A Review of Water: Asia’s Next Battleground

In much of Asia, the growing middle class is driving up demand for freshwater supplies, water-intensive crops and resource-intensive goods that have been taken for granted  in the West. With only one-third of global water resources for three-fifths of the world’s population, efficient use and management of water is critical to social, political and economic stability in Asia. Climate change and increased demand are putting strain on the global water supply, and uncertainty of future reserves and access to existing stores are making water a disputed commodity.

In Water: Asia’s Next Battleground, Dr. Brahma Chellaney explores the geopolitical consequences of water management policies in Asia set against the landscape of a water-stressed continent. A fantastically detailed look into the domestic and international issues of several key states in Asia, the book demonstrates that the management of the increasingly scarce and necessary resource is invariably complex and can create tensions among neighbors. As potential solutions to an impending crisis, Chellaney calls for the establishment of Asian norms for transboundary water resources, inclusive and coherent basin organizations, and a holistic approach to planning, conservation and water quality. China is at the heart of the problems and solutions of the impending water crisis in Asia, with its reluctance to be a leader for multilateral arrangements, its focus on dam-building and neglect of the environment.

Poised to become the scarcest essential resource in the world, water scarcity affects internal and external security of states. Compared to all other regions, Asia has the least amount of freshwater per capita and one of the lowest levels of water productivity and efficiency. Chellaney defines water shortage as “an absolute deficiency where the level of available water cannot meet basic societal and economic needs”, and water stress as having “less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per capita”. The goal of water security is for every person to have dependable access to sufficient, safe and affordable water, while keeping the ecological systems intact and thriving. Asia is, according to Chellaney, negligent in its use and management of natural resources, and water is no exception. Inadequate supply, increasing pollution and diminishing natural wetlands are critical issues faced by the rapidly-developing states at a time when demand continues to rise.

Improvements in irrigation technologies and better widespread use of drip irrigation may improve Asia’s water security. While the rest of the world uses rainwater as its primary source for agriculture, Asia has a much higher percentage of cultivated land using irrigation than any other continent. Chellaney calls Asia “the global irrigation hub” and notes that the Asian method of irrigation is making the land less productive than rainwater-fed land. Throughout the book, Chellaney reiterates the need for more investment in drip irrigation, particularly in India, and steadily criticizes China’s South-North Water Diversion Project as another troubled megaproject. Large-scale irrigated farming has helped to reduce rural poverty and enabled greater agricultural self-sufficiency in many Asian countries. As top water-intensive crops, rice and cotton continue to be critical to Asian livelihoods. Despite food security underpinning the rise of Asian economies, the increasing population and their desire for water-intensive products are fueling rivalries and tensions.

The Tibetan Plateau and Brahmaputra River are examples of significant areas where access to water is being controversially modified. With control of the Tibetan Plateau, China has attempted to tap resources from each international river originating in the area; Chellaney suspects that a central part of the Great South-North Water Diversion Project in China is the diversion of the Brahmaputra River. As the essential river for Bangladesh and a critical basin for India, any plans to modify the flow or affect the ecosystem of the Brahmaputra River will impact millions of people. The increasing number of Chinese-led megaprojects exploiting rivers flowing from the Tibetan Plateau are worrying their neighbors and making water a divisive issue. Chellaney lambasts the Chinese government, run by individuals with engineering backgrounds, for perpetuating Mao’s idea of controlling nature rather than bending to it (ignoring potential environmental damage and disruption to wildlife) and for resettling entire villages and towns to make way for megaprojects. China has more dams in operation than all other countries combined, and has over 100 dam projects in dozens of countries. However China continues to publicly claim that is has no plans to divert the Brahmaputra River, and Indian suspicion of this claim is growing. Despite its unique position supplying river waters to the most individual countries, China does not have a water-sharing agreement with its neighbors or co-riparians and is instead embroiled in disputes with riparian neighbors; rather than joining the Mekong River Commission or other multilateral solutions, China’s preference for bilateral arrangements somewhat undermine the Commission and future efforts.

Much of the conflict – current and potential – over water access seems to be on racial and ethnic lines. Tensions among different ethnic groups within Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka and India are made worse by water disputes. Chellaney’s case studies demonstrate limited ability of a purely supply-side strategy to meet the challenges brought on by water distribution. In each of these states, governance is poor and water disputes are associated with “deeper socioeconomic discontent, fueling a cycle of unending unrest and sporadic violence”. When citizens lose confidence in the ability of their government to be fair and impartial, new threats arise from an erosion of the rule of law. Chellaney offers a direction for relevant states in Asia to mitigate their water-sharing disputes and challenges, but the book would benefit from a more detailed prescription and less repetition of his outwardly anti-China rhetoric.

For both domestic and international disputes, Chellaney prescribes a holistic approach that is long-term, adequately integrates both demand management and supply-side approaches, focuses on quality as much as quantity of water, and utilizes input from diverse stakeholders and management at different levels. Cooperative relations are necessary to solving water disputes and protecting resources for the future; these relations can then broaden to include additional areas of cooperation. There must be trust among co-riparians, with competition for resources minimized to enable a foundation for a contemporary water-sharing agreement. While Asia could use another green revolution to institute more practices for efficient water use, another significant need is to build institutions to facilitate a water-sharing framework in transboundary basins. Strategic planning and resource management are key to supervising stocks of Asia’s water supply; however without unified norms and institutions accountability and structure will be lacking.

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