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A very fluid policy

Water is a key issue that will determine if Asia is headed towards cooperation or competition. No country will influence that direction more than China, writes Brahma Chellaney.

india Updated: Jun 25, 2007 10:16 IST

The sharpening Asian competition over energy resources, driven in part by high GDP growth rates and in part by mercantilist attempts to lock up supplies, has obscured another danger: water shortages are becoming a threat to rapid economic modernisation in Asia. Sustainable development demands adequate aqua resources, yet Asia, with more than half the human population, has less fresh water — 3,920 cubic metres per person — than any continent other than Antarctica.

The spectre of Asian conflict over water resources is being underscored by climate change and environmental degradation that fosters a cycle of chronic flooding and droughts through the depletion of forests and swamps — nature’s water storage and absorption cover. The Himalayan snowmelt that feeds Asia’s great rivers could be damagingly accelerated by global warming. Yet, water consumption in Asia is rising rapidly with the spread of intensive farming and water-intensive industries (from steel to paper-making) and growth of a middle-class seeking high water-consuming comforts like washing machines and dishwashers.

While intra-state water-sharing disputes have become rife in several countries — from India and Pakistan to Southeast Asia and China — it is the potential inter-state conflict over riverwater resources that should spur greater concern. This concern arises from Chinese attempts to dam or redirect the southward flow of river waters from the Tibetan plateau — the source of most major Asian rivers, including the Indus, the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Salween, the Brahmaputra, the Karnali and the Sutlej. Among the mighty rivers, only the Ganges originates on the Indian side of the Himalayas.

The lopsided water availability within some nations (abundant in some areas but deficient in others) has given rise to grand ideas — from linking rivers in India to diverting the fast-flowing Brahmaputra northwards to feed the arid areas in the Chinese heartland. Inter-state conflict, however, will surface only when an idea is translated into action to benefit oneself at the expense of a neighbouring nation.

As water woes have aggravated in its north owing to environmentally unsustainable irrigated farming, China has increasingly turned its attention to the bounteous water reserves that the Tibetan plateau holds. It has dammed rivers not just to produce hydropower but to channel the waters. With its control over that aqua-rich plateau, China holds the key to averting water wars in Asia.

Even so, after building two dams upstream, China is building at least three more on the Mekong, inflaming passions in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Several Chinese projects in west-central Tibet have a bearing on riverwater flows into India, but Beijing is loath to share information. After flash floods in Himachal Pradesh, however, China agreed in 2005 to supply New Delhi data on any abnormal rise or fall in the upstream level of the Sutlej, on which it has built a barrage. Discussions are on to persuade it to share flood-control data during the monsoon on two Brahmaputra tributaries, Lohit and Parlung Zangbo, as it already does on the Brahmaputra, now being dammed upstream.

<b1>The ten watersheds formed by the Himalayas and Tibetan highlands spread out river water far and wide in Asia, serving as a lifeline for hundreds of millions of Asians. Control over the 2.5 million-square-kilometre Tibetan plateau gives China tremendous leverage and access. Tibet, in the shape and size it existed independently up to 1950, comprises approximately one-fourth of China’s land mass today, having given Han society, for the first time in history, a contiguous frontier with India, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal.

Tibet traditionally encompassed the regions of Ü-Tsang (the central plateau), Kham and Amdo. After annexing Tibet, China separated Amdo (the present Dalai Lama’s birthplace) as the new Qinghai province, made Ü-Tsang and eastern Kham the Tibet Autonomous Region, and merged the remaining parts of Tibet into its provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu.

The traditional Tibet is not just a distinct cultural entity but also the natural plateau, the future of whose water reserves is tied to ecological conservation. As China’s hunger for primary commodities has grown, so too has its exploitation of Tibet’s resources. And as water woes have intensified in several major Chinese cities, a group of ex-officials have championed the northward rerouting of the Brahmaputra waters in a book enlighteningly titled, Tibet’s Waters Will Save China. Large hydro projects and reckless exploitation of mineral resources already threaten Tibet’s fragile ecosystems, with China now embarking on a paved road to Mount Everest.

No country is going to be more affected by China’s plans and projects in Tibet than India. The new $6.2-billion Gormu-Lhasa railway, for example, has significantly augmented China’s rapid military-deployment capability against India just when Beijing is becoming increasingly assertive in its claims on Indian territories. This hardline stance, in the midst of intense border-related negotiations, is no less incongruous than Beijing’s disinclination to set up what it had agreed to during its president’s visit to New Delhi last November — a joint expert-level mechanism on inter-state river waters.

Contrast China’s reluctance to establish a mechanism intended for mere “interaction and cooperation” on hydrological data with New Delhi’s big-heartedness towards downstream Pakistan, reflected both in the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (which generously reserves 56 per cent of the catchment flow for Pakistan) and the more recent acceptance of World Bank arbitration over the Baglihar Dam. Yet, as if to demonstrate that if you give an inch, it takes a mile, Islamabad has now raised objections to two more Indian hydropower projects — Uri 2 and Kishanganga.

No Indian project has sought to reroute or diminish trans-border water flows, yet Pakistan insists on a say in the structural design of projects upstream in India. New Delhi gladly permits Pakistani officials to inspect such projects. By contrast, Beijing drags its feet on setting up an innocuous interaction mechanism. Would China, under any arrangement, allow Indian officials to inspect its projects in Tibet or accept, if any dispute arose, third-party adjudication?

If anything, China seems intent on aggressively pursuing projects and employing water as a weapon. The idea of a Great South-North Project diverting river waters cascading from the Tibetan highlands has the seeming support of President Hu Jintao, a hydrologist who made his name through a brutal martial-law crackdown in Tibet in 1989. In crushing protestors at Tiananmen Square two months later, Deng Xiaoping borrowed a leaf from Hu’s Tibet book.

The ambition to channel the Brahmaputra waters to the Yellow River has been whetted by what Beijing touts as an engineering feat in building the giant Three Gorges Dam. While some feasibility doubts persist, the mammoth diversion could begin as water shortages become more acute in the heartland and the current $1.2 trillion foreign-exchange hoard brims over. The mega-scheme’s start would be tantamount to the declaration of a water war on India and Bangladesh.

Water is a key issue that will determine if Asia is headed towards cooperation or competition. No country will influence that direction more than China. If water geopolitics triggers inter-state tensions, the Asian renaissance could get stunted.