The Vital Isolation of Indigenous Groups

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After the American missionary John Allen Chau ignored successive warnings, the isolated Sentinelese people killed him. But the threat the world’s isolated tribes face is far from neutralized, as some have taken Chau’s death as an opportunity to argue that policies protecting them should be reversed.

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The remote, coral-fringed North Sentinel Island made headlines late last year, after an American Christian missionary’s covert expedition to convert its residents – the world’s last known pre-Neolithic tribal group – ended in his death. The episode has cast a spotlight on the threats faced by the world’s remote indigenous groups, which are already on the brink of disappearance.

The Sentinelese people targeted by the slain evangelist John Allen Chau are probably the most isolated of the world’s remaining remote tribes, and they are keen to stay that way. They shoot arrows to warn off anyone who approaches their island, and attack those, like Chau, who ignore their warnings.

It was not always this way. When Europeans first made contact with the Sentinelese, the British naval commander Maurice Vidal Portman described them in 1899 as “painfully timid.” But the profound shift is not hard to explain. Tribes like the Sentinelese have learned to associate outsiders with the ghastly violence and deadly diseases brought by European colonization.

British colonial excesses whittled down the aboriginal population of the Andaman Islands, which includes North Sentinel Island, from more than two dozen tribes 150 years ago to just four today. The tribes that escaped genocide at the hands of the colonizers did so largely by fleeing to the deepest and most inaccessible parts of jungles.

That was the story in North Sentinel, which Portman and his forces raided, abducting the few children and elderly who failed to flee into the dense rainforest in time. As a 2009 book by Satadru Sen notes, Portman used members of Andaman tribes as subjects in his supposed anthropometry research, forcibly measuring and photographing their bodies. The research, according to Sen, reflected a perverted “fascination” with “male genitalia.”

After the decimation of indigenous peoples under colonial rule, the countries where isolated tribes remain – including Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, India, and Peru – have pursued a “no contact” policy toward these groups. This policy is anchored in laws that protect indigenous people’s rights to ancestral lands and to live in seclusion, and reinforced by an international convention obligating governments to protect these communities’ lands, identities, penal customs, and ways of life.

It is illegal – and punishable by a prison sentence – for outsiders to enter India’s tribal reserves. Yet Chau dodged Indian laws and coastal security, according to his own diary accounts, to make repeated forays into North Sentinel over three days – an arduous effort that was facilitated by a Kansas City-based missionary agency, which trained him for his journey. The Sentinelese killed him only after he ignored repeated warnings to stop trespassing.

But the threat to the Sentinelese people – and, indeed, all isolated tribes – is far from neutralized, as some have taken Chau’s death as an opportunity to argue that we should reverse the policies protecting isolated tribes. And while some have good intentions – to provide access to modern technology, education, and health care – others do not. For example, Brazil’s new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has threatened to repeal constitutional safeguards for aboriginal lands in order to expand developers’ access to the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest.

Whatever the motivation, connecting with remote tribes would amount to a death sentence for them. The first waves of European colonization caused a calamitous depopulation of indigenous societies through violence and the introduction of infectious diseases like smallpox and measles, to which the natives had no immunity.

In Brazil, three-quarters of the indigenous societies that opened up to the outside world have become extinct, with the rest suffering catastrophic population declines. Over the last five centuries, Brazil’s total indigenous population has plummeted from up to five million to fewer than 900,000 people, with the introduction of constitutional protections for indigenous territories in the late 1980s aimed at arresting the decline.

In the Andaman chain, of the four tribes that survive, the two that were forcibly assimilated by the British have become dependent on government aid and are close to vanishing. Indigenous communities’ combined share of the world population now stands at just 4.5%.

To be sure, leaving secluded tribes alone is no guarantee that they will survive. These highly inbred groups are already seeing their numbers dwindle, and face the specter of dying out completely. But they will probably die a lot faster if we suddenly contact them, bringing with us modern pathogens against which they have no antibodies.

These tribes might be isolated, but their demise will have serious consequences. With their reverence for – and understanding of – nature, such groups serve as the world’s environmental sentinels, safeguarding 80% of global diversity and playing a critical role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. When the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck, more than a quarter-million people died across 14 countries, but the two isolated Andaman tribes, which rely on traditional warning systems, suffered no known casualties.

But, as Bolsonaro’s promises underscore, indigenous societies have been pitted directly against loggers, miners, crop planters, ranchers, oil drillers, hunters, and other interlopers. In the last 12 years alone, according to satellite data, Brazil’s Amazon Basin has lost forest cover equivalent in size to the entire Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s eleventh-largest country.

Indigenous people are an essential element of cultural diversity and ecological harmony, not to mention a biological treasure for scientists seeking to reconstruct evolutionary and migratory histories. The least the world can do is to let them live in peace in the ancestral lands that they have honored and preserved for centuries.

A mortal threat to Asia’s rise

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Governments must tackle environmental degradation as it threatens region’s future

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A man wears a mask as Tiananmen Square is shrouded in smog in Beijing in November. © Kyodo

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Many Asian cities will ring in the New Year with high levels of air pollution, which contributes to potentially life-shortening health problems, from heart disease to severe asthma. Seasonal cold weather impedes dispersal of pollutants in the air, and so tends to increase levels of carbon monoxide and particulates, including tiny particles that can find their way into human lungs.

Asia, given the contamination levels and large populations, is the epicenter of the global air pollution problem. City dwellers are breathing polluted air contaminated with particulates multiple times greater in concentration than the World Health Organization’s safe limit.

The air pollution problem is intimately linked to Asia’s larger crisis arising from its deteriorating natural environment. This degradation poses a potent threat to Asia’s future.

For example, one factor that has contributed to New Delhi’s dangerous air pollution levels is the disappearance of 31 hills in northwest India’s Aravalli range due to mining. India’s Supreme Court in October halted all further mining in the 690-kilometer-long range, which has lost its forest cover, resulting in summertime dust storms in the Indian capital and other cities in the region.

Similarly, the ever-increasing sand squalls that blanket Beijing are linked to misguided government policies that have inadvertently promoted desertification in China’s northwest, north and northeast (officially called the “three norths”). The Gobi Desert’s advance toward Beijing has been aided since the Mao Zedong era by subsidized natural resources to agriculture and industry, thus promoting inefficiency and waste.

In particular, state-fostered irrigated farming in the “three norths” has led to degradation or depletion of water, land and forest resources, decimating many aquatic, wildlife and plant species. The 5,830-kilometer Yellow River — the cradle of the Han civilization — was once known as China’s sorrow because of its recurrent flooding. But now it has become a source of sorrow for the opposite reason: With farms and industries siphoning off its waters, it is running dry.

Rapid expansion of intensive irrigation has helped turn China’s semiarid north into the country’s food bowl, although the south boasts fertile land and bounteous water. To sustain this environmentally damaging paradox, the elites, located in the north, have engineered huge water transfers from the south through the Great South-North Water Diversion Project, the world’s largest inter-river and inter-basin transfer program.

More broadly, economic and demographic expansion in Asia is increasingly damaging the environment, while promoting a scramble for limited supplies of commodities.

In per capita terms, Asia is the world’s most resource-poor continent. For example, Asia’s water availability is less than half of the global average of 5,829 cubic meters per person yearly. Thanks to increasing demand for tropical and other timbers, including teak, Asian countries have among the world’s highest deforestation rates. Asia is already the world’s largest importer of fossil fuels, including coal.

Asia’s overexploitation of its natural resources has created an environmental crisis that is contributing to regional climate change. For example, the Tibetan Plateau, which contains the world’s third largest store of ice after the two poles, is warming at almost three times the average global rate, largely because of Chinese policies that have led to intensive mining, giant dam projects, deforestation, elimination of grasslands, and introduction of Western-style agriculture.

Asia’s sharpening competition over commodities is also shaping resource geopolitics, including the construction of oil and gas pipelines. China is sourcing new hydrocarbon supplies from Central Asia and Russia via pipeline. But this option is not available to Asia’s other leading economies — Japan, India and South Korea — as they are not contiguous with suppliers in Central Asia, Iran or Russia.

Natural resources have long played a significant role in global strategic relations, including driving armed interventions and wars. At present, rising dependence on energy imports is being used by Asian powers to build greater naval capabilities, spurring new concerns about sea-lane safety and vulnerability to supply disruptions. One example is the growing tension in the South China Sea, a critical corridor linking the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Meanwhile, Asian challenges emerging from the close nexus between energy, water and food are underlining risks of unprecedented resource-related shocks. Asia is the biggest driver of increased global energy demand, while its food challenges are being compounded by rising incomes that are altering people’s diets, with a greater intake of animal-based proteins. For example, Chinese diets have changed so dramatically since the 1979 advent of economic modernization that China last year reportedly consumed twice as much pork, beef and poultry as the U.S.

Yesterday’s luxuries are becoming today’s necessities, putting greater demand on natural resources — from energy, food and water to metals and minerals — and thereby contributing to environmental degradation. Rising incomes are fueling consumption growth, which in turn is aggravating the environmental impacts.

Declining fertility rates, as in East Asia, are correlated with growing prosperity and greater consumption levels. Rising prosperity fuels resource demand. Changing diets are also an important driver of environmental degradation and resource stress. Humans have changed not only their diet but also the diet of the animals they raise for food: Livestock are often fed grain, not grass, their natural intake.

Because livestock require much more food, land, water and energy than plants, the spiraling Asian demand for meat harms ecosystems and fuels climate change. Meaty diets, in turn, are contributing to an obesity problem. Heavier citizens, with their greater demand on resources, carry a larger ecological footprint.

Simply put, the growing strains on environmental sustainability are tied to factors that extend far beyond population growth.

In fact, as more Asians prosper and seek the everyday comforts of modern life, environmental impacts are likely to be exacerbated in the coming years unless governments adopt a more comprehensive approach to the management of natural resources and to environmental protection. For example, the integration of energy, water and food in national policies is essential to advance synergies.

Asia cannot afford to let environmental issues fall by the wayside. While competition for resources will continue to shape Asia’s security dynamics, the fact is that Asian states cannot sustain their impressive economic growth without addressing their resource, environmental and security challenges in a cooperative framework, including by establishing norms and institutions and pursuing forward-looking policies. Energy, food and water resources must be managed jointly in policy terms.

The New Year should serve as a reminder for governments to adopt more sustainable practices and build healthier and more secure societies through participatory environmental management.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

Weaponizing water

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Brahma Chellaney, DNA newspaper

NIDS - CopyJust as China has changed the status quo in the South China Sea through an island-building strategy, it is working to re-engineer cross-border flows of international rivers that originate in Tibet, which Beijing annexed in 1951.

No country will be more affected by China’s dam frenzy than India because of one telling statistic: Out of the 718 billion cubic metres of surface water that flows out of Chinese-held territory yearly, 347 billion cubic meters (or 48.3% of the total) runs directly into India. Several major Indian rivers originate in Tibet, including the Brahmaputra, the Kosi, the Sutlej and the Indus.

China already boasts more large dams than the rest of the world put together. More importantly, it has emerged as the key obstacle to building institutionalized collaboration on shared water resources in Asia.

In contrast to the bilateral water treaties between many of its neighbours, China rejects the concept of a water-sharing arrangement or joint, rules-based management of common resources.

India has water-sharing treaties with both the countries located downstream to it: Pakistan and Bangladesh. These treaties govern the Indus and the Ganges.

By contrast, China, despite its unrivalled international status as the source of river flows to more than a dozen countries, stands out for not having a single water-sharing arrangement with any neighbour.

India’s treaties with Pakistan and Bangladesh have actually set new principles in international water law. The 1996 Ganges treaty — which coincided with the 25th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Indian-assisted independence — set a new standard by guaranteeing delivery of specific water quantities in the critical dry season.

The Indus treaty stands out as the world’s most generous water pact, in terms of both the sharing ratio (80.52% of the aggregate water flows in the six-river Indus system are reserved for Pakistan) and the total volume of basin waters for the downstream state (Pakistan gets 90 times greater volume of water than Mexico’s share under a 1944 pact with the US).

China, in rejecting the 1997 UN convention that lays down rules on shared water resources, contended that an upstream power has the right to assert absolute territorial sovereignty over the waters on its side of the international boundary — or the right to divert as much water as it wishes for its needs, irrespective of the effects on a downriver state.

Today, by building mega-dams and reservoirs in its borderlands, China is working to divert the flows of major rivers that are the lifeline of lower riparian states.

Since the last decade, China’s major dam building has moved from dam-saturated internal rivers to international rivers located in ethnic-minority homelands like Tibet. On the Brahmaputra, China is racing to complete several additional dams located in close proximity to each other. This cascade of dams is likely to affect the quality and quantity of downstream flows into India and Bangladesh.

Only five rivers in the world carry more water than the Brahmaputra and only one — mainland China’s Yellow River — carries more silt. The Brahmaputra is the world’s highest-altitude river. It represents a unique fluvial ecosystem largely due to the heavy load of high-quality nutrient-rich silt it carries from forbidding Himalayan heights.

The Brahmaputra’s annual flooding cycle helps to re-fertilize overworked soils in India’s Assam plains and large parts of Bangladesh, where the river is the biggest source of water supply. The silt-movement impediment by China’s upstream dam projects constitutes a bigger threat to the biophysical vitality of the river and to the soil fertility of downstream plains than even the likely diminution of cross-border flows.

China’s centralized, mega-projects-driven approach to water resources is the antithesis of the policy in India, where water is a state (not federal) subject under the Constitution and where anti-dam non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are powerful. India’s Narmada Dam project, which remains incomplete decades after its construction began, symbolizes the power of NGOs.

The largest dam India has built since independence — the 2,000-megawatt Tehri Dam on River Bhagirathi — pales in comparison to China’s giant projects, such as the 22,500-megawatt Three Gorges Dam and the new mega-dams on the Mekong like Xiaowan, which dwarfs Paris’s Eiffel Tower in height, and Nuozhadu, which boasts of a 190-square-km reservoir.

China’s population is just marginally larger than India’s, but its internally renewable water resources (2,813 billion cubic meters per year) are almost twice as large as India’s. In aggregate water availability, including external inflows (which are sizeable in India’s case), China boasts virtually 50% larger water resources than India.

India’s surface-water storage capacity — an important measure of any nation’s ability to deal with drought or seasonal imbalances in water availability — is one of the world’s lowest: Amounting to 200 cubic metres per head per year, it is more than 11 times lower than China’s. The 2030 Water Resources Group, an international unit, has warned that India is likely to face a 50% deficit between water demand and supply by 2030.

In the coming years, China, by ramping up construction of dams on trans-Himalayan rivers, could fashion water into a political weapon against India.

(He is author of award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground”.)

© DNA newspaper, 2018.

When one nation’s dam-building rage threatens an entire continent’s future

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Brahma Chellaney, DailyO

China is the world’s biggest dam builder, with the country boasting more dams than the rest of the world combined. China is also the world’s largest exporter of dams.

In Nepal, where China-backed communists are in power, Beijing has just succeeded in reviving a lucrative dam project, which was scrapped by the previous Nepalese government as China had won the contract without competitive bidding. The reversal of the previous government’s cancellation of the $2.5 billion Budhi-Gandaki Dam project has come after Nepal’s communist rulers implemented a transit transport agreement with China to cut dependence on India.

China is building dams in two other countries neighbouring India, Myanmar and Pakistan, including in areas torn by ethnic separatism (as in northern Myanmar) and in a United Nations-designated disputed territory like the Pakistan-occupied portion of Jammu and Kashmir. Yet it loudly protests when the Dalai Lama merely visits Arunachal Pradesh, claiming it to be a “disputed territory”, although only Beijing disputes India’s control over Arunachal. The UN does not recognize Arunachal as disputed.

China has also held out threats against India jointly exploring with Vietnam for offshore hydrocarbons in Vietnam’s own exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Yet it has no compunctions about unveiling projects — under the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Domestically, most of China’s mega-water projects are now concentrated on the Tibetan Plateau, a sprawling region it forcibly absorbed in the early 1950s.

By building an array of new dams on rivers flowing to other countries, Beijing seems set to roil inter-riparian relations in Asia and make it more difficult to establish rules-based water cooperation and sharing.

China has emerged as the key impediment to building institutionalized collaboration in Asia on shared water resources. In contrast to the bilateral water treaties between many of its neighbours, China rejects the concept of a water-sharing arrangement or joint, rules-based management of common resources.

The long-term implications of China’s dam programme for India are particularly stark because several major rivers flow south from the Tibetan plateau. India has water-sharing treaties with both the countries located downstream from it: the Indus pact with Pakistan guarantees the world’s largest cross-border flows under any treaty regime, while the Ganges accord has set a new principle in international water law by granting Bangladesh an equal share of downriver flows in the dry season.

China, by contrast, does not have a single water-sharing treaty with any neighbour.

Yet most of Asia’s international rivers originate in territories that China annexed after its 1949 communist “revolution”. The Tibetan Plateau is the world’s largest freshwater repository and the source of Asia’s greatest rivers, including those that are the lifeblood of mainland China, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Other Chinese-held homelands of ethnic minorities contain the headwaters of rivers such as the Irtysh, Illy and Amur, which flow to Russia and Central Asia.

China’s dam programme on international rivers is following a well-established pattern: Build modest-size dams on a river’s uppermost difficult reaches, and then construct larger dams in the upper-middle sections as the river picks up greater water volume and momentum, before embarking on mega-dams in the border area facing the neighbouring country. The cascade of mega-dams on the Mekong River, for example, is located in the area just before the river enters continental Southeast Asia.

Many of China’s new dam projects at home are concentrated in the seismically active southwest, covering parts of the Tibetan Plateau. The restart of dam building on the Salween River after a decade-long moratorium is in keeping with a precedent set on other river systems: Beijing temporarily suspends a controversial plan after major protests flare so as to buy time — before resurrecting the same plan.

The Salween — Asia’s last largely free-flowing river — runs through deep, spectacular gorges, glaciated peaks and karst on its way into Myanmar and along the Thai border before emptying into the Andaman Sea. Its upstream basin is inhabited by 16 ethnic groups, including some, like the Derung tribe, with tiny populations numbering in the thousands. As one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions, the upper basin boasts more than 5,000 plant species and nearly half of China’s animal species.

China’s action in lifting the moratorium and starting work on dams on the Tibet-originating Salween threatens the region’s biodiversity and could uproot endangered aboriginal tribes. There is also the risk that the weight of huge, new dam reservoirs could accentuate seismic instability in a region prone to recurrent earthquakes.

No country is more vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of trans-boundary flows than India. The reason is that India alone receives nearly half of the river waters that leave Chinese-held territory. According to United Nations figures, a total of 718 billion cubic meters of surface water flows out of Chinese territory yearly, of which 347 billion cubic meters (or 48.3 per cent of the total) runs directly into India.

China already has a dozen dams in the Brahmaputra River basin and one each on the Indus and the Sutlej rivers. On the Brahmaputra, it is currently constructing several more. Its dam building is likely to gradually move to Tibet’s water-rich border with Arunachal as the Brahmaputra makes a U-turn to enter India.

If Asia is to prevent water wars, it must build institutionalized cooperation in trans-boundary basins in a way that co-opts all riparian neighbours. If a dominant riparian country refuses to join, such institutional arrangements — as in the Mekong basin — will be ineffective. The arrangements must be centred on transparency, unhindered information flow, equitable sharing, dispute settlement, pollution control, and a commitment to refrain from any projects that could materially diminish trans-boundary flows.

China, undeterred by the environmental degradation it is wreaking, has made the control and manipulation of river flows a pivot of its power. It is past time for New Delhi to speak up on China’s dam-building threat to India’s security and well-being.

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

India’s internal security is porous

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

The unlawful, and fatal, expedition of a young American evangelist adventurer to a remote island that is home to the world’s last known pre-Neolithic tribe has highlighted India’s lax internal-security controls and the threat to endangered indigenous communities from interlopers. The episode also casts an unflattering light on the ministry of home affairs (MHA), which, to cover up its lapses, has sought to obscure the truth.

Although lionized as a martyr in the US evangelical media, John Allen Chau was a wilful intruder. He trespassed on a prohibited island to impose his religion on a tiny, highly endangered tribe whose seclusion and privacy are legally protected. Worse still, his repeated intrusions into their peaceful, self-contented world might have exposed the Sentinelese — with no resistance to outsiders’ common diseases and already on the brink of extinction — to deadly pathogens. One crazed man’s conduct may have put an entire tribe’s survival at risk.

On his first intrusion into their North Sentinel Island, the Sentinelese, setting an example for the so-called civilized world, did not subject Chau to Abu Ghraib-style torture or even detain him. Yet, undeterred by the tribe’s warning not to return, a recalcitrant Chau over the next two days repeatedly came back to the island, disparaging it as “Satan’s last stronghold”, according to his own diary notes, released by his mother. The son of a refugee father who fled China during the Cultural Revolution and converted to Christianity in the US, Chau described in his notes how he hid from Indian coastal patrols under cover of darkness to make his criminal forays into an island forbidden even to Indians and Indian forces.

The ease with which he broke Indian laws and evaded onshore and offshore checks is a sad commentary on India’s internal security. The Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) chain is a critical asset for India’s national security. Located just northwest of the Malacca Strait, the archipelago offers India control of a chokepoint that is China’s greatest maritime vulnerability.

A&N is also home to some of the world’s most-endangered tribes. After the ravages of British colonial rule, when the archipelago’s aboriginal communities were systematically decimated, only some tribes still survive. But their member numbers are dwindling. For example, the Jarawas, one of the first tribes to fall prey to British excesses, are vanishing, in an example of how contact with outsiders can doom an indigenous community.

Chau, instead of applying for a missionary visa, abused India’s e-visa on arrival system for tourists by hiding his real purpose. He neither registered with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office nor sought the mandatory permission under the separate aborigine and forest protection laws before undertaking a mission he plotted through previous A&N visits. Yet, in isolated but militarily sensitive Andaman, no agency spotted the Chinese-looking American, although Chinese and Pakistanis need MHA’s clearance to be there.

In June, MHA lifted the requirement for foreigners to secure a Restricted Area Permit (RAP) to visit 29 A&N islands “in the interest of promoting tourism and [their] overall development”. The decision smacked of utter recklessness: About one-third of the 29 islands, including North Sentinel, are home to endangered tribes and not open to tourism or development under the aborigine law. RAP’s lifting implicitly emboldened Chau’s exploits, although foreigners, like Indians, still need special permission under the aborigine and forest acts to visit any tribal-reserved island.

Caught flat-footed by Chau’s forays, an embarrassed MHA contradicted the Andaman police to claim there was no evidence that he was on a mission to evangelize. Had Chau’s own detailed accounts of his motives and exploits not become public, the MHA’s misinformation would have prevailed. To cover its back, MHA now claims it lifted RAP for tribal-reserved islands, not for tourism, but to promote the “flow of people, particularly anthropologists and other researchers”, although no foreign expert is left on these tribes. Thanks to MHA’s ineptitude, we may never know if an external group funded Chau’s mission, which he ominously undertook just before Thanksgiving, an annual whitewash of white settlers’ mass killing of millions of Native Americans.

Internal security has historically been India’s Achilles’ heel — a frailty that invited repeated foreign invasions, plunder and subjugation. Yet, with India not fully absorbing the lessons of history, internal security has remained its paramount weakness under successive governments. Developments continue to expose glaring gaps in its internal security — from the entry of foreign extremists, criminals and illegal migrants to recurrent terrorist attacks, such as the recent strike on Nirankari worshippers with a Pakistan-made grenade.

With India’s internal security under increasing pressure, the endangered tribes’ future has grown even more uncertain.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

India’s Indus leverage

India must assert its full rights under the Indus Waters Treaty to leverage the pact and halt Pakistan’s undeclared war against it through terrorist proxies.

Indus-system rivers

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

In foreign policy, it is important for national leadership to choose its rhetoric carefully and back its words with at least modest action. Words not backed by any action can undermine a country’s credibility and perhaps even its deterrence.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the Balochistan issue in his Independence Day speech in 2016, he seemed to signal an important Indian policy shift. At least that is how his reference to Balochistan was widely interpreted. But since then, India has been totally silent on the issue, although Balochistan — Pakistan’s Achilles heel — threatens to become the new East Pakistan because of military killings and mass graves. India has even denied visas to some exiled Baloch activists.

Take another key issue: the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). In 1960, in the naïve hope that water largesse would yield peace, India gifted the bulk of the Indus system’s waters — and the largest three of its six rivers — to Pakistan under the IWT. The Indus treaty remains a colossus on the world stage: It is by far the world’s most generous water pact, both in terms of the downstream country’s share of the waters (80.52%) and the aggregate volume of average yearly flows reserved for it (167.2 billion cubic metres). Still, an ungrateful Pakistan has waged covert or overt aggression almost continuously and is now using the IWT itself as a stick to beat India with, including by contriving water disputes and internationalizing them as part of a “water war” strategy.

Against this background, Modi raised the hope that India would finally revisit the IWT, by seizing on the Pakistan Senate’s unanimous March 2016 resolution calling for the treaty’s re-evaluation. Indeed, while chairing a September 2016 internal meeting on the IWT, Modi warned that, “Blood and water cannot flow together”. Setting in motion the treaty’s reappraisal, an inter-ministerial committee of secretaries was established, and officials said that India would now assert all its rights under the IWT, including fully utilizing its share of the allotted waters and expediting its long-delayed hydropower projects.

But two years later, India, alas, appears to have returned to the former state of affairs. The committee of secretaries, headed by the PM’s principal secretary, has fallen by the wayside. Apart from completing the small, 330-megawatt Kishenganga project after 11 years, India has shown little urgency on Indus Basin water projects. Even as Punjab and other states bitterly feud over water, India’s failure to adequately harness the resources of the three smaller rivers reserved for it results in Pakistan receiving substantial bonus waters. Just these extra outflows to Pakistan are many times greater yearly than the total volumes under the Israeli-Jordanian water arrangement.

India’s zigzag policy is most apparent from the recent meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC). The IWT calls for the PIC to meet at least once a year. The previous PIC meeting, like the one before it, was convened after almost 12 months — on March 29-30 this year. The next meeting was not due until 2019, yet India held a fresh PIC meeting just five months later.

The recent August 29-30 meeting, held in Lahore, marked the first bilateral engagement since the new military-backed Imran Khan government took office in Pakistan. With Pakistan’s international isolation deepening and its economy in dire straits, the military there is tactically seeking “peace” talks with India while still employing terrorists in a proxy war. Through such talks, it also hopes to legitimize the government it helped install through a manipulated election. But with India’s own elections approaching, talks with Pakistan will be politically risky for the ruling BJP.

The PIC discussions — and a prospective foreign ministers’ meeting in New York — illustrate how Modi’s government is seeking to engage Islamabad in other ways. In fact, India has given permission to Pakistan’s Indus commissioner and two other officials to shortly begin a tour of inspection of Indian projects in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere. In the past, such a tour has been used to collect new information so as to mount objections to Indian projects. In keeping with its broader strategy to foment discontent and violence in J&K, Pakistan seeks to deny J&K people the limited water benefits permissible under the IWT.

While the US has dumped international pacts at will (from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to the Kyoto and Paris accords), India still clings to the world’s most-lopsided water treaty, adhering to its finer details, even as Pakistan refuses to honour the terms of the central treaty governing bilateral relations — the 1972 Simla peace pact. Pakistan also flouts its commitment to prevent its territory from being used for cross-border terrorism. The Indus may be Pakistan’s jugular vein, yet a visionless and water-stressed India has let the IWT hang from its neck like the proverbial albatross. Make no mistake: Only by asserting its Indus leverage can India hope to end Pakistan’s unconventional war.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

A Global Environmental Threat Made in China

From large-scale dam-building to unbridled resource-exploitation, human activity is causing serious damage to Himalayan ecosystems. While all the countries in the region are culpable to some extent, none is doing as much harm as China.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

Asia’s future is inextricably tied to the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range and the source of the water-stressed continent’s major river systems. Yet reckless national projects are straining the region’s fragile ecosystems, resulting in a mounting security threat that extends beyond Asia.

With elevations rising dramatically from less than 500 meters (1,640 feet) to over 8,000 meters, the Himalayas are home to ecosystems ranging from high-altitude alluvial grasslands and subtropical broadleaf forests to conifer forests and alpine meadows. Stretching from Myanmar to the Hindu-Kush watershed of Central Asia, the Himalayas play a central role in driving Asia’s hydrological cycle and weather and climate patterns, including triggering the annual summer monsoons. Its 18,000 high-altitude glaciers store massive amounts of freshwater and serve in winter as the world’s second-largest heat sink after Antarctica, thus helping to moderate the global climate. In summer, however, the Himalayas turn into a heat source that draws the monsoonal currents from the oceans into the Asian hinterland.

The Himalayas are now subject to accelerated glacial thaw, climatic instability, and biodiversity loss. Five rivers originating on the Great Himalayan Massif – the Yangtze, the Indus, the Mekong, the Salween, and the Ganges – rank among the world’s ten most endangered rivers.

From large-scale dam construction to the unbridled exploitation of natural resources, human activity is clearly to blame for these potentially devastating changes to the Himalayan ecosystems. While all the countries in the region are culpable to some extent, none is doing as much harm as China.

Unconstrained by the kinds of grassroots activism seen in, say, democratic India, China has used massive, but often opaque, construction projects to bend nature to its will and trumpet its rise as a great power. This includes a globally unmatched inter-river and inter-basin water-transfer infrastructure with the capacity to move over ten billion cubic meters (13 billion cubic yards) through 16,000 kilometers (9,940 miles) of canals.

China’s reengineering of natural river flows through damming – one-fifth of the country’s rivers now have less water flowing through them each year than is diverted to reservoirs – has already degraded riparian ecosystems and caused 350 large lakes to disappear. With these water-diverting projects increasingly focused on international, rather than internal, rivers – in particular those in the Tibetan Plateau, which covers nearly three-quarters of the Himalayan glacier area – the environmental threat extends far beyond China’s borders.

And dams are just the beginning. The Tibetan Plateau is also the subject of Chinese geo-engineering experiments, which aim to induce rain in its arid north and northwest. (Rain in Tibet is concentrated in its Himalayan region.) Such activities threaten to suck moisture from other regions, potentially affecting Asia’s monsoons. Ominously, such experiments are an extension of the Chinese military’s weather-modification program.

Moreover, as if to substantiate the Chinese name for Tibet, Xizang(“Western Treasure Land”), China is draining mineral resources from this ecologically fragile but resource-rich plateau, without regard for the consequences. Already, copper mine tailings are polluting waters in a Himalayan region sacred to Tibetans, which they call Pemako (“Hidden Lotus Land”), where the world’s highest-altitude major river, the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo to Tibetans), curves around the Himalayas before entering India.

Last fall, the once-pristine Siang – the Brahmaputra’s main artery – suddenly turned blackish gray as it entered India, potentially because of China’s upstream tunneling, mining, or damming activity. To be sure, the Chinese government claimed that an earthquake that struck southeastern Tibet in mid-November “might have led to the turbidity” in the river waters. But the water had become unfit for human consumption long before the quake.

In any case, China is not letting up. It has, for example, eagerly launched large-scale operations to mine precious minerals like gold and silver in a disputed area of the eastern Himalayas that it seized from India in a 1959 armed clash.

Meanwhile, China’s bottled-water industry – the world’s largest – is siphoning “premium drinking water” from the Himalayas’ already-stressed glaciers, particularly those in the eastern Himalayas, where accelerated melting of snow and ice fields is already conspicuous. Unsurprisingly, this is causing biodiversity loss and impairment of ecosystem services.

Across the Himalayas, scientists report large-scale deforestation, high rates of loss of genetic variability, and species extinction in the highlands. The Tibetan Plateau, for its part, is warming at almost three times the average global rate. This holds environmental implications that extend far beyond Asia.

The towering Himalayan Highlands, particularly Tibet, influence the Northern Hemisphere’s atmospheric-circulation system, which helps to transport warm air from the equator toward the poles, sustaining a variety of climate zones along the way. In other words, Himalayan ecosystem impairment will likely affect European and North American climatic patterns.

Halting rampant environmental degradation in the Himalayas is now urgent, and it is possible only through cooperation among all members of the Himalayan basin community, from the lower Mekong River region and China to the countries of southern Asia. To bring about such cooperation, however, the entire international community will have to apply pressure to rein in China’s reckless environmental impairment, which is by far the greatest source of risk.

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 JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.