to reconsider its policy.

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A night view of China’s Three Gorges Dam: Asia can build a harmonious, rules-based water management regime only if China gets on board, which does not seem likely.   © Visual China Group/Getty Images

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Asia, the world’s driest continent in per capita terms, remains the global center of dam construction, boasting more than half of the 50,000 large dams across the globe. The hyperactivity on dams has only sharpened local and international disputes over the resources of shared rivers and aquifers.

The focus on dams reflects a continuing preference for supply-side approaches, which entail increased exploitation of water resources, as opposed to pursuing demand-side solutions, including smart water management and greater water-use efficiency. As a result, nowhere is the geopolitics over dams murkier than in Asia, the world’s most dam-dotted continent.

Improving the hydropolitics demands institutionalized cooperation, transparency on projects, water-sharing arrangements and dispute-resolution mechanisms. Asia can build a harmonious, rules-based water management regime only if China gets on board. At least for now, that does not seem likely.

This past summer, water levels in continental Southeast Asia’s lifeline, the 4,880-kilometer Mekong River, fell to their lowest in more than 100 years, even though the annual monsoon season stretches from late May to late September. Yet, after completing 11 mega-dams, China is building more upstream dams on the Mekong, which originates on the Tibetan Plateau. Indeed, Beijing is also damming other transnational rivers.

China is central to Asia’s water map. Thanks to its annexation of the water-rich Tibetan Plateau and the sprawling Xinjiang province, China is the starting point of rivers that flow to 18 downstream countries. No other country in the world serves as the riverhead for so many other countries.

By erecting dams, barrages and other water diversion structures in its borderlands, China is creating an extensive upstream infrastructure that arms it with the capacity to weaponize water.

To be sure, dam-building is also roiling relations elsewhere in Asia. The festering territorial disputes over Kashmir and Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley are as much about water as they are about land. Across Asia, states are jockeying to control shared water resources by building dams, even as they demand transparency and information on their neighbors’ projects.

A serious drought presently parching parts of the vast region extending from Australia to the Indian peninsula has underscored the mounting risks from the pursuit of dam-centered engineering solutions to growing freshwater shortages.

Asia’s densely populated regions already face a high risk that their water stress could worsen to water scarcity. The dam-driven water competition is threatening to also provoke greater tensions and conflict.

The rich, fertile soil in Asia’s food bowls — the lower basins of the major river systems — owes much to nature’s yearly gift of silt. But the heavy damming of rivers is impeding the movement of nutrient-rich silt, which rivers bring from the mountains. The flooding cycle of rivers helps to refertilize farmland naturally by spreading silt. But this cycle is also being disrupted by dams.

In the West, the building of large dams has largely petered out. The construction of large dams is also slowing in Asia’s major democracies, such as Japan, South Korea and India, because of increasing grassroots opposition.

For example, Japan’s Yamba Dam and the Narmada Dam in India have been in the making for decades, yet are still not complete because of delays caused by protests and controversies.

It is the construction in non-democracies that has made Asia the global nucleus of dam-building. China remains the world’s top dam-builder at home and abroad. In keeping with its obsession to build the tallest, largest, deepest, longest and highest projects, China completed ahead of schedule the world’s biggest dam, Three Gorges, touting it as the greatest architectural feat in history since the building of the Great Wall.

It is currently implementing the most ambitious inter-basin and inter-river water transfer program ever conceived in human history. Among its planned new dams is a massive project at Metog (or “Motuo” in Chinese) on the world’s highest-altitude major river, the Brahmaputra. The proposed dam, close to the disputed, heavily militarized border with India, will have a power-generating capacity nearly twice that of the Three Gorges Dam, the length of whose reservoir is longer than the largest of North America’s Great Lakes.

Several of the Southeast Asian dam projects financed and undertaken by Chinese companies, like in Laos and Myanmar, are intended to generate electricity for export to China’s own market.

Indeed, China has demonstrated that it has no qualms about building dams in disputed territories, such as Pakistan-administered Kashmir, or in areas torn by ethnic separatism, like northern Myanmar.

Every since China erected a cascade of giant dams on the Mekong, droughts have become more frequent and intense in the downriver countries. This has created a serious public-relations headache for Beijing, which denies that its upriver dams are to blame.

Indeed, seeking to play savior, it has promised to release more dam water for the drought-stricken countries. But this offer only highlights the newfound reliance of downriver countries on Chinese goodwill — a dependence that is set to deepen as China builds more giant dams on the Mekong. By diverting river waters to giant dams, China has emerged as the upstream water controller.

With water woes worsening across Asia, the continent faces a stark choice — stay on the present path, which can lead only to more environmental degradation and even water wars, or fundamentally change course by embarking on the path of rules-based cooperation.

The latter path demands not only water-sharing accords and the free flow of hydrological data but also greater efficiency in water consumption, increased use of recycled and desalinated water, and innovative conservation and adaptation efforts.

None of this will be possible without the cooperation of China, which thus far has refused to enter into water-sharing arrangements with any downstream neighbor. If China does not abandon its current approach, the prospects for a rules-based order in Asia could perish forever. Getting China on board has thus become critical to shape water for peace in Asia.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.

Why Pakistan gets away with sponsoring terrorism

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India has to battle terrorism on its own. Adversaries will be hostile and friends won’t help.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

vsdfthhThe Mamallapuram summit between India and China cannot obscure the fact that the power behind Pakistan is China. Nor can the summit hype cloak the strengthening axis between a muscular communist power and a terrorism-exporting Islamist neighbour, with both the revanchist partners staking claims to different Indian territories.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that “the time has come to fight a decisive battle against terrorism and against all those who promote terrorism”. However, there appears little prospect of such a concerted and decisive international fight. States bankrolling or rearing terrorists continue to go scot-free.

Nothing illustrates this reality better than Pakistan, which has systematically weaponised terrorism without incurring tangible international costs. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is unlikely to move Pakistan from its “grey” to “black” list, even though Islamabad has admittedly failed to meet most FATF parameters against terrorist financing.

Action is unlikely for several reasons. A Chinese national has become the FATF president. Decisions are based on consensus. Pakistan’s principal patron, China, will seek — along with Turkey, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia — to block any move to blacklist Pakistan. At the recent annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session, China, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey emerged as an anti-India quad.

The key impediment to Pakistan’s blacklisting, however, is India’s own strategic partner, the United States. The battle against international terrorism cannot be won unless the nexus between terrorist groups and Pakistan’s military is severed. A good place to start would have been to make the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for Pakistan contingent on concrete counter-terrorism action. However, US President Donald Trump’s attempt to finalise a Pakistan-backed Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban allowed that leverage to slip away. Pakistan secured the bailout without any action.

The US is against FATF blacklisting because such action would upend the IMF-supported programme in Pakistan. Pakistani terrorism impinges directly on Indian security but not on US homeland security. US willingness to put up with Pakistan’s sub-regionally confined use of terrorism as an instrument of State policy parallels Washington’s acceptance of Pakistan’s sub-regionally confined nuclear arsenal, including ignoring covert Chinese nuclear and missile transfers, and tolerating Pakistan’s nuclear warmongering.

Trump himself has underscored the limits of Indo-US counter-terrorism cooperation. On two consecutive days at the UNGA, Trump referred to Iranian terrorism when asked specifically about Pakistan’s emergence as the global hub of terrorism. Instead, Trump drew a perverse equivalence between terrorism-transmitting Pakistan and its victim India. According to the White House, Trump privately “encouraged Prime Minister Modi to improve relations with Pakistan”.

Modi rightly warned against the politicisation of international counter-terrorism mechanisms. The US-led war on terror has failed largely because it has become a tool of geopolitics. The US, for example, recently imposed terrorism-related sanctions on Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and allied individuals. But it has never slapped such sanctions on the leading terrorism-exporting force — Pakistan’s military — or on any of its generals or intelligence officers.

The bottom line for India is that no friend, including the US, will assist it to end Pakistan’s terrorism. This is India’s battle to fight and win. Seeking US assistance only reinforces Washington’s claim to be a stakeholder in the India-Pakistan relationship.

Imran Khan’s public declaration of a jihad against India and his threat of nuclear Armageddon only highlight India’s challenge in countering a militant neighbour that not only employs nuclear terror to shield its export of terrorism but also misuses a religion to lend sanctity to its actions. Debt-ridden and dysfunctional Pakistan cannot afford an overt war with India that it cannot win. Yet, without India imposing sufficient costs on it, Pakistan will not stop nurturing terrorists as a force multiplier in its low-intensity asymmetric war, whose ultimate goal supposedly is Ghazwa-e-Hind, or the holy conquest of India.

The Indian Air Force chief, Rakesh Bhadauria, has said that Balakot exemplified a new political resolve to “punish perpetrators of terrorism”, underscoring “a major shift in the government’s way of handling terrorist attacks”. However, Balakot, like the earlier surgical strike, has done little to change Pakistan’s behaviour. The reason is that these strikes targeted only the enemy’s non-uniformed soldiers — the easily-sacrificed terrorist proxies. Deterrence will work if India implements a multipronged strategy to impose calibrated but gradually escalating costs on Pakistan’s military masters.

The Wuhan summit was followed by a stepped-up Chinese military build-up along the Himalayas, including live-fire combat drills, and an enlargement of China’s strategic footprint in Pakistan. As its colonial outpost, Pakistan has become the springboard for China’s regional ambitions. Mamallapuram cannot change this reality.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

Damming the Mekong Basin to Environmental Hell

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Dam construction on the Mekong River poses a serious threat to the region’s economies and ecosystems. The only way to mitigate that threat is to end defiant unilateralism and embrace institutionalized collaboration focused on protecting each country’s rights and enforcing its obligations – to its people, its neighbors, and the planet.

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Plastic waste is choking India

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Monetary incentives to waste pickers and an environmental tax on plastics can help stem the problem.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

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.

The writer is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2019.

Why India must get its act together on water diplomacy

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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.”

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

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Action needed to save the world’s rivers, especially in China

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  • Brahma Chellaney writes that excessive damming and drastic overuse of water resources are causing the world’s major waterways to run dry.

Brahma Chellaney, South China Morning Post

Urgent action is needed to save the world’s rivers, including improving agricultural practices, which account for the bulk of freshwater withdrawals

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.

© South China Morning Post, 2019.