Thursday, December 15, 2011

China Holds the Key to Asia’s ‘Blue Gold’

While analysis on the scramble for diminishing resources has often centered on oil, water deserves particular attention because of three key characteristics: It is a resource with no substitute, it cannot be secured in sufficiently large quantities through long-distance trade deals, and due to the interconnectivity of the hydrological system, the actions of one country in its water management have direct bearing on the interests of neighboring countries.

In “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” Brahma Chellaney argues that the story of water is especially compelling in Asia. The continent is home to three-fifths of the world’s population, but it has less freshwater available per capita than any other continent except Antarctica. Asian demand for fresh water is growing at the fastest rate in the world (mostly due to bad management and inefficient use, water contamination, rapid economic growth and strong reliance on irrigation), and Asia’s population is projected to increase by another 1.4 billion by 2050.

Asia is home to several rising countries, and water scarcity is likely to threaten economic growth and thus there is and will continue to be fierce competition for this rapidly depleting resource.

When framed against the backdrop of fluid power dynamics among Asian countries, distrust stemming from historical baggage and strengthened military capabilities in the region, Chellaney’s warning of dangerous tensions arising in the near future seems like a logical, albeit alarming conclusion:

“Water scarcity is set to become Asia’s defining crisis by mid-century, creating obstacles in its path of continued rapid economic growth and stoking new interstate tensions over shared basic resources,” Chellaney writes. “As water distress intensifies and global warming accelerates, local, national, and interstate disputes over water are likely to become endemic in Asia, straining efforts to regulate competition through cooperative mechanism.”

This well-researched volume is a fascinating blend of geography, hydrology and politics, and Chellaney’s statistics make convincing arguments. For example: China and India “are home to 37 percent of the world’s population but have to make do with 10.8 percent of its water.”

And: “If China’s annual biofuel production target of 12 million metric tons by 2020 is to be met, it will demand the appropriation, according to one study, of 5 to 10 percent of the total cultivated land in the country and 32-72 cubic kilometers of water per year” — approximately equivalent to the annual discharge of the Yellow River.

Using the examples of neighboring countries Pakistan and India, and Singapore and Malaysia, Chellaney highlights how water problems are compounded by existing rifts, and are unlikely to find easy solutions.

As with so many other issues these days, the key piece to the water puzzle appears to be China.

“The big issue in Asia, apart from climate change, is whether China will exploit its control of the Tibetan Plateau to increasingly siphon off for its own use the waters of the international rivers that are the lifeblood of the countries located in a contiguous arc from Vietnam to Afghanistan. China is not only building megadams on the international rivers running out of the Tibetan Plateau but is also damming the transboundary streams in its north and west that flow to Russia and Kazakhstan. China has dammed every major river on the Tibetan Plateau — including the Mekong, the Salween, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Indus, the Sutlej, the Shweli and the Karnali. China has unveiled plans to dam the rivers that still remain free flowing, such as the Arun and the Subansiri.”

Tibet is strategically important to China due to its centrality in Asia’s hydrological cycle: Tibet’s glaciers, underground springs, lakes and high altitude makes it the freshwater repository, water supplier and rainmaker of China, Southeast Asia and South Asia. Chellaney writes: “Control over the ‘blue gold’ wealth of the Tibetan Plateau makes China a potential water power in the way Saudi Arabia is an oil power.”

Chellaney paints a revealing picture of China’s obsession with mega water projects, such as the Three Gorges dam, which has already caused great ecological damage, and China’s plan to build the world’s largest dam and hydropower station on the Brahmaputra, which will generate twice the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam.

The crux of the problem is that for far too long, Asian countries have focused on supply side solutions rather than demand management. The exploitation of water resources has already altered the ecological balance in much of Asia. Just as it is potentially the source of the largest problems, Chellaney sees China as the solution to managing the complex web of hydropolitics:

“The country best placed to play a leadership role to help develop cooperative water-related mechanisms is China, the geographical hub of the continent that shares land borders with 14 countries. Add to this picture its control over Asia’s water repository, the Tibetan Plateau. China is a common factor in more than a dozen crucial river basins in Asia that lack institutionalized cooperation and management among all co-riparian states.”

While he reserves judgment on whether China is likely to step up to this role, Chellaney strongly advocates cooperative institutional mechanisms between states.

“Asia needs preventive diplomacy geared toward forestalling water wars. Only regional collaborative mechanisms can help mitigate the risks that arise from the rush to dam transboundary rivers, overexploit aquifers that straddle international borders, or create a hydroengineering infrastructure upstream to support the use of water as an asymmetric political tool. If water is not to draw new battle lines between Asian states, there is no alternative to wise basin resource management that follows institutional norms and means.”

This prescriptive volume is a sobering read for those of us residing in Asia, and the weight of its message certainly deserves urgent and widespread attention.

Loh Su Hsing is an associate fellow of the Asia Program at Chatham House. This review is reprinted with permission from The Asian Review of Books.

"Water: Asia’s New Battleground"
By Brahma Chellaney
Georgetown University Press, September 2011

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