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Making a splash

About China's role in the water politics of Asia. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes.

books Updated: Dec 09, 2011 16:53 IST

Water: Asia's New Battleground

Brahma Chellaney

HarperCollins

Rs 699 pp 400

Mao Zedong, during a 1955 visit to Sichuan, expectantly went to the Min river to see if he could take a dip. He concluded the waters were too turbulent and a dip too risky. The embarrassed local communist party leader promptly ordered a dam be built to tame the river's waves. That dam, Zipingpu, and its reservoir are suspected to have contributed to the terrible Sichuan earthquake that occurred a few years ago.

Mao often mimicked the status-enhancing ways of ancient Chinese emperors. One of the most important signs that a Chinese leader retained the 'mandate of heaven' was his ability to build dams, control rivers and otherwise harness water. This is one reason China is today home to half the world's dams, its firms the largest builders of hydroelectric schemes across the planet, and Beijing's utterances on water a source of growing friction with all of China's neighbours.

Brahma Chellaney argues that an imperial Chinese belief that great leaders should build grandiose projects, a communist obsession with large-scale engineering and the geographical accident of China's controlling the headwaters of most major Asian river systems threaten to merge to produce an "Asia racked by great power rivalries and murky hydropolitics". While this book on the politics of water takes a peak at the Israeli-Palestine dispute and the destruction of the Aral Sea, it is fundamentally about China's role in the water politics of Asia. Chellaney, a professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, makes the case that China not merely has a stranglehold on ten of Asia's most important watersheds, it is also flagrantly unconcerned about its responsibilities as an upper riparian country. It is, by nature, a water bully.

China's ace is Tibet, whose mountainous reaches are "Asia's main freshwater repository, largest water supplier and principal rainmaker." The Mekong, Indus, Brahmaputra and Yellow rivers are just some of the rivers that originate in Tibet. Combined with China's insatiable need for water consumption, Beijing is in some dispute or another with all its hydrological neighbours. Chellaney goes into great detail about the Great South-North Water Transfer Project, a Chinese plan to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra to the country's parched northern plain. This plan would have an enormous fallout on downstream countries like India and Bangladesh. What logically follows, of course, is that countries like India would treat China's hydro-imperialism as a security concern - and conflict over water becomes likely.

Most of the bleaker prospects considered in this book are still scenarios. China has yet to block the Brahmaputra and, partly because of protests from India, has gone out of its way to show it is building only run-of-the-water dams that do not block flow. Also notable is that when rival countries do come to a water agreement, how well it holds over time - the Indo-Pakistan Indus Waters Treaty being the best example.

The book underplays how domestic water policies contribute more to water stress and scarcity than cross-border diversions. As a World Bank study once noted, New Delhi has a higher per capita availability of water than Paris. Yet the latter has none of the chronic water shortages that afflict the former. The answer is poor management. This applies as much to one-party China as it does to democratic India. Much water stress would be alleviated if governments priced this resource sensibly.

This book's great strength is the quantity of data it brings together. It is less convincing in its broader conclusions about the likelihood of water conflict or the malevolence of China.