COMMENT: Hydro-politics in Asia —Saleem H Ali
Because of its importance as a water source for the most populous parts of the world, the Himalayan and Tibetan region will be the bellwether for any progress that can be made on this vital resource issue
During a recent visit to the Netherlands, I had an opportunity to interact with the Dalai Lama at a seminar of experts on water security organised by the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. Sitting around a table with around fifteen scholars from Asia and Europe, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism called the plateau a “third pole” for water availability on the planet. The conversation was meant to be apolitical and to focus on science as a touchstone for cooperation. The Dalai Lama humorously commented that it is time we protect mountains not just because they are “sacred” but because “science tells us they are important”.
Clearly the salience of the Tibetan plateau and its surrounding mountains as sources of water cannot be underestimated, and a global strategy is needed by scientists and policy-makers alike to address the challenge of water scarcity in Asia.
The current economic crisis and concerns about terrorism appear to have eclipsed the urgency of addressing the growing scarcity of our most vital life-giving resource — water. The situation is particularly acute for the world’s largest continent. Although home to more than half of the world’s population, Asia has less fresh water — 3,920 cubic meters per person — than any continent, except Antarctica. Almost two-thirds of global population growth is occurring in Asia, which is expected to grow by nearly 500 million within the next 10 years, mostly in urban areas.
In November 2008, The US National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2025 forecasting report specifically highlighted water scarcity on the world’s largest continent as follows: “With water becoming more scarce in Asia and the Middle East, cooperation to manage changing water resources is likely to become more difficult within and between states.”
The linkage between water and terrorism is also well-established in various ways. Water can be used as a conduit for carrying biological and chemical agents. Infrastructure used for water delivery and for hydropower can also be a target during armed conflict. Only a few months ago, the Taliban threatened to blow up Warsak Dam in Pakistan, which would have been catastrophic for the city of Peshawar.
While such threats can be averted by conventional security measures, many of the other security challenges of water scarcity and quality are far more diffuse and require diplomatic and technical means of prevention.
Although the desire for an integrative approach to water resources has existed for several decades, the establishment of international water dispute mechanisms has been painfully slow. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses was promulgated in 1997, but has failed to muster the 35 votes needed for it to take effect.
Ecosystems transcend political borders and water is the lifeline for all biological systems. Any attempts to contain water by political geographies are bound to have serious consequences on the natural system. Asia’s political geography is dominated by three major countries — China, India and Russia.
Despite the potential for conflict over water, we must also consider the prospects for ecological cooperation more directly. Indeed, India and Pakistan have exemplified how riparian cooperation among adversaries can be facilitated by international agencies such as the World Bank in the form of the Indus Waters Treaty. Furthermore, if the issue is transformed from a purely quantitative distributional concern to one of scientific inquiry, greater cooperative potential can also be realised.
Even in the case of a highly polarised territorial conflict such as in Tibet, there must be an urgent call for joint research across borders to understand the dynamics of the changing glaciers in the region and to find and disseminate adaptive strategies. As a starting point, China can promote interactions with Tibetan leaders purely on the issue of environmental education while also encouraging global research teams more access to study the decline of water resources on the Tibetan plateau.
All too often, countries assume that they will always have the last resort of desalinating abundant seawater into fresh water. However, the potential for using massive amounts of energy (often oil) to harness water from the sea is financially and ecologically unsustainable in the long run. This was most recently exemplified by the $2.2 billion debt crisis of the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority in the Gulf. Until we find an efficient means of desalinating water through renewable energy sources, considering seawater as a panacea to water scarcity, especially for highly populated Asian countries, is untenable.
Although much of the world’s focus has been on the geopolitics of oil, water may indeed be the more salient and influential resource. The latest James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, lends fictional impetus to what may well become a very real struggle for water access across many parts of the world. World leaders, particularly in Asia, must give the matter utmost importance and move towards a clear plan for meeting water demand through binding international agreements and domestic water conservation laws.
Because of its importance as a water source for the most populous parts of the world, the Himalayan and Tibetan region will be the bellwether for any progress that can be made on this vital resource issue. Initially, the prospect of such cooperation may seem distant to many political realists but if countries as disparate as the G20 can come together to work out solutions to our economic crisis, we can surely do the same for our most precious and life-giving resource.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont and the principal advisor for the Asia Society’s Leadership Group on Water Security. www.saleemali.net and www.asiasociety.org/water