A precious natural resource under pressure

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The Wadi Al Baih dam in Ras Al Khaimah. Jeff Topping / The National

Brahma Chellaney, The National

The global shock brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, with its major economic and social disruptions, has ensured that 2020 will go down in history as a watershed year. Researchers believe that the impact of the pandemic has set in motion higher rates of birth, divorce, obesity, depression, bankruptcy, unemployment and domestic violence, among other things.

But one key implication of the pandemic has received little attention: increasing demand for safe water. Freshwater is not just the basis of cleanliness; it is an indispensable weapon in combating Covid-19 or any other disease.

More fundamentally, water is essential for economic growth and social stability. However, it has already become the world’s most exploited natural resource. Even before the pandemic flared, our water crisis was becoming more acute.

According to the British scientific journal Nature, about 53 per cent of the people across the globe go without safe sanitation services of any kind. The UN reports that about 40 per cent of global households lack access to basic handwashing facilities, while 28 per cent of the world’s population even lacks access to even safe drinking water.

Most striking is how unevenly and unequally water resources are distributed across the world. Some countries, notably Canada and Russia, are endowed with copious water resources. The poorest states in water resources, by contrast, are largely located in Middle East and North Africa. Natural water availability in these countries is just a fraction of 1 per cent of the per capita resources in, say, water-rich Brazil.

Water scarcity, already affecting two-thirds of the global population, is set is grow due to several factors. These include over-exploitation of the resources of rivers, aquifers and lakes; rising demands of economic development; changing diets, especially the increasing intake of meat, whose production is notoriously water-intensive; and global warming.

National paucity of water resources is driving some countries or companies to produce food for their home markets on overseas farmland, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

Meanwhile, the critical importance of water, coupled with its growing shortages, has resulted in grating “hydropolitics” in transnational basins.

Riparian neighbours are increasingly competing to appropriate resources of shared rivers and aquifers by building hydro-engineering structures, which are exacerbating the environmental impact. Not surprisingly, distrust and discord have begun to roil relations between upstream and downstream states.

In fact, just like arms racing, “dam racing” has emerged as a geopolitical concern in several river basins. In Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, water has become the most contested resource.

A report reflecting the joint judgment of US intelligence agencies warned in 2012 that the use of water as a weapon or a tool of terrorism will become more likely in some regions, with some countries using shared water resources to exert leverage over their neighbours and to secure regional influence. Since then, the water situation has become more dire and the hydropolitics murkier.

Another trend is the increasing commodification of water, as reflected in the dramatic rise of the bottled-water industry. The bottled-water industry’s rise over the past two decades has had two global implications.

First, bottled water has become a major source of plastic waste. And second, bottled mineral water is already more precious than crude oil. The current international spot price of crude oil is lower than the retail price of any mineral water in a convenience store or supermarket.

Yet more and more people are relying on bottled water even in cities in the developed world where tap water is safe and highly regulated.

Water remains the world’s most underrated and under-appreciated resource. The pandemic, though, may have helped raise global awareness about the centrality of water in our lives. But the pandemic has also underlined the challenge: how to meet the increasing demand for water?

One pathway is to use new clean-water technologies to tap non-traditional supply sources, such as seawater, brackish water, recycled wastewater, and atmospheric water. Scientific advancements have substantially improved the energy-water ratio of such technologies, thus increasing the commercial feasibility and attraction of utilising new supply sources.

These sources of supply, however, still remain more expensive than conventional water.

It has also become imperative to achieve greater water-use efficiency and productivity, including controlling wasteful practices. Because agriculture uses about 70 per cent of the world’s water supply, the greatest potential for easing the water crisis is through practices that cut the amount of water used in food and livestock production.

The sharpening hydropolitics, meanwhile, represents a formidable challenge. It has turned shared water resources into an engine of power struggles, with some upstream countries such as China and Turkey criticised for seeking to weaponise this most essential of natural resources.

There is no alternative to rules-based co-operation on shared water resources. Transparency on national projects, collaboration between co-riparian states on trans-boundary aquifers, rivers and lakes, sharing arrangements, and dispute-settlement mechanisms are the building blocks of water peace.

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

Will China Turn Off Asia’s Tap?

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China’s megaproject on the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) is to come up next to Metog (Motuo), just before the mighty river crosses into India.

Brahma ChellaneyProject Syndicate

Even after Asia’s economies climb out of the COVID-19 recession, China’s strategy of frenetically building dams and reservoirs on transnational rivers will confront them with a more permanent barrier to long-term economic prosperity: water scarcity. China’s recently unveiled plan to construct a mega-dam on the Yarlung Zangbo river, better known as the Brahmaputra, may be the biggest threat yet.

China dominates Asia’s water map, owing to its annexation of ethnic-minority homelands, such as the water-rich Tibetan Plateau and Xinjiang. China’s territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, where it has targeted even tiny Bhutan, has been accompanied by stealthier efforts to appropriate water resources in transnational river basins – a strategy that hasn’t spared even friendly or pliant neighbors, such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Kazakhstan, and North Korea. Indeed, China has not hesitated to use its hydro-hegemony against its 18 downstream neighbors.

The consequences have been serious. For example, China’s 11 mega-dams on the Mekong river, Southeast Asia’s arterial waterway, have led to recurrent drought downriver, and turned the Mekong Basin into a security and environmental hot spot. Meanwhile, in largely arid Central Asia, China has diverted waters from the Illy and Irtysh rivers, which originate in China-annexed Xinjiang. Its diversion of water from the Illy threatens to turn Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash into another Aral Sea, which has all but dried up in less than four decades.

Against this background, China’s plan to dam the Brahmaputra near its disputed – and heavily militarized – border with India should be no surprise. The Chinese communist publication Huanqiu Shibao, citing an article that appeared in Australia, recently urged India’s government to assess how China could “weaponize” its control over transboundary waters and potentially “choke” the Indian economy. With the Brahmaputra megaproject, China has provided an answer.

The planned 60-gigawatts project, which will be integrated into China’s next Five-Year Plan starting in January, will reportedly dwarf China’s Three Gorges Dam – currently the world’s largest – on the Yangtze River, generating almost three times as much electricity. China will achieve this by harnessing the power of a 2,800-meter (3,062-yard) drop just before the river crosses into India.

What the chairman of China’s state-run Power Construction Corp, Yan Zhiyong, calls an “historic opportunity” for his country will be devastating for India. Just before crossing into India, the Brahmaputra curves sharply around the Himalayas, forming the world’s longest and steepest canyon – twice as deep as America’s Grand Canyon – and holding Asia’s largest untapped water resources.

Experience suggests that the proposed megaproject threatens those resources – and China’s downstream neighbors. China’s past upstream activities have triggered flash floods in the Indian states of Arunachal and Himachal. More recently, such activity turned the water in the once-pristine Siang – the Brahmaputra’s main artery – dirty and gray as it entered India.

About a dozen small or medium-size Chinese dams are already operational in the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches. But the megaproject in the Brahmaputra Canyon region will enable the country to manipulate transboundary flows far more effectively. Such manipulation could leverage China’s claim to the adjacent Indian state of Arunachal, which is almost three times the size of Taiwan. Given that China and India are already locked in a tense, months-long military standoff, which began with Chinese territorial encroachments, the risks are acute.

And yet the country that will suffer the most as a result of China’s Brahmaputra dam project is not India at all; it is densely populated and China-friendly Bangladesh, for which the Brahmaputra is the single largest freshwater source. Intensifying pressure on its water supply will likely trigger an exodus of refugees to India, already home to millions of illegally settled Bangladeshis.

The Brahmaputra megaproject also amounts to a slap in the face of Tibet, which is among the world’s most biodiverse regions and has a deeply rooted culture of reverence for nature. In fact, the canyon region is sacred territory for Tibetans: its major mountains, cliffs, and caves represent the body of their guardian deity, the goddess Dorje Pagmo, and the Brahmaputra represents her spine.

If none of this deters China, the damage it is doing to its own people and prospects should. China’s over-damming of internal rivers has severely harmed ecosystems, including by causing river fragmentation and disrupting the annual flooding cycle, which helps to refertilize farmland naturally by spreading silt. In August, some 400 million Chinese were put at risk after record flooding endangered the Three Gorges Dam. If the Brahmaputra mega-dam collapses – hardly implausible, given that it will be built in a seismically active area – millions downstream could die.

The Great Himalayan Watershed is home to thousands of glaciers and the source of Asia’s greatest river systems, which are the lifeblood of nearly half the global population. If glacial attrition is allowed to continue – let alone to be accelerated by China’s environmentally catastrophic activities – China will not be spared.

For its own sake – and the sake of Asia as a whole – China must accept institutionalized cooperation on transnational riparian flows, including measures to protect ecologically fragile zones and agreement not to dam relatively free-flowing rivers (which play a critical role in moderating the effects of climate change). This would require China to rein in its dam frenzy, be transparent about its projects, accept multilateral dispute-settlement mechanisms, and negotiate water-sharing treaties with neighbors.

Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe this will happen. On the contrary, as long as the Communist Party of China remains in power, the country will most likely continue to wage stealthy water wars that no one can win.

Brahma Chellaney

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.

© Project Syndicate, 2020.

China Leverages Tibetan Plateau’s Water Wealth

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Brahma Chellaney, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs

While the international attention remains on China’s recidivist activities in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where it continues to incrementally expand its strategic footprint, Beijing is also quietly focusing its attention on the waters of rivers that originate in the resource-rich, Chinese-controlled territory of Tibet.

China has long pursued a broader strategy to corner natural resources. This has driven its expanding presence in faraway places, including Africa and Latin America. China’s newer obsession is freshwater, a life-creating and life-supporting resource whose growing shortages are casting a cloud over Asia’s economic future.

Peace and security in Asia both hinge on China’s willingness to embrace rules-based cooperation, which includes ceasing activities that threaten to turn internationally shared river-water resources into a Chinese political weapon. These activities range from building cascades of large dams on international rivers before they leave Chinese-controlled territory to the denial of or delayed transfer of hydrological data to downstream neighboring countries.

Most of Asia’s great rivers originate on the Tibetan Plateau. From there, they flow to a dozen countries, including mainland China. With its lofty terrain, featuring the world’s tallest mountain peaks and largest concentration of glaciers and riverheads, the Tibetan Plateau influences atmospheric circulation — and therefore climate and weather patterns — across the Northern Hemisphere.

Today, China has turned this ecologically -fragile plateau, which it invaded and occupied from 1950 to 1951, into the center of its mining and dam-building activities. With the plateau warming more than three times faster than the global average according to Chinese data, glacial recession, especially in the eastern Himalayas, and the thawing of Tibet’s permafrost (or permanently frozen ground) have accelerated.

More consequential for downstream countries is the fact that China, by building giant dams and other diversion structures on international rivers that start in Tibet, is becoming Asia’s upstream water controller. This action is arming Beijing with increasing leverage over the countries critically dependent on river flows from the Tibetan Plateau.

Take the Mekong River, continental Southeast Asia’s lifeline. A new study in the United States confirms what many in the region know — that China is damming the Mekong to environmental hell. According to the study, China’s cascade of upstream mega-dams, by limiting downstream flows, is causing recurrent droughts in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam by limiting downstream flows. Using a natural-flow data model, the study found that the 11 eleven Chinese mega-dams currently in operation on the Mekong are causing severe drought and devastation downstream. Yet an undeterred China is building more giant dams on the Mekong just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia. This study by the Eyes on Earth research and consulting company was conducted with funding from the State Department’s Lower Mekong Initiative.

It is not just the Mekong: China is constructing dams on multiple international rivers just before they leave its territory. China’s efforts to reengineer cross-border natural flows are roiling its relations with downstream neighbors. Its occupation of the sprawling Tibetan Plateau enlarged its landmass by more than one-third and fundamentally altered Asia’s geostrategic realities. It made China the neighbor of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Furthermore, China gained a throttlehold on the headwaters of Asia’s major river systems.

Tibet — the world’s highest and largest plateau — is also a treasure-trove of mineral resources, holding China’s biggest reserves of 10 ten different metals and serving as the world’s largest lithium producer. Today, Tibet is the focal point of China’s mining and damming activities, which threaten the plateau’s fragile ecosystems and endemic species. Tibet also remains at the center of the China-India divide, fueling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions, and feuds over river-water flows. Among the rivers China’s dam builders are targeting is the Brahmaputra, the lifeblood for Bangladesh and northeastern India. A series of dams are coming up on the Brahmaputra, known as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet.

Beijing’s unilateralist actions extend beyond dam building. In 2017, China refused to supply hydrological data to India in violation of the terms of two bilateral agreements, underscoring its readiness to weaponize the sharing of water data on upstream river flows. The data denial was said to be intended to punish India for boycotting China’s inaugural Belt and Road summit and for a military standoff between the two countries that year on the small, but strategically important, Himalayan plateau of Doklam. The withholding of data crimped India’s flood early-warning systems. That, in turn, resulted in preventable deaths as the monsoon-swollen Brahmaputra overran its banks, leaving a major trail of destruction, especially in India’s Assam state.

The Siang, the main artery of the Brahmaputra river system, represents another example of China’s unilateralist actions on internationally shared waters. In 2017, the Siang’s water turned dirty and gray as the stream entered India from Tibet. This raised concern that China’s upstream activities could be threatening the Siang in the same way Beijing has polluted its own domestic rivers, including the Yellow, the cradle of the Chinese civilization. Nearly three years later, the water in the once-pristine Siang has still not fully cleared.

According to Aquastat, a database of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 718 billion cubic meters of surface water a year flows out of the Tibetan Plateau and the Chinese-administered regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to neighboring countries. Of that amount, 48.33 percent% runs directly into India. In addition, Nepal’s Tibet-originating rivers drain into India’s Gangetic basin. This might suggest that no country is more vulnerable than India to China’s current focus on building cascades of large dams on international rivers. In reality, as China’s frenzied damming of the Mekong illustrates, its small, economically vulnerable neighbors are the most susceptible to its upstream hydroengineering activities. The greatest impact of the Brahmaputra’s damming, for example, will be borne not by India but by Bangladesh, which is located furthest downstream.

For years, China has been the global leader in dam building. It already boasts slightly more than half of the globe’s approximately 58,000 large dams. Yet its “dam rush” persists. The more dams it builds on international rivers, the greater becomes its capacity to use transboundary waters as a tool of coercive diplomacy against its neighbors. Every new dam, by augmenting China’s capacity to regulate transboundary flows, increases the potential use of shared waters as a political weapon by augmenting China’s capacity to regulate transboundary flows. This concern is underscored by China’s refusal to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighboring country. Even India and Pakistan have a water-sharing treaty.

China’s present path will likely lead to greater environmental degradation on the Tibetan Plateau, exacerbating Asia’s water challenges. Asia is the world’s largest and most-populous continent, with three-fifths of the global population, yet it has the lowest per capita freshwater availability — less than half the global average of 5,829 cubic meters.

At a time of increasing water stress in Asia, the growth of water nationalism as a driver of China’s policy highlights the linkage between water and peace. Cooperative institutional mechanisms and sustainable resource utilization constitute the building blocks of water peace.

If China does not abandon its current approach in favor of institutionalized cooperation with co-basin states, the prospects for a rules-based order in Asia could perish forever, while the likelihood of downstream countries facing a drier future would increase. Asia will be able to shape water for peace only if China comes on board by embracing transparency and collaboration, centered on water sharing, uninterrupted hydrological-data flow, and dispute-settlement mechanisms.

. . .

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, an independent think tank, and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press), the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 2020.

Preventing the Death of the World’s Rivers

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The world’s rivers are under unprecedented pressure from contamination, damming, and diversion, which are straining water resources, destroying ecosystems, jeopardizing livelihoods, and damaging human health. International cooperation can save riparian systems, but first we must recognize the consequences of doing nothing.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

From the Tigris to the Indus and the Yangtze to the Nile, rivers were essential to the emergence of human civilization. Millennia later, hundreds of millions of people still depend on rivers to quench their thirst, grow food, and make a living. And yet we are rapidly destroying the planet’s river systems, with serious implications for our economies, societies, and even our survival.

China is a case in point. Its dam-building frenzy and over-exploitation of rivers is wreaking environmental havoc on Asia, destroying forests, depleting biodiversity, and straining water resources. China’s first water census, released in 2013, showed that the number of rivers – not including small streams – had plummeted by more than half over the previous six decades, with over 27,000 rivers lost.

The situation has only deteriorated since then. The Mekong River is running at a historically low level, owing largely to a series of Chinese-built mega-dams near the border of the Tibetan Plateau, just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia. In fact, the Tibetan Plateau is the starting point of most of Asia’s major rivers, and China has taken advantage of that, not least to gain leverage over downstream countries.

China may be the world’s largest dam builder, but it is not alone; other countries, from Asia to Latin America, have also been tapping long rivers for electricity generation. The diversion of water for irrigation is also a major source of strain on rivers. In fact, crop and livestock production absorbs almost three-quarters of the world’s freshwater resources, while creating runoff that, together with industrial waste and sewage discharge, pollutes those very resources.

In total, almost two-thirds of the world’s long rivers have been modified, and some of the world’s longest – including the Nile and the Rio Grande – now qualify as endangered. Of the 21 rivers longer than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) that still flow freely from their mountain sources to the sea, most are in remote regions of the Arctic and in the Amazon and Congo basins, where hydropower development is not yet economically viable.

These trends strain water resources, destroy ecosystems, and threaten human health. For example, heavy upstream diversions have turned the deltas of the Colorado River and the Indus River into saline marshes. Moreover, lower river-water levels impede the annual flooding cycle, which in tropical regions helps to re-fertilize farmland naturally with nutrient-rich sediment. In periods of below-average rainfall, a number of rivers increasingly run dry before reaching the ocean, and even when they do make it, they are depositing less of the nutrients and minerals that are vital to marine life.

Globally, aquatic ecosystems have lost half of their biodiversity since the mid-1970s, and about half of all wetlands have been destroyed over the last century. A recent United Nations study warned that up to a million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.

Humans are hardly exempt from the health consequences of river destruction. In Central Asia, the Aral Sea has all but dried up in less than 40 years, owing to the Soviet Union’s introduction of cotton cultivation, for which water was siphoned from the sea’s principal sources, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Today, particles blown from its exposed seabed – thick with salts and agricultural chemical residue – not only kill crops; they are sickening local people with everything from kidney disease to cancer.

Free-flowing rivers play a critical role in moderating the effects of climate change, by transporting decaying organic material and eroded rock to the ocean. This process draws about 200 million tons of carbon out of the air each year.

In short, the case for protecting our rivers could not be stronger. Yet, while world leaders are often willing to pay lip service to the imperative of strengthening river protections, their rhetoric is rarely translated into action. On the contrary, in some countries, regulations are being rolled back.

In the United States, almost half of rivers and streams are considered to be in poor biological condition. Yet last October, President Donald Trump’s administration repealed “Waters of the US,” which had been introduced by his predecessor, Barack Obama, in order to limit pollution of streams, wetlands, and other bodies of water. Last month, the Trump administration replaced the rule with a far weaker version, called the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule.”

Likewise, in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has relaxed environmental rules in the name of economic growth. Among the casualties is the Amazon River, the world’s largest river in terms of discharge, which carries more water than the next ten largest rivers combined. Already, the Amazon basin in Brazil has lost forest cover over an area larger than the entire Democratic Republic of Congo – the world’s 11th-largest country.

The absence of water-sharing or cooperative-management arrangements in the vast majority of transnational river basins facilitates such destruction. Many countries pursue projects without regard for their cross-border or environmental effects.

One way to protect relatively undamaged river systems – such as the Amur, the Congo, and the Salween – would be to broaden implementation of the 1972 World Heritage Convention, and add these rivers to the World Heritage List, alongside UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This would be in line with recent efforts in some countries – Australia, Bangladesh, Colombia, India, and New Zealand – to grant legal rights to rivers and watersheds. For such initiatives to work, however, effective enforcement is essential.

As for the rivers that are already damaged, action must be taken to restore them. This includes artificially recharging rivers and aquifers with reclaimed wastewater; cleaning up pollution; reconnecting rivers with their floodplains; removing excessive or unproductive dams; and implementing protections for freshwater-ecosystem species.

The world’s rivers are under unprecedented pressure from contamination, damming, and diversion. International cooperation can save them, but first we must recognize the consequences of doing nothing.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma 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.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

China’s dam-building programme must take neighbours into account

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  • Since China began damming the Mekong, droughts have become more frequent and intense in downriver countries
  • By diverting river water to its mega-dams, China has emerged as Asia’s upstream water controller, giving it great leverage

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

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

https___s3-ap-northeast-1.amazonaws.com_psh-ex-ftnikkei-3937bb4_images_5_9_3_9_23199395-2-eng-GB_Cropped-1572010582G20191025 Three Gorges Dam night view

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

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

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.

DACHAOSHAN DAM

Plastic waste is choking India

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.