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Asia’s fight over fresh water

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Asia, the world’s largest and fastest-developing continent, has less fresh water per capita than any other continent. This has helped foster growing interstate and intrastate disputes over shared water resources. An MIT study published this year found a high risk that Asia’s current water crisis could worsen to severe water shortages by 2050.

In this light, water is emerging as a key challenge for long-term Asian peace and stability. 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 transboundary water flows is integral to China’s strategy to employ power, control and influence to fashion a strongly Sino-centric Asia.

Its relationship with India, for example, is roiled by increasing discord over shared water resources. Recently, to complete a major dam project, China said 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.

Meanwhile, not content with the six mega-dams it has built on the Mekong, just before that mighty river crosses into Southeast Asia, China is planning or constructing 14 more dams, despite already visible downstream impacts. The upstream dams give China control over the transboundary flow of water and nutrient-rich silt essential to the economies of mainland Southeast Asia, where the Mekong is the lifeblood of 60 million people.

The failure of the lower Mekong states to fashion a united stance against the frenzied Chinese dam-building has given Beijing the upper hand. Indeed, the lower Mekong nations are embroiled in their own dam-building disputes. Brushing aside regional concerns, landlocked Laos recently decided to move ahead with a third controversial project, the 912-megawatt Pak Beng Dam, after beginning work on the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams.

The Mekong and the Brahmaputra rank among the world’s rivers deemed to be at risk. China’s dam builders, however, are targeting other rivers as well. 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 neighbors, China enjoys riparian dominance of a kind unmatched in the world.

Tensions are already running high on China’s frontiers with largely arid Central Asia due to the increasingly heavy Chinese water appropriations from the Illy and Irtysh rivers. The withdrawals from the Illy threaten to turn Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash into another Aral Sea, which has shrunk to barely a quarter of its original size. China is also diverting water from the Irtysh — which feeds Russia’s Ob River — for its projects in Xinjiang, including a canal supplying the booming oil town of Karamai. The Irtysh is a source of drinking water for Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital.

Diminished transboundary flows are not the only concern for Central Asians: China’s economic activities in sprawling Xinjiang are also contaminating the water of the transnational rivers in the region with hazardous chemicals and fertilizers. By replicating in international rivers the degradation haunting the rivers in its Han heartland, China is deepening unease in downstream countries.

Meanwhile, China’s close ally, Pakistan, has initiated — for the second time in this decade —international arbitral tribunal proceedings against India under the terms of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. Seeking international intercession is part of Pakistan’s “water war” strategy against upstream India.

When Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947 as the first Islamic republic of the postcolonial era, the partition left the Indus headwater on the Indian side of the border, but the river basin’s larger segment in the newly created country. This division armed India with formidable water leverage over Pakistan.

Yet, after protracted negotiations, India agreed to what still ranks as the world’s most generous water-sharing pact: The Indus treaty reserved for Pakistan the largest three rivers that make up more than four-fifths of the total Indus-system water. It kept for India just 19.48 percent of the total water. Still, Pakistan has used the treaty to sustain its conflict and tensions with India, including over Kashmir.

Some Asian countries, seeking to overcome the challenge of growing more food in water-stressed conditions at home, have leased large tracts of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa. The land grabs, which are effectively water grabs, have triggered a backlash in some areas. For example, South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics Corp. entered into a deal to lease as much as half of Madagascar’s arable land to grow food for South Korea, igniting a local backlash and military intervention that eased out a democratically elected president in 2009.

More broadly, the competition between Asian neighbors to appropriate resources of shared rivers by building dams, reservoirs and other structures is fostering distrust and discord and exacerbating impacts on ecosystems. Water has become an instrument of power in interstate relations. This holds important implications for Asia’s future.

Asia’s economic rise has been aided by peace and stability. But the upsurge of resource and territorial disputes has underscored the looming dangers. Various developments are highlighting the linkage between water and peace.

In the coming years, water scarcity is likely to become Asia’s defining crisis, creating obstacles in its path of continued rapid economic growth and stoking new inter-country tensions. Water, of course, is not the only resource whose availability has come under pressure owing to Asia’s rapid economic rise. But it is the most critical one, for which there is no substitute.

To underpin peace and cooperation, Asian states must manage transnational water resources on the basis of transparency, collaboration, sharing and dispute settlement.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis” and “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”