Water: Asia’s New BattlegroundSeptember 14, 2011 By Michael Kugelman“Asia faces a daunting water crisis,” warns Brahma Chellaney, professor at the Center for Policy Research (New Delhi) and author of the new book, Water: Asia’s New Battleground. It is a crisis that imperils the region’s economic and political rise, and that deepens environmental risk in a part of the world marked by melting glaciers and densely populated coastal areas.
In his book, Chellaney, regarded as one of India’s most distinguished strategists, surveys the water landscape across Asia; examines the security implications of water-based territorial disputes; and offers policy recommendations to help prevent water conflict. On September 12, Chellaney spoke about Water at a Wilson Center event organized by the Asia Program and co-sponsored by the China Environment Forum and Environmental Change and Security Program. Steven Solomon, a journalist and author who last year published Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, offered commentary.
According to Chellaney, Water “fills a void in the literature” by, for the first time, focusing on water issues across the entire continental region of Asia – an immense expanse that includes not only Northeast, Southeast, and South Asia, but also Central Asia and the Middle East. The book, he explained, defines Asia “as it looks on a map.”
The World’s Dam Center
What drives the water crisis in this vast region? One factor is population. Asia is the world’s largest and most populous continent but also the most water-deficient; its freshwater levels per capita are one-third those of Europe’s, and slightly less than Africa’s. Another is tied to economic development. Asia is the world’s fastest developing continent, yet its most rapidly developing nations, particularly India and China, are already afflicted by serious water challenges.
Rising income levels and attendant growth in consumption rates are additional drivers. Asians are consuming more resources, including meat, which requires prodigious amounts of water to produce. A fourth factor is intensive irrigation. Seventy percent of the world’s total irrigation originates in Asia, and 80 percent of the region’s “water withdrawals” are allocated to agriculture. (The latter figure is only 30 percent in Europe.) Such large-scale irrigation has enabled Asia to evolve from “a land of recurrent famine” to a major food exporter, yet it has also spawned ruinous agricultural conditions such as waterlogging and soil salinity.
Chellaney contended that Asia’s water ills can also be attributed to the “large-scale impoundment of water” by dams, barrages, and other storage-creating structures. Asia is the world’s “dam center,” he said, with China boasting half the world’s dams and now planning to construct “mega dams,” including one “higher than the Eiffel Tower.” Impounding water triggers riverwater depletion, which in turns promotes “the reckless use” of sub-surface groundwater resources, said Chellaney. With water tables plummeting, millions of groundwater pumps are depleting what used to be a pristine and plentiful resource.
“We Need Better Politics”
In a region rife with transboundary rivers yet devoid of mechanisms to promote transboundary water-sharing, Asia’s water troubles pose grave geopolitical risks.
According to Chellaney, “water wars” are already being waged across the region via non-military means, fostering mistrust and hampering efforts toward greater cooperation. He argued that in order to forestall water conflict, Asia must develop a set of norms on shared resources based on the 1997 UN Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses – the only available instrument for international water management. Chellaney also called for the creation of “inclusive water institutions,” that emphasize transparency and dispute settlements, and for the adoption of “holistic planning” on central and provincial governmental levels that aim for better water efficiency.
Playing devil’s advocate, Solomon faulted Chellaney for according insufficient attention to Asia’s crisis of energy – a resource that, he pointed out, is “extraordinarily water-intensive.” He also countered Chellaney’s criticism of dams by observing that Asia desperately needs storage – a deficiency that makes the region highly vulnerable to drought. And he questioned whether China’s dam-building activities on the Brahmaputra River truly imperil lower riparian India’s water security, noting that only 15 percent of the river’s flows entering India are impacted by Chinese dams.
Ultimately, Chellaney said, alleviating Asia’s water crisis will also require improving the region’s poor political environment. While Asian economies are coming together, its politics are more divided. Transboundary water cooperation – and any treaty meant to undergird it – cannot be expected to last if co-riparians do not get along. “We need better politics,” he concluded.
Event ResourcesMichael Kugelman is a program associate with the Wilson Center’s Asia Program.
Photo Credit: David Hawxhurst/Wilson Center.