Books: a rising tide of water conflicts

Brahma Chellaney’s Water is the first in-depth analysis of an emerging crisis in Asia. Despite talk of cooperation, says Beth Walker, he belabours the roots of tensions rather than highlighting the benefits of working together.

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

The idea of imminent “water wars” has been relished by many security analysts. Water expert Peter Gleick has drawn up an official list of 225 water-related conflicts. The list begins with the biblical account of Noah and the flood that God unleashes to punish the sins of mankind in 3000 BC and ends with China’s attempt to block a loan to India for a dam project in a disputed area in 2009. Though water has long been involved in political disputes, however, there have been no real wars over water so far. 

But according to Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, this will soon change. And nowhere is the prospect of water wars more real than in Asia, where per-capita water availability is less than half the global average. The resource has already become the cause of competition and conflict between countries in the region.

Asia’s water crisis is driven by surging population, rapidly expanding economies and per-capita consumption levels, underpinned by unsustainable practices and gross mismanagement of resources. Global warming has contributed to the situation. 

But for Chellaney, the evil fulcrum of this crisis is China; uniquely positioned at the headwaters of all the major rivers in Asia, the rising superpower has its “hand on Asia’s tap”. The big issue for Asia is whether China will exploit its control of the Tibetan Plateau and siphon off the waters of international rivers for its own use.  

China has disputes with almost all of its neighbours – including India, Russia, Myanmar and North Korea. It is the world’s most prolific dam builder, both at home and abroad. The giant structures that China is building on international rivers – the Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy and Brahmaputra – are a particular source of anxiety. Most controversial is the Motuo dam, double the size of the Three Gorges, on the Brahmaputra near the disputed and heavily militarised border with India. China’s refusal to enter into any water-sharing agreements and the opacity of its aggressive water-development plans has aggravated anxieties.  

Chellaney devotes much space to describing China’s plans to re-route the waters of the Brahmaputra (known as Yarlung Zangbo when it flows through China) northwards across the Tibetan Plateau to revitalise the parched entrails of the Yellow River. This plan is part of the US$62 billion Great South-North Water Transfer Project, the largest water infrastructure scheme ever, and involves excavating a tunnel through the Himalayas using “peaceful nuclear explosions”. The Chinese communist party is divided over the feasibility of this outrageous project: but for Chellaney, it is not a question of “if” but “when” these projects will go ahead.

While some readers may accuse Chellaney of being alarmist, his thesis reflects a worrying trend: Asia, policy makers and the news media increasingly couch the debate around water resources in terms of national security and consider water-sharing a sign of political weakness. Hard battle lines have been drawn, leaving little space for debate.  

Unfortunately, any way out of the region’s increasing water crisis will require better cooperation over water resources and improved regional river-basin management. In the end, Chellaney recognises this: developing regional collaborative mechanisms and common understandings is the key to preventing future conflict, he says. Still, he draws a line under collaboration if it jeopardises India’s national interests. Herein lies Asia’s murky water problem.

Chellaney criticises the Indian government for being too weak and urges it to take a harder line to defend national interests when it comes to water.  But over the past year, India has ratcheted up water disputes between its own downstream neighbours. Pakistan has challenged India in the International Court of Arbitration over breaking conditions of the Indus Waters Treaty. Water tensions run deep between these two countries. The Teesta River agreement between India and Bangladesh collapsed in September, and old conflicts between the two neighbours over India’s Farakka Barrage on the Ganges also recently reared their ugly head. 

Amid this turmoil, Chellaney’s hawkish account will serve to further alienate India’s neighbours, rather than build the trust and open communication he argues is necessary. For example, Pakistan is dismissed as “the first failed nuclear armed state – the world’s Terroristan rolled into an Anarchistan”, a country with an elite that “sought to scapegoat” India for mismanagement of water resources. “If anything, it needs to get ready to make do with less water”, he helpfully concludes.  

Despite talk of working together, his book belabours the roots of tensions rather than highlighting the mutual benefits of regional cooperation – such as reduced flood disasters or improved water management and conservation.

Chellaney is more enlightening when he focuses on an area that has received far less attention: the nature of intra-state conflict within these same countries. Allocation of water has sparked endless conflict between Indian states: Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Punjab and Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. And the federal government and supreme courts have failed to adjudicate these water wrangles. In Pakistan, water disputes tend to get particularly ugly when they also rage along ethnic lines, as in Baluchistan. 

And in China, 22.9 million people have been forcefully displaced to make way for water projects. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, there were 51,000 pollution-related protests in 2006 alone – many involving water.

There is an emerging water crisis in Asia, and transboundary water disputes have certainly fuelled mistrust and soured political relations. Chellaney has produced a well-researched account of the potential challenges and conflicts resulting from this crisis. But as other analysts have argued, water can also serve as a vehicle for cooperation once the benefits of coordinated water-management are recognised. He would have done well to spend more time exploring these possibilities, rather than dwelling on old antagonisms.  

Beth Walker is a researcher for chinadialogue’s “the third pole” project.