Why precious is strategic

by Brahma Chellaney

Water, food, mineral ores and fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas are resources of the greatest strategic import. They hold the key to human development and, in the case of water and food, to even human survival.

Food production is intertwined with water and energy, while water and energy, for their part, are intimately linked to climate change. While the way we produce and consume energy makes up about two-thirds of all human-induced greenhouse gases, the availability of water resources will be directly affected by global warming.

Growing populations, rising affluence, increasing consumption, changing diets and the demands of development have already, however, placed significant pressure upon these strategic resources. The global food system is already struggling to meet the present demand for food, yet the World Bank projects a rise of 50 percent in global demand for food by 2030. To grow more food will require more water — a resource now threatened by depletion and pollution.

The 2030 Water Resources Group, a consortium of private-sector organizations, has pointed to a growing “water gap” in which global demand for water will be 40 percent more than supply by 2030. Today, agriculture alone accounts for approximately 3,100 billion cubic meters or 71 percent of global water withdrawals; by 2030, without water-efficiency gains, such withdrawals will increase to 4,500 billion cubic meters. Water withdrawals by industry are projected to rise from 16 percent of today’s global demand to 22 percent in 2030, with the greatest growth in use coming from China.

As for energy, the imperative to combat global warming goes against the current trends of rising consumption of energy, much of it produced with fossil fuel. Such is Asia’s appetite for energy that its share of global consumption is projected to almost double over the next 20 years — to about 48 percent for oil and 22 percent for natural gas. Yet, given its limited oil and gas reserves, Asia is particularly vulnerable to sudden supply shortage or disruption.

A further aspect regarding competition over resources is the intensification of resource geopolitics. Europe, for example, has worked hard to shape the direction of some of the Caspian Basin and Central Asian oil and gas pipelines because it has a stake in the issue of the routing. If Central Asian and Caspian Sea energy supplies are routed to the European market, that would help Europe diversify its imports and ease its dependence on Russia.

Within Asia, China has emerged as a key player in pipeline politics. Beijing has built its own pipeline to bring oil from Kazakhstan and is seeking two gas pipelines from Russia. These pipelines are a linchpin of China’s strategy to diversify its imports away from over-reliance on the volatile Persian Gulf region, the current source of more than half of Chinese overseas purchases. In contrast, energy-poor Japan and India do not have a similar option. Lacking geographical contiguity with Central Asia and Iran, India and Japan will remain largely dependent on oil imports by sea from the Persian Gulf region.

China, with the world’s most resource-hungry economy, fears that in the event of a strategic confrontation its economy could be held hostage by hostile naval forces through the interdiction of its oil imports. That concern has prompted Beijing to build a strategic oil reserve, and China is now in the process of fashioning two strategic corridors in southern Asia (on either side of India) through which it could transfer Persian Gulf and African oil for its consumption by cutting the transportation distance and minimizing its exposure to U.S.-policed sea lanes.

The new Chinese-built port at Gwadar, Pakistan, represents China’s first strategic foothold in the Arabian Sea. Gwadar, at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz, will link up with the Trans-Karakoram corridor to western China. China is also establishing a similar energy corridor through Myanmar.

The blunt and incontrovertible truth is that energy demands in Asia are beginning to influence strategic thinking and military planning. For some states, a rising dependence on oil imports has served to rationalize both a growing emphasis on maritime power and security as well as a desire to seek greater strategic space. Concerns over sea-lane safety and rising vulnerability to disruption of energy supplies are prompting some countries to explore avenues for cooperation in maritime security.

Water presents a unique challenge. While countries can scour the world for oil, natural gas and minerals to keep their economic machines humming, water cannot be secured through international trade deals. Sustainable and integrated management of national water resources is essential to prevent degradation, depletion and pollution. To meet the gap between supply and demand, conservation, efficiency, rainwater capture, recycling and drip irrigation would have to be embraced at national, provincial and local levels.

Burgeoning populations and rapid urbanization, along with the rapid spread of irrigated farming, have exacerbated pressures on freshwater resources in Asia. With its vast irrigation systems, which more than doubled the irrigated area between 1961 and 2003, Asia contains 70 percent of the world’s 277 million hectares of irrigated land.

The big issue in Asia is whether China will exploit its control of the Tibetan plateau to siphon off for its own use the waters of international rivers that are the lifeblood of countries located in a contiguous arc from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Its damming of the Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra and Sutlej rivers does not augur well. In the coming decades, freshwater could become a major factor limiting economic growth in Asia.

One can hope that advances in clean-water technologies would materialize before water conflicts flare in Asia and elsewhere. Cost-effective, energy-efficient technologies for treating and recycling wastewater and desalinating seawater could emerge from the scientific progress on nano particles and nano fibers and membrane bioreactors.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.