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The Sceptre Of Water Wars

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Water is a strategic resource. So strategic, in fact, that it can trigger wars. In Water: Asia's New Battleground, strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney looks at the defence and strategic affairs value of water and places it centre-stage in the economic development and security of Asia. The book blitz-builds the case that China holds sway over Asia's water resources and its thirst for water could set off wars. Its seven chapters cover a large canvas — from West to Southeast Asia. But the bulk of the thesis centres around China, the Tibetan Plateau and the fact the Red Giant's need (or greed?) for water, minerals and forests will decimate the plateau's delicate ecology, impacting the rest of Asia.

China, says Chellaney, is the upper riparian (upstream) state in all the major river basins of Asia save those in West Asia. It is upstream of India with the Brahmaputra, Southeast Asia with the Salween, Irrawaddy and Mekong, Central Asia with the Syr Darya, Amur and Irtysh. China will use water as a lever to keep riparian states on good behaviour. It would be good to have a counter-argument, where other Asian countries ally to keep China on good behaviour.

The book analyses China's water programmes and their impacts on downstream countries, ecology and people. China, not content with damming its own Yellow and Yangtze rivers to death, has big designs on other rivers. These include run-of-the-river power generation projects and water diversion efforts. Both are equally damaging to the ecology. Water diversion additionally reduces downstream flows and can spark conflicts. The book has interesting data on China's plans to develop water resources of the Tibetan Plateau, largely the Brahmaputra, which is the world's fourth largest by discharge. Through its gargantuan South-North Water Transfer Project, China plans to divert 200 billion cubic metre water from the south to its dry northern regions — its breadbasket.

China is also turning to hydropower to run its industries. The scale of China's hydropower industry is staggering. It is one of the world's biggest. China terms dams "highly visible symbols of burgeoning economic cooperation". These, despite the ecological and social havoc Yangtze and Yellow have caused. Rivers from the Tibetan Plateau are being dammed to generate thousands of megawatts. The dam on the Brahmaputra will generate 38 gigawatt. And this will greatly reduce water flows into India and, importantly, to Bangladesh, which depends on the river for about 60 per cent of its water.
That said, India's approach lies in contrast to China's coldly calculated water development. India, the wannabe Asian power, signed away about 80 per cent of the water in the Indus basin to Pakistan under the Indus Waters Treaty (1960). Chellaney damns India's tardiness in securing its water interests with eastern neighbours such as Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. It has been slow to pre-empt China's exploitation of the Brahmaputra by developing Arunachal Pradesh's hydropower potential. Evidently, our foreign and defence policies were inept and immature against China's aggression and long-term planning.

Chellaney also scans global conventions that govern trans-boundary rivers. An example is the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. But he does not look at other key conventions such as the EU Water Framework Directive. The UN convention codifies many principles of customary water law, but many nations are yet to ratify it. So, it can only serve as a guide.

The book devotes a chapter on intra-state conflicts, but only skims the myriad tussles over water in India. It does throw light on water fights in Pakistan, Iraq and Turkey. The final chapter on managing global water disputes offers a few half-baked answers, but essentially slips into the now-familiar China bashing mode.

That said, the book's attempt at placing water at the strategic centre of Asia is commendable. It provides a new spin to water management. Often, water managers do not take it to be a source of international tension or conflict. The book raises the spectre of wars over water but exorcises it saying China is too big a bully to be taken on. "Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody," quipped Mark Twain. But sadly, few have done so, and it is going to hurt many.

Author's Details:
Brahma Chellaney is a strategic analyst and teaches at Delhi's Centre for Policy Research. Formerly an adviser to the National Security Council, he has taught at Harvard University, the Brookings Institution, Johns Hopkins University, among others. He is the author of five books, including Asian Juggernaut: The Rise Of China, India and Japan.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 20-02-2012)