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

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

Brahma Chellaney, South China Morning Post

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

Thanks to excessive damming and drastic overuse of water resources, an increasing number of major rivers across the world are drying up before reaching the sea. Nowhere is this more evident than in China, where the old saying, “Follow the river and it will eventually lead you to a sea,” is no longer wholly true.

While a number of smaller rivers in China have simply disappeared, the Yellow River – the cradle of the Chinese civilisation – now tends to run dry before reaching the sea. This has prompted Chinese scientists to embark on a controversial rainmaking project to help increase the Yellow’s flow. By sucking moisture from the air, however, the project could potentially affect monsoon rains elsewhere.

For large sections of the world’s population, major river systems serve as lifelines. The rivers not only supply the most essential of all natural resources – water – but also sustain biodiversity, which in turn supports human beings.

Yet an increasing number of rivers, not just in China, are drying up before reaching the sea. A major new United Nations study published early this month offers grim conclusions: human actions are irremediably altering rivers and other ecosystems and driving increasing numbers of plant and animal species to extinction. “Nature across the globe has now been significantly altered,” according to the study’s summary of findings.

Water sustains life and livelihoods and enables economic development. If the world is to avert a thirsty future and contain the risks of greater intrastate and interstate water conflict, it must protect freshwater ecosystems, which harbour the greatest concentration of species.

Yet, according to another study published in Nature this month humans have modified the flows of most long rivers, other than those found in the remote regions of the Amazon and Congo basins and the Arctic. Consequently, only a little more than one-third of the world’s 246 long rivers are still free-flowing, meaning they remain free from dams, levees and other man-made water-diversion structures that leave them increasingly fragmented.

Such fragmentation is affecting river hydrology, flow of nutrient-rich sediment from the mountains where rivers originate, riparian vegetation, migration of fish and quality of water.

Take the Colorado River, one of the world’s most diverted and dammed rivers. Broken up by more than 100 dams and thousands of kilometres of diversion canals, the Colorado has not reached the sea since 1998.

The river, which originates in the Rocky Mountains and is the lifeblood for the southwestern United States, used to empty into the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. But now, owing to the upstream diversion of 9.3 billion cubic metres (328.4 billion cubic feet) of water annually, the Colorado’s flow into its delta has been reduced to a trickle.

Other major rivers that run dry before reaching the sea include the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, the two lifelines of Central Asia; the Euphrates and the Tigris in the Middle East; and the Rio Grande, which marks the border between Texas and Mexico before heading to the Gulf of Mexico. The overused Murray in Australia and Indus in Pakistan are at risk of meeting the same fate.

More fundamentally, altered flow characteristics of rivers are among the most serious problems for sustainable development, because they seriously affect the ecosystem services on which both humans and wildlife depend. Free-flowing rivers, while supporting a wealth of biodiversity, allow billions of fish – the main source of protein for the poor – to trek through their waters and breed copiously.

Free-flowing rivers also deliver nutrient-rich silt crucial to agriculture, fisheries and marine life. Such high-quality sediment helps to naturally re-fertilise overworked soils in the plains, sustain freshwater species and, after rivers empty into seas or oceans, underpin the aquatic food chain supporting marine life.

China’s hyperactive dam building illustrates the high costs of river fragmentation. No country in history has built more dams than China. In fact, China today boasts more large dams than the rest of the world combined.

China’s chain of dams and reservoirs on each of its long rivers impedes the downstream flow of sediment, thereby denying essential nutrients to agricultural land and aquatic species. A case in point is China’s Three Gorges Dam – the world’s largest – which has a problematic build-up of sediment in its own massive reservoir because it has disrupted silt flows in the Yangtze River.

Likewise, China’s cascade of eight giant dams on the Mekong, just before the river enters Southeast Asia, is affecting the quality and quantity of flows in the delta, in Vietnam. Undeterred, China is building or planning another 20 dams on the Mekong.

How the drying up of rivers affects seas and oceans is apparent from the Aral Sea, which has shrunk 74 per cent in area and 90 per cent in volume, with its salinity growing nine-fold. This change is the result of the Aral Sea’s principal water sources, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, being so overexploited for irrigation that they are drying up before reaching what was once the world’s fourth-largest inland lake.

Compounding the challenges is the increasing pollution of rivers. Aquatic ecosystems have lost half of their biodiversity since the mid-1970s alone.

Urgent action is needed to save the world’s rivers. This includes action on several fronts, including improving practices in agriculture, which accounts for the bulk of the world’s freshwater withdrawals.

Without embracing integrated water resource management and other sustainable practices, the world risks a parched future.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including Water, Peace, and War.

© South China Morning Post, 2019.

Modi must advance national security

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Narendra Modi’s return to power with a stunning majority reflects the desire of Indians for a dynamic, assertive leadership that reinvents India as a more secure, confident and competitive country. Contrast the Bharatiya Janata Party’s nationalist plank with the opposing forces’ lack of ideological conviction or a clear national agenda. Most Indian parties, including BJP’s own allies, are controlled by single families, which run them like family-owned businesses. The state-level election success of a few notwithstanding, the humiliating rout of many such parties shows that politics guided by families, not principles or national vision, is out of sync with the new India.

Indians not only want their country to stop punching below its weight but also to emerge truly as a great power. But without ameliorating its security challenges and investing in human capital, India has little hope of becoming a major power with a high level of autonomous and innovative technological capability.

Modi’s re-election represents a fresh mandate for change. The new government’s most pressing challenges relate to internal and external security, including a deepening strategic nexus between China and Pakistan — a dangerous combination of an ascendant great power and an implacably hostile neighbour. New Delhi also needs to effectively counter Chinese inroads in its maritime backyard and in countries long symbiotically tied to India.

The recent Sri Lankan bombings, oddly, have helped underscore India’s own jihadist threat. The Sri Lankan investigations have helped shine a spotlight on the growing cross-strait role of Islamist forces in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The situations in West Bengal and Assam also appear fraught with similar danger.

Not surprisingly, national security weighed on the Indian voters’ minds — a concern reinforced by the Pulwama terrorist massacre, which led to a retaliatory Indian airstrike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s lair in Balakot. However, when Pakistan daringly responded by crossing a red line — its February 27 aerial blitz targeted Indian military sites — Modi surprisingly held back Indian forces from wreaking punishment.

Yet Pakistan still fears Indian punishment, which explains why its airspace has remained closed to most east-west overflights for the past three months, even though this action has also cut off Pakistan’s air connections with Southeast Asia and resulted in its loss of overflight fees. Significantly, since Pulwama, Pakistan’s military has not staged any cross-border tactical or terrorist strike in India. This shows that keeping Pakistan under sustained military and non-military pressure holds the key.

China’s muscular revisionism, of course, poses a bigger national security challenge. India’s lagging defence modernization has compounded the challenge from the world’s largest, strongest and technologically most advanced autocracy. Unlike a short-focused India, China plays the long game, with the aim to advance its interests step-by-step. However, the ongoing paradigm shift in US policy on China under President Donald Trump is putting growing pressure on Beijing, constricting its space against India.

An unpredictable and transactional Trump administration, to be sure, is also adding to India’s diplomatic challenges, as underscored by the new US sanctions against Iran and Russia. Although the Modi government said last year that “India follows only UN sanctions, not unilateral sanctions of any country”, it has been compelled to comply with the recent, Trump-imposed ban on Iranian oil exports.

More broadly, Modi’s foreign policy will continue to be guided by a non-doctrinaire vision. Shorn of ideology, his foreign policy has prudently sought to revitalize the country’s economic and military security, while avoiding having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner.

Modi, however, must develop a credible counterterrorism strategy. Sri Lanka, since the Easter bombings, is seeking to proactively root out violent jihadism. Emulating the Singaporean policy of zero tolerance of jihad-extolling sermons, it has deported or arrested more than 200 mullahs and cracked down on the inflow of Gulf money. To prevent violent jihad being taught to impressionable young minds, it has decided to bring madrasas under its education ministry and outlaw the Sharia University at Batticaloa. Such steps may seem unthinkable in India.

Take another example: India kills a leading terrorist, only to squander the gain by permitting a large public funeral that memorializes him as a martyr. India has learned little from its 2016 Burhan Wani blunder. Last week’s Pulwama funeral for local Al Qaeda leader Zakir Musa triggered rioting and curfew. Contrast this with the way the US dumped Osama bin Laden’s body in the sea and China forced the burial of Noble peace laureate Liu Xiaobo’s ashes at sea.

Modi’s first term failed to dispel India’s image as a soft state. If his second term is going to reinvent India, Modi cannot shy away from taking hard decisions. The transformative moment usually comes once in a generation. Modi, with his cold-eyed pragmatism, must seize this moment. In the way his tax and regulatory overhaul is set to boost economic growth, he must similarly advance national security through fundamental reforms.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

Modi’s win will cement India’s multi-aligned foreign policy

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landslide win in national elections represents a fresh mandate for him to reinvent India as a more secure, confident and competitive country and forge closer ties with natural allies. Modi’s second five-year term in office will help cement India’s multi-aligned foreign policy, which has sought to build close partnerships with all powers central to long-term Indian interests.

Domestically, Modi’s big win has averted a nightmare scenario for Indian democracy — an indecisive election verdict fostering political paralysis. Faced with a choice between a stable, firm government and a possible retreat to political drift, voters in the world’s largest democracy reposed their faith in Modi and his Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party, or BJP.

Internationally, India’s profile has continued to rise under Modi. India appears to be moving from its long-held nonalignment to a globalized practicality — multi-alignment. A Cold War legacy, nonalignment implies a passive approach, including not taking sides and staying on the sidelines. Multi-alignment, by contrast, calls for a proactive approach.

India, although a founding leader of the nonaligned movement, now makes little mention of nonalignment. Instead it is building close partnerships with key powers to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings, not only to advance its core priorities but also to shore up its strategic autonomy, in keeping with its longstanding preference for an independent foreign policy. Balancing these different partnerships, of course, is proving a challenge for New Delhi.

Modi’s reelection has come after a series of elections in southern Asia. In the past 18 months, elections have brought pro-China communists to power in Nepal and a military-backed party to office in Pakistan, while voters have booted out a quasi-dictator in the Maldives, elected a new government in Bhutan, and, in Bangladesh, retained a prime minister who has turned the country into one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies. The only country in the region not to go to the polls recently is Sri Lanka, where the Supreme Court forced the country’s president to roll back a coup after he unconstitutionally dismissed the prime minister and called fresh parliamentary elections.

India’s biggest neighbor, however, is the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy, China — a reminder that the new Indian government’s most-pressing security challenges relate to the country’s combustible neighborhood, not least a deepening strategic nexus between China and Pakistan. Both these nuclear-armed allies stake claims to vast swaths of Indian territory and employ asymmetric warfare.

Not surprisingly, national security weighed on the Indian voters’ minds, especially because, in the run-up to the elections, a Pakistan-based, United Nations-designated terrorist group claimed responsibility for a massacre of more than 40 paramilitary troops in Indian Kashmir. An Indian retaliatory airstrike on the group’s hideout in the Pakistani heartland helped burnish Modi’s credentials as a strong leader.

Now, after his reelection, Modi will have to consider urgently the foreign-policy challenges, above all an ascendant China’s muscular revisionism. China has stepped up its military pressure along the long, disputed Himalayan border with India, including deploying new offensive weapons and advertising live-fire combat exercises. Chinese encroachments in India’s maritime backyard have also increased.

Yet, vexed by the unpredictability of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, Modi has sought to mend ties with China, or at least stop them from deteriorating further. At an “informal” summit in Wuhan, China, in April 2018, Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to “reset” relations. Another Wuhan-style summit between the two leaders has been planned for this autumn in India.

For Xi, however, such summitry has served as a cover to kill two birds with one stone. While encouraging Modi’s overtures to help instill greater Indian caution to openly challenge China, Xi has embarked on a major military buildup along the Himalayas. Meanwhile, Chinese exports have flooded India, with Beijing more than doubling its bilateral trade surplus, on Modi’s watch, to over $66 billion a year. This trade surplus is more than 50% larger than India’s defense spending, underscoring how India unwittingly is underwriting China’s hostile politics.

India is now a “major defense partner” of the U.S., with which it holds more military exercises than with any other country. The U.S. has also emerged as India’s largest arms supplier, overtaking Russia. Indeed, the Cold War-era India-Russia camaraderie has been replaced by India-U.S. bonhomie.

However, India still sees Russia as a natural ally and a “tested and tried” friend. Modi has been holding annual summit meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin to bolster the bilateral relationship, whose trade component has shrunk.

India relies on Russian spare parts for its Russian-made military hardware. More importantly, Russia has transferred to India offensive weapons that the U.S. does not export, such as an aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine. So ties to Moscow remain important.

The Trump administration’s new sanctions against Russia and Iran are accentuating the Modi government’s challenge in balancing India’s bilateral relationships. How to navigate America’s extraterritorial sanctions targeting Iran and Russia has become an important diplomatic test for India, which is increasingly concerned about Trump’s pursuit of aggressive unilateralism.

India, for example, has taken an economic hit, in the form of a higher oil-import bill, from Trump’s targeting of Iran. Over the years, Iran has been an important oil supplier to energy-poor India and is the route for a transportation corridor that India is building to Afghanistan that bypasses Pakistan.

In fact, the Trump administration’s ongoing direct talks with the Afghan Taliban to finalize a “peace” deal are helping to renew the salience of Iran and Russia in India’s Afghanistan policy. If the Pakistan-backed Taliban were to recapture power in Kabul, the relevance of these ties would redouble.

Against this background, the challenges to Modi’s policy of multi-alignment are likely to mount in his second term. Meanwhile, China’s spreading influence in India’s backyard — from Nepal to Sri Lanka — is underscoring the imperative for New Delhi to arrest its eroding regional clout.

Modi’s foreign policy, however, will continue to be guided by a non-doctrinaire vision. Shorn of ideology, Indian foreign policy has sought to revitalize the country’s economic and military security, while avoiding having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner.

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

We have truly lost our way when our rivers can no longer find the oceans

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According to a new United Nations study, human interference with the world’s great waterways has altered ecosystems and is driving species to extinction.

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Brahma Chellaney, The National

Major river systems are the lifelines of large sections of the world’s population. They not only supply the most essential of all natural resources – water – but also sustain biodiversity, which in turn supports human beings.

However, the old saying, “Follow the river and it will eventually lead you to a sea”, is no longer wholly true. Owing to excessive damming and drastic overuse of water resources, an increasing number of rivers are drying up before they reach the sea.

A new United Nations study offers grim conclusions: human actions are irremediably altering rivers and other ecosystems and driving increasing numbers of plant and animal species to extinction. According to the study’s summary of findings, released last week: “Nature across the globe has now been significantly altered.”

Water sustains life and livelihoods and enables economic development. If the world is to avert a thirsty future and contain the risks of greater intrastate and interstate water conflict, it must protect freshwater ecosystems, which harbour the greatest concentration of species.

Yet, according to another study published in this month’s Nature journal, humans have modified the flows of most long rivers, other than those found in the remote regions of the Amazon and Congo basins and the Arctic. Consequently, only about one third of the world’s 246 long rivers can still be described as free-flowing, meaning that they remain clear of dams and other man-made diversions.

Instead of flowing freely, rivers are becoming increasingly fragmented by dams and other hydro-engineering structures. Such fragmentation is affecting the flow of nutrient-rich sediment from the mountains where rivers originate, riverside vegetation, the migration of fish and quality of water.

For example, the Colorado River, which is broken up by more than 100 dams and thousands of kilometres of diversion canals, has not reached the sea since 1998. The river, which originates in the Rocky Mountains and is the lifeblood for the south-western United States, used to empty into the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Now, because of the upstream diversion of 9.3 billion cubic metres of water annually, the Colorado’s flow into its delta has been reduced to a trickle.

Others that run dry before reaching the sea include the Yellow River, the cradle of the Chinese civilisation; the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya – the two lifelines of Central Asia; the Euphrates and the Tigris in the Middle East; and the Rio Grande, which marks the entire Texas-Mexico border before heading to the Gulf of Mexico. The over-utilised Murray in Australia and the Indus in Pakistan are at risk of meeting with the same fate.

Shared water resources are often siphoned off by upstream powers with little consideration for the interests of downstream states. For example, Mexico has long complained that it is not getting its share of the Colorado River’s waters under the terms of a 1944 water-sharing treaty with the US.

More fundamentally, altered flow characteristics of rivers are among the most serious problems for sustainable development, because they seriously affect the ecosystem services on which both humans and wildlife depend. Free-flowing rivers, while supporting a wealth of biodiversity, allow billions of fish – the main source of protein for the poor – to swim through their waters and breed.

Free-flowing rivers also deliver nutrient-rich silt crucial to agriculture, fisheries and marine life. Such high-quality sediment helps to naturally refertilise overworked soils in the plains, to sustain freshwater species and, after rivers empty into seas or oceans, to underpin the aquatic food chain supporting marine life.

China’s hyperactive dam building illustrates the high costs of river fragmentation. No country in history has built more dams than China. Today, it has more large dams than the rest of the world combined.

China’s chain of dams and reservoirs on each of its long rivers impedes the downstream flow of sediment, thereby denying essential nutrients to agricultural land and aquatic species. For example, by disrupting silt flows in the Yangtze River, the Three Gorges Dam – the world’s largest – has caused a problematic build-up of sediment in its own massive reservoir.

Likewise, China’s eight giant dams on the Mekong, just before the river enters south-east Asia, is affecting the quality and quantity of flows in the delta in Vietnam. An undeterred China, however, is building or planning another 20 dams on the Mekong.

How the drying up of rivers impacts seas and oceans is apparent from the Aral Sea, which has shrunk 74 per cent in area and 90 per cent in volume, with its salinity growing nine-fold. This is because the Aral Sea’s principal water sources, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, are so over-exploited for irrigation that they dry up before reaching what was once the world’s fourth-largest inland lake.

Then there is the matter of pollution, which, along with the disruption of natural river flows, has adversely affected traditional agriculture and grazing, devastated fisheries and marginalised rural communities.

Meanwhile, the continued shrinkage and degradation of freshwater habitats – including rivers, lakes, wetlands and ponds – is accelerating biodiversity loss extending to the seas. Aquatic ecosystems have lost 50 per cent of their biodiversity since the mid-1970s alone.

Urgent action is needed to save the world’s rivers. It must be taken on several fronts, including improving practices in agriculture, which accounts for the bulk of the world’s freshwater withdrawals. Without embracing integrated water resource management and other sustainable practices, the world risks a parched future.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including Water, Peace, and War.

© The National, 2019.

The Modi Phenomenon Gains Strength

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India’s biggest neighbour, however, is the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy, China – a reminder that the new Indian government’s most pressing security challenges relate to the country’s neighbourhood, not least a deepening strategic nexus between China and Pakistan. Both these nuclear-armed allies stake claims to vast swaths of Indian territory and employ asymmetric warfare.

Not surprisingly, national security weighed on the Indian voters’ minds, especially because, in the run-up to the elections, a Pakistan-based, United Nations-designated terrorist group claimed responsibility for a massacre of more than 40 paramilitary troops in Indian Kashmir. An Indian retaliatory airstrike on the group’s hideout in the Pakistani heartland helped burnish Mr. Modi’s credentials as a strong leader.

Mr. Modi’s dramatic rise in 2014 from being a provincial politician to heading the national government had much to do with the Indian electorate’s yearning for an era of decisive government after a scandal-marred, decade-long tenure of former prime minister Manmohan Singh, who was widely seen as a proxy of the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi (no relation to the apostle of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi).

Mr. Modi’s stint in office has helped change Indian politics and diplomacy. He has animated the country’s foreign policy by often departing from conventional methods and shibboleths. And as underscored by his latest election triumph, he has helped turn his Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party, or BJP, into India’s largest political force.

The BJP has long espoused the cause of the country’s Hindu majority while claiming to represent all religious communities. It sees itself as being no different than the Christian political parties that played a key role in Western Europe’s post-Second World War recovery and economic and political integration. Mr. Modi has subtly played the Hindu nationalist card to advance his political ambitions.

However, like U.S. President Donald Trump, Mr. Modi has become increasingly polarizing. Consequently, Indian democracy perhaps is as divided and polarized as U.S democracy. Mr. Modi’s landslide election win is unlikely to heal the polarization.

In fact, Mr. Modi, like Mr. Trump, is accused by his critics of behaving like an authoritarian strongman. The truth, however, is that Indian democracy, like American democracy, is robust enough to deter authoritarian creep.

If anything, the “strongman” tag that political opponents have given Mr. Modi helps to cloak his failings. For example, his “Make in India” initiative to promote domestic manufacturing has failed to seriously take off. He has also been reluctant to introduce national-security reform. India’s defence modernization has lagged, widening the yawning power gap with China.

However, to his credit, Mr. Modi has reduced political corruption and cut India’s proverbial red tape by streamlining regulations and reining in the bloated bureaucracy. For example, government permits and licences can be sought online.

A new simplified national tax regime serves as further advertisement that India is open for business. The tax and regulatory overhaul will likely yield major dividends in Mr. Modi’s second term.

To be sure, India’s economic growth has remained impressive. Its economy now is about 50 per cent larger than when Mr. Modi took office five years ago.

After overtaking France, India – the world’s fastest-growing major economy – has just edged out its former colonial master, Britain, to leap to the fifth place in the international GDP rankings. But if GDP is measured in terms of purchasing power parity, India’s economy ranks third behind the United States and China.

India is respected as the first developing economy that, from the beginning, has strived to modernize and prosper through a democratic system. Less known is that India’s British-style parliamentary democracy has fostered a fractious and fragmented polity, weighing down the country’s potential. Some 2,300 parties fielded candidates in the latest election.

The British-type parliamentary system is rife with inefficiencies, as Britain’s Brexit mess highlights. This system’s limitations appear greater in much bigger India, which is more populous and diverse than the whole of Europe.

Fortunately for India, Mr. Modi’s big win has averted a nightmare scenario – an indecisive election verdict fostering political paralysis.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© Globe and Mail, 2019.

Pathways to tackling the plastic waste problem

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Bottled water has a huge environmental footprint. About 1.6 liters of water are needed to produce one liter of bottled water, demand is depleting precious groundwater resources, and most of the recyclable PET bottles are buried in landfills or end up as litter.

Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

Is the human species becoming a cancer on the planet? This question arises from the grim findings of a new United Nations study that human actions are irremediably altering natural ecosystems and driving increasing numbers of plant and animal species to extinction.

“Nature across the globe has now been significantly altered,” with 75 percent of the land surface extensively modified, 85 percent of the wetlands lost, and two-thirds of the oceans bearing mounting cumulative impacts, according to the study’s just-released summary of findings. Another study published in this month’s Nature, the journal of science, reports that humans have modified the flows of most long rivers other than those found in remote regions.

Not surprisingly, biodiversity is declining rapidly across the world. Aquatic ecosystems, for example, have lost 50 percent of their biodiversity since the 1970s. One major driver is plastic pollution.

Bottled water has become an important source of plastic waste, along with single-use straws, cutlery, food containers and other plastic items. Plastic debris is clogging up landfills, blocking drains, polluting waterways and contributing to biodiversity loss. Plastic litter on roadsides and beaches and in other public spaces is an eyesore.

Mass production of plastics began just six decades ago. The bottled-water industry, however, took off after the commercial advent in the 1990s of single-serve bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), or polyester plastic. Fabricated from crude oil and natural gas, PET has helped turn water — and other drinks — into portable and lightweight consumer products. But PET takes hundreds of years to biodegrade and, if incinerated, generates toxic fumes.

Other forms of plastics are also polluting land and water. They include low-density polyethylene, which creates shopping bags, bubble wrap, flexible bottles and wire and cable insulation; high-density polyethylene used for making toys, garden furniture, trash bins, detergent and bleach bottles, buckets and jugs; and polypropylene found in bottle tops, diapers, drinking straws, lunch boxes, insulated coolers, and fabric and carpet fiber.

Barely 18 percent of plastic waste is recycled globally — and slightly more in Japan. The rest ends up as trash and litter. For example, tens of billions of easily recyclable PET bottles are discarded as garbage every year.

Chinese and Indian bans on import of plastic waste for recycling are accentuating the global plastic crisis. Many cities in advanced economies, faced with mountains of plastic waste, are struggling to expand landfill capacities. Japan, for example, confronts spiraling plastic waste despite shipping more such trash to Southeast Asia following China’s imposition of import restrictions in late 2017. Japan now must recycle more of its waste at home, an imperative that has prompted Japanese firms to pour investments into plastic recycling plants. With virgin plastic cheaper than recycled plastic, Japan could offer manufacturers tax concessions to switch to recycled plastic.

Against this background, about 180 countries agreed on May 10 to a new U.N. accord to regulate the export of plastic waste, some eight million tons of which ends up in the oceans each year — the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic being tipped into the sea every minute. The accord amends the 1989 Basel Convention on the control of hazardous wastes to include plastic trash.

Plastic pollution of oceans has increased tenfold since 1980 alone. By affecting many species of marine life, such pollution threatens human food chains. Microplastics, the tiny particles into which plastic degrades into, have been found in many fishes’ guts.

A similar challenge to human health is posed by a different class of plastic particles called microbeads, used as abrasives in cosmetics and toothpaste. Such fine particles are not filtered out by most wastewater treatment plants. Despite efforts in some countries to prohibit or regulate their use, microbeads have entered freshwater bodies, such as the Great Lakes, where they can become coated with cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs. Mistakenly eaten by fish, these particles then enter human bodies.

As the U.N. study warns, “Plastic microparticles and nanoparticles are entering food webs in poorly understood ways.”

Not enough is being done to address the plastic waste scourge. Some popular consumer products are a source of environmental degradation even without the plastic containers in which they are marketed. Bottled water is a prime example. Bottled water carries a large environmental footprint: It entails use of significant resources to source, process, bottle and transport the water. For example, 1.6 liters of water, on average, are used to package one liter of bottled water. Processing and transportation of bottled water result in a notable carbon footprint.

Much of the bottled water sold globally is extracted groundwater that has been subjected to reverse osmosis or other treatment of the kind given to tap water. Yet more and more people don’t trust tap water and rely on bottled water, making it the largest commercial growth area among drinks. Tapping subterranean water reserves on a large scale for bottling depletes not just aquifers but also rivers and streams that draw water from aquifers. Premium bottled water, sourced from glaciers’ runoff, is also compounding human impacts on fragile ecosystems.

It is past time for the international community to deal with its plastics-centered environmental health challenges. Why allow the use of plastics for products (including plates, cups, straws, cutlery, drink stirrers and cotton swabs) where non-plastic alternatives are available and commercially affordable? Beverage companies, for example, should be made to use biodegradable or eco-friendly reusable containers, instead of PET bottles.

In fact, there is a dire need for a global ban on single-use plastics, whose increasing use is triggering a slow-onset disaster. Japan and other countries may be reluctant, but a legally binding, global phase-out of most single-out plastics has become inescapable.

A global prohibition would need to be strictly enforced. In the absence of enforcement, current partial bans on single-use plastic shopping bags in more than 100 countries, for example, have proved ineffective.

Creating a more sustainable world demands effective management of plastic waste, innovations toward eco-friendly substitutes, and monetary incentives to help clear the plastic debris. It also calls for reducing consumer demand for environmentally harmful products that also generate a lot of plastic waste, like bottled water.

The right policies and regulations can promote high rates of recycling and prevent plastic waste in public spaces. Japan has been slow to respond to the plastic-waste crisis, although it produces the largest amount of such waste per capita after the United States. Japan could learn from Germany, the world’s recycling champion that recycles nearly all plastic bottles. In Berlin, for example, the poor perform an environmental service by scavenging public trash bins for bottles yielding deposit return from machines at supermarkets.

Imagine if an attractive monetary incentive was offered to the poor in all countries to collect bottles and other plastic waste and deposit them with retailers. It would help to dramatically control plastic trash and litter.

Waste pickers hold the key to effective waste management, including recycling, but they need a living wage to serve the public. Deposit return schemes are necessary but not sufficient as they are usually restricted to bottles. An environmental tax on plastics could help governments to raise sufficient money to incentivize the collection of all plastic debris. Consumer goods companies should also be made to help cover the costs of waste management and cleanup.

Make no mistake: The plastic waste scourge is seriously imperiling the world’s environmental well-being, including contaminating our freshwater and food chain. Without urgent action to arrest the problem, there will be, as research shows, more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans by 2050. And more people might be dying from cancer and other environmental diseases.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2019.

The Global War on Terrorism Has Failed. Here’s How to Win.

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Targeting terrorists and their networks brings only temporary success. A long-term strategy needs to focus on discrediting the ideology that spawns suicide killers.

By Brahma Chellaney

Foreign Policy journal| May 2019

The jihadi bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday are the latest reminder that terrorism is not driven by deprivation or ignorance. As with the 2016 cafe attack on foreigners in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the slaughter of churchgoers and hotel guests in Sri Lanka was carried out by educated Islamists from wealthy families. Two of the eight Sri Lankan suicide bombers were sons of one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen. Several of the attackers had the means to study abroad.

One reason why these attacks keep taking place is that the U.S.-led global war on terrorism has failed—and that is because it has focused on eliminating terrorists and their networks, not on defeating the jihadi ideology that inspires suicide attacks around the world. The bombings in a place as unlikely as Sri Lanka—a country with no history of radical Islamist terrorism—underscore how far militaristic theology can spread and why the world needs to tackle it at its roots.

When it comes to radical Islamist terrorism, the ideological roots can most often be traced back to Wahhabism, an extreme form of Sunni Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism legitimizes violent jihad with its call for a war on “infidels.” According to the Saudi Muslim scholar Ali al-Ahmed, it advocates that nonbelievers are “to be hated, to be persecuted, even killed.” Such is the power of this insidious ideology that the two sons of a Sri Lankan spice tycoon, Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim, chose martyrdom over a continued life of comfort and luxury, including living in a palatial villa and traveling in expensive chauffeured cars.

Make no mistake: Wahhabism’s phony idea of a paradise full of sensual delights for martyrs foments suicide killings. The so-called benefits it espouses make a would-be attacker believe that he will be delivered 72 virgins in heaven. (This claim finds no mention in the Quran but is found in a supposed ninth-century hadith—a record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.)

Founded in the 18th century by the cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Wahhabism remained a fringe form of Islam until the dawn of the oil price boom in the 1970s. Flush with funds, Saudi Arabia has since spent $200 billion funding Wahhabi madrassas (religious seminaries), mosques, clerics, and books to promote its form of Islam and gain geopolitical influence. But the oil price boom was not the only factor contributing to Wahhabism’s rapid spread. The export of this jihad-fostering ideology was also promoted by the United States and its allies to stem, for example, the threat from Soviet communism: The CIA, according to the author Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (the nephew of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy), “nurtured violent jihadism as a Cold War weapon.”

Gradually, Wahhabism has been snuffing out the diverse, more liberal Islamic traditions in non-Arab countries with large Muslim communities and created a toxic environment in which extremism can thrive. Pluralistic interpretations of Islam are being stifled so that this hard-line strain makes inroads. By promoting militant Islamic fundamentalism, Saudi Arabia and its ideological partners have in effect promoted modern Islamist terrorism. The sponsorship of extremism has fostered hatred, misogyny, and violence, and it has deepened differences between Sunnis and Shiites. And that divide, in turn, has roiled regional geopolitics and incited anti-Shiite attacks in predominantly Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Against this background, it is past time for the global war on terrorism to be reoriented. U.S. counterterrorism policy should focus not merely on foes like the Islamic State and al Qaeda but also on Arab monarch friends pushing a jihadi agenda by, among other means, turning a blind eye to charities in their countries that fund Islamist militancy around the world. Despite steps taken by Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region to disrupt terrorist financing, Persian Gulf-based charities—as the U.S. State Department’s annual country reports on terrorism acknowledge—continue to play a role in the sponsorship of terrorist groups.

Saudi Arabia—perhaps the largest sponsor of radical Islam and one of the world’s most repressive states—has faced little international pressure even on human rights. In fact, the total ban on Iranian oil exports ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration from May 3 will financially reward Saudi Arabia and the other jihad-financing countries. Iran, to be sure, is a destabilizing regional force. But it is certainly not “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” as the Trump administration calls it. The largest acts of international terrorism—including the recent Sri Lanka bombings, the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and the 2008 Mumbai siege—were carried out by brutal Sunni organizations with connections to Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism but none to Iran. Indeed, all major Islamist terrorist organizations, despite their differing jihadi philosophies and goals, draw their ideological sustenance from Wahhabism, the source of modern Sunni jihad.

The United States lists Iran, Sudan, Syria, and North Korea as state sponsors of terrorism but not Saudi Arabia, despite Trump calling the country “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism.” Recently, the Trump administration added Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to its list of foreign terrorist organizations. But still missing from that list is a major terrorism-exporting force—Pakistan’s military—which maintains cozy ties with transnational terrorist groups, including providing, as Trump has acknowledged, “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”

The politicization of the global war on terrorism must end so that a concerted and sustained international onslaught on the perverted ideology of radical Islam can begin. Such an offensive is essential because, as long as violent jihadism is perceived as a credible ideology, suicide bombers will be motivated to carry out horrific attacks.

In fact, the only way to defeat an enemy driven by a pernicious ideology is to discredit that ideology. The West won the Cold War not so much by military means as by spreading the ideas of freedom and capitalism that helped suck the lifeblood out of communism’s international appeal, thereby making it incapable of meeting the widespread popular yearning for a better, more open life.

Today, jihadi theology helps link diverse Islamist groups around the world. Because the cross-border linkages of these outfits are often based not on structured coordination but simply on a shared ideology, the global jihadi movement is essentially self-organizing. The movement’s strength remains unaffected even if any individuals or bands are eliminated in government counterterrorism actions. Another ominous fact is that when individuals embrace the ideology of violent jihadism, their leap to actual terrorism can be swift and sudden.

The focus of the global war on terrorism must shift to crushing this ideological movement. One way to do this is to deploy a sustained information campaign to discredit the ideology of radical Islam. For example, it would not be difficult to mock and run down the jihadi notion that a martyr in heaven will enjoy the company of 72 virgins. And the concept of jihad itself can be attacked as antithetical to the fundamental principles of contemporary civilization, while the Islamist drive to impose sharia, or Islamic law, should be exposed as an assault on science and modernity, as fostering gender inequality and discrimination against women and non-Muslims, and as legitimizing child rape through the marriage of young girls to adult men.

While working to systematically bring into disrepute the jihadi ideology, punitive sanctions should be slapped on Saudi and other Persian Gulf terrorist financiers as well as charities still funding overseas Islamist seminaries, clerics, and groups. The Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force should develop more effective ways to stop nonstate terrorist financiers from exploiting informal financial systems.

Only a robust response—from governments and civil societies—to the mounting threats from Islamist ideology can help contain the spread of terrorism. In combating that dangerous ideology, the United States must take the lead and help bring the global war on terrorism back on track.

Brahma Chellaney, the author of nine books, is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

© Foreign Policy, 2019.