The sharpening Asian competition over energy resources has obscured another danger: water shortages in much of Asia are becoming a threat to rapid economic modernization.
Water has emerged as a key issue that could determine if Asia is headed towards cooperation or competition. No country would influence that direction more than China, which controls the Tibetan plateau, the source of most major rivers of Asia.
Tibet’s vast glaciers and high altitude have endowed it with the world’s greatest river systems. Its rivers are a lifeline to the world’s two most-populous states—China and India—as well as to Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. These countries make up 47% of the global population.
Yet, Asia is a water-deficient continent. Although home to more than half of the human population, Asia has less fresh water—3,920 cu. m per person—than any continent other than the Antarctica.
The looming struggle over water resources in Asia has been underscored by the spread of irrigated farming, water-intensive industries and a growing middle class that wants high water-consuming comforts such as washing machines and dishwashers.
Household water consumption in Asia is rising rapidly, although several major economies there are acutely water-stressed.
The specter of water wars in Asia is also being highlighted by climate change and environmental degradation in the form of shrinking forests and swamps that foster a cycle of chronic flooding and droughts.
The Himalayan snow melt that feeds Asia’s great rivers could be accelerated by global warming.
While intrastate water-sharing disputes have become rife in several Asian countries—from India and Pakistan to Southeast Asia and China—it is the potential interstate conflict over river-water resources that should be of greater concern.
This concern arises from Chinese attempts to dam or redirect the southward flow of river waters from the Tibetan plateau, starting point of the Indus, the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Salween, the Brahmaputra, the Karnali and the Sutlej rivers.
Among Asia’s mighty rivers, only the Ganga starts from the Indian side of the Himalayas. The uneven availability of water within some nations has given rise to grand ideas—from linking rivers in India to diverting the fast-flowing Brahmaputra northward to feed the arid areas in the Chinese heartland.
Interstate conflict, however, will surface only when an idea is translated into action to benefit one country at the expense of a neighbouring one. As water woes have intensified in its north owing to intensive 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 also to channel the waters for irrigation and other purposes, and is presently toying with massive inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects.
After building two dams upstream, China is building at least three more on the Mekong, stirring passions in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.
Several Chinese projects in west-central Tibet have a bearing on river-water flows into India, but Beijing is reluctant to share information. Having extensively contaminated its own major rivers through unbridled industrialization, China now threatens the ecological viability of river systems tied to South and Southeast Asia in its bid to meet its thirst for water and energy.
The idea of a Great South-North Water Transfer Project diverting Tibetan river waters has the backing of President Hu Jintao, a hydrologist. The first phase of this project calls for building 300 km of tunnels and channels to draw waters from the Jinsha, Yalong and Dadu rivers, on the eastern rim of the Tibetan plateau.
In the second phase, the Brahmaputra waters may be rerouted northward, in what be tantamount to the declaration of water war on lower-riparian India and Bangladesh.
In fact, Beijing has identified the bend where the Brahmaputra forms the world’s longest and deepest canyon just before entering India as holding the largest untapped reserves for meeting its water and energy needs.
The future of the Tibetan plateau’s 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 titled, Tibet’s Waters Will Save China.
Large hydro projects and reckless exploitation of mineral resources already threaten Tibet’s fragile ecosystems, with ore tailings from mining operations beginning to contaminate water sources. While China seems intent on aggressively pursuing upstream projects on interstate rivers, the forestalling of water wars demands a cooperative Asian framework among basin states to work towards common ownership of the resources.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Comments are welcome at email@example.com