30 December 2016

Averting water wars in Asia


China’s riparian dominance and maritime aggression have the potential to escalate conflict in the continent

Water is a precious resource, for which there is no substitute. One-third of the people in the world facing water stress or water scarcity live in India, which generously signed a treaty in 1960 reserving over 80 per cent of the waters of the six-river Indus system for its adversary Pakistan. Since then, water shortages in India’s Indus basin have become acute, triggering silent water wars between states in the north. The paradox is that India has failed to tap its treaty-allocated 19.48 per cent share of the Indus resources.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done well to initiate moves to correct this anomaly. The high-level inter-ministerial task force set up by Modi for this purpose held its meeting on December 23.

Averting water-related conflicts is actually a major challenge across Asia, which has less freshwater per capita than any other continent, except Antarctica. This reality has helped promote growing interstate and intrastate disputes over shared water resources. An MIT study this year found a high risk that Asia’s current water crisis could worsen, to severe water shortages by 2050.

Yet Asia’s maritime-security challenges draw much greater international attention than its river-water disputes. This is largely because sea-related issues, such as in the South China Sea, affect even outside powers by threatening the safety of sea lanes and freedom of navigation. The truth is this: Asia’s sharpening competition over transnationally shared freshwater resources holds strategic ramifications just as ominous as those relating to maritime territorial disputes.

Recent developments are highlighting how the competition and fight over shared water resources is a major contributory factor to the growing geopolitical discord and tensions in Asia. In fact, China’s ‘territorial grab’ in the South China Sea has been accompanied by a quieter ‘freshwater grab’ in transnational river basins. Re-engineering trans-boundary water flows is integral to China’s strategy to employ power, control, influence, and fashion a strongly Sino-centric Asia.

China’s relationship with India, for example, is roiled by increasing discord over shared water resources. To complete a major dam project, China said recently that it has cut off the flow of a tributary of the Brahmaputra River, the lifeline of Bangladesh and northeastern India. The tributary drains into the Brahmaputra within Tibet itself.

The blocking of the Xiabuqu River’s flow comes amid ongoing Chinese work to dam another Brahmaputra tributary, the Lhasa River, into a series of artificial lakes.

With the focus of China’s dam building and other water diversions moving from internal rivers to international rivers, Chinese mega-projects now are increasingly concentrated in the resource-rich minority homelands, especially the Tibetan Plateau — the starting point of 10 major Asian rivers.

This has spurred growing concern in downstream countries over how China is using its control over Asia’s largest river systems to re-engineer cross-border flows. With as many as 18 downstream neighbours, China enjoys riparian dominance of a kind unmatched in the world.

Meanwhile, China’s close ally, Pakistan, has sought to initiate — for the second time in this decade — international arbitral tribunal proceedings against India under the terms of the Indus Waters Treaty. Seeking international intercession is part of Pakistan’s ‘water war’ strategy against upstream India. Indeed, Pakistan has used the treaty to sustain its conflict and tensions with India, including over Kashmir.

Asia’s economic rise has been aided by peace and stability. But the upsurge of resource and territorial disputes are highlighting major new dangers, including the linkage between water and peace. In the coming years, water scarcity could become Asia’s defining crisis. In this light, India must treat water as a strategic resource for its own well-being.

The author is a strategic thinker and commentator

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