Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Water War part 1
Rivalry over Water Resources as a Potential
Cause of Regional Conflict in Asia & the Geopolitical Implications
K R Bolton
Rival: “From L. rivalis ‘a rival,’ originally, ‘one who uses the same stream’ (or ‘one on the opposite side of the stream’), from rivus ‘brook’”.1
Just how apt the Latin entomology of our English words “rival” and “rivalry” are as having derived from one’s relationship with water might soon be seen in scenarios of conflict over water resources that will be particularly acute in the Asiatic region, and will directly impact upon states from Russia to New Zealand and Australia. While much attention is given to the problem of “peak oil”, the geopolitical implications of water shortages are not as generally recognised. Yet despite the major dislocations that could be caused by the alleged problems of the “peak oil” scenario for our industrial societies, there are alternative energy options; however there is no substitute for water, the very substance of life itself. This essay examines the possible scenarios for regional conflict over water recourses, with emphasis on this region’s super-power, China.
China’s domination of Tibet is the key to understanding the approaching geo-political crisis that is likely to emerge in the next few decades. The domination of Tibet means that China controls the Himalayan headways of the main rivers of India and South-east Asia that provide sustenance to the agriculture and energy of these immense territories. Seldom is this strategic importance of Tibet realised. With China facing problems of irrigation and drought, the Beijing leadership will not hesitate to use the Himalayan headwaters for whatever manner they deem apt for China’s interests. There can be no question that China is not restrained by any moral or neighbourly considerations, despite the rapport China now seemingly has with Russia and Central Asia. China’s leadership is guided by a ruthless realpolitik that considers China’s interests alone. When faced with any question as to China’s interests especially in regard to territory and resources, the façade of good neighbourliness quickly drops, as in the example of China’s ongoing territorial disputes with India.
If the recent history of China is considered there is little room for optimism regarding China’s peaceful intentions when its interests are in question.
During the 1960s, despite the supposedly fraternal relations existing between two nominally “communist” states, border disputes between the USSR and China erupted into military conflict. In 1960 there were 400 border clashes between Russian and Chinese troops, in 1962 more than 5000, in 1963 more than 4000. The biggest clash came on 2 March 1969, when Chinese forces attacked Russian troops on the disputed uninhabited island of Zhenbao (Damansky in Russian) in the Ussuri River. Mao as a show of defiance contrived the incident. A Chinese elite unit ambushed Soviet troops, killing 32. The Russians responded on the night of March 14-15, bringing up heavy artillery and tanks, and firing missiles 20 kms into China. Around 60 Russian and 800 Chinese were killed during the engagement. A CIA aerial photograph showed the Chinese side had been shelled so extensively as to look like a pot-marked moon landscape. Mao was taken aback by the massive Russian response and feared an invasion2. Now however, it is China that stands in a position of strength militarily, while
Russian fortunes have declined as the present regime continues in its efforts to overcome the chaos of the post-Soviet era and the Yeltsin interregnum.
In 1979, when the friendship treaty between China and the USSR was still operative, China invaded Vietnam as a show of defiance towards the USSR, a gesture intended to demonstrate that China would no longer be subordinate to Russia. China invaded Vietnam in 1979 as a grand gesture for the repudiation of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance, which was due for renewal. Clause number six of the Treaty stated that if neither signatory announced their intention to terminate the treaty during its final year, the alliance would automatically be extended for another five years. However, the Treaty had not been designed to secure Superpower status for China, nor even as a friendly alignment between two communist states, but to maintain a position of subjugation and outright humiliation. The Chinese regarded the Treaty as maintaining Russian “hegemony” over China.3 The victim of China’s show of strength was Vietnam, enmity between Vietnam and China going back centuries as the Vietnamese had long struggled to maintain their sovereignty against Chinese domination. Notably, the USSR had signed a friendship treaty with Vietnam in 1978, as the basis for the containment of China in the region. 4
China’s attempted domination of Vietnam extends back to 208 BC. Ever since the first Chinese military incursion there have been frequent attempts at invasion. In 1909 China tried to claim the Paracel islands, the start of a series of aggressive moves that continue to the present. In 1956 the Chinese navy took part of the Paracels, with a further invasion in 1974. In 1984 China set up the Hainan administrative area to control the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos. In 1988 Chinese and Vietnamese ships clashed over Johnson Reef. In 1992 there were further incursions into Spratly. The Chinese entered into contract with the US Crestone Energy Corporation in 1994 for the exploration of oil around Spratly.5 In 2000 Vietnam made concessions to China over the territorial waters off Tonkin Bay. During 2004 there were over 1000 Chinese incursions into Vietnamese waters, with 80 Vietnamese fishermen being detained in December. In 2005 the Chinese navy fired on Vietnamese fishermen in Vietnamese waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. In 2007 Chinese fired on Vietnamese fishermen off the Paracels. The Chinese navy continues to conduct exercises in the area. Now the Chinese Government has ratified a plan to build Sansha, a large city to serve as the axis for merging three archipelagos, including the Paracels and Spratly under Chinese control.6
The belligerent attitude of China towards Vietnam that continues to the present provides an indication as to the aggressive tendencies that Beijing continues to harbour whenever a state does not accede to Chinese demands. This belligerence continues in regard to India.
The territorial enmity that has existed and continues to exist between China and India is likely to become one of the most acute areas of crisis in any upcoming conflict over water resources. Through the control of the Himalayan headwaters China controls the water sources of India and much of South-east Asia. This is already causing major disquiet, as will be considered below.
China’s border disputes with India during the period of 1960-62 left 3000 Indians dead.
Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist, and a member of the globalist think-tank the Trilateral Commission states of the conflict:
“In 1962 China and India fought a border war that humiliated India and left an enduring legacy of bitterness and suspicion. Both countries are now increasing their military spending and trying to modernise their armed forces. The border dispute
remains unresolved. China claims an entire Indian state, Arunachal Pradesh, which borders southern Tibet and is roughly the size of Portugal. India claims that China is occupying 15,000 square miles of what is rightfully India – in Aksai Chin, an almost uninhabited plateau high in the Himalayas.”7
The Chinese are not about to let the disputed areas rest, and again here is a lesson if it is thought that China has repudiated its territorial claims in the interests of good neighbourliness. So far in recent years everything has gone China’s way.
“On the face of it the two sides have since made progress. A border crossing was opened to trade in 2006 for the first time since the war. That year, however, the Chinese ambassador to Delhi caused outrage by publicly emphasising that China claims the whole of Arunachal Pradesh.
“Ten months ago a confidence-building visit to China by more than 100 Indian officials had to be cancelled after China acted in a typically provocative way: it refused to grant a visa to a member of the Indian delegation from Arunachal Pradesh on the grounds that he was Chinese and did not need one.”8
China has shared a 4,000-kilometre-long “Line of Actual Control” with India since 1959, stretching from northwest Kashmir to Burma. China claims about 90,000 square kilometres in northeast India, mainly Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing calls “South Tibet”. India claims 43,180 square kilometres in China's Aksai Chin region in eastern Kashmir.
So far from the Chinese leadership being too pragmatic and rational to resort to war, as some Sinotologists are currently claiming9, China has used force even after the demise of Mao. Additionally, China has just as vigorously continued to maintain its claims over disputed territory with its neighbours, including Russia, Vietnam, India, has invaded Tibet, and has displaced Russian influence in Mongolia and is doing likewise in central Asia and in the border areas inside Russia herself.10
Chinese intransigence in relation to India for example continues to be played out in diplomatic confrontations, as shown in ongoing negotiations over the disputed areas between China and India.
The 13th round of negotiations between China and India over August 7th to 8th 2009 where China’s delegation was led by special representative State Councillor Dai Bingguo, and the Indian delegation as led by National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan was intended to work out specific details on how to proceed with negotiations on border demarcation and delineation. In other words, although the border talks had begun in 2003, the basis for negotiations has still not even been agreed upon. There was much emphasis on the cordial atmosphere and a ‘shared vision’ between the two Asian powers11, yet India and China continue the build up of forces along the disputed borer area.
Despite the political rhetoric about the ‘shared vision’ between China and India arising from this 13th round of talks as stated in Government press releases1213, both powers remain at states of permanent tension over a number of issues that are likely to be exacerbated in the near future. For instance even the current world financial recession resulted in a ban on some Chinese imports14, despite China being India’s largest trading partner, upon which the basis of any relaxed Sino-India relations must exist. In April 2009 Beijing blocked a $US2.9 billion Asian Development Bank (ADB) loan to India that included $US60 million for a flood control project in the disputed Arunachal Pradesh. External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna stated that Indian would not in future be “putting her palm out” for funding from international agencies but would use internal sources. 15
Chinese and Indian Military Deployments
Regardless of the ‘shared vision’, and reminiscent of the Russo-Chinese border conflicts of the 1960s, China and India have both increased military preparedness along the “Line of Actual Control”.
In June 2009, the Indian Government announced the deployment of an additional 60,000 soldiers, along with tanks and two squadrons of advanced SU-30MKI strike aircraft, to the northeast state of Assam, near Arunachal Pradesh, bringing the total troop numbers in the area to 100,000.16
In response, China's official Global Times published an editorial on June 9, 2009 warning India “to consider whether or not it can afford the consequences of a potential confrontation with China”. The editorial reminded India that China had established close relations with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal and declared: “China won't make any compromises in its border disputes with India.”17 The Chinese rhetoric about no-compromise is precisely the same as that used during the Mao era. Despite the economic changes, and the “openness” of China as being a new member of the “world community”, nothing has fundamentally changed in the outlook of the Chinese leadership from the Mao era in regard to territory, and super-power bullying.18
In this regard, China saw the ADB loan to India for the development of Arunachal Pradesh as a direct challenge. An unnamed Chinese official told the South China Morning Post on August 7 2009 that India had intensified the border row with China by obtaining the ADB funding through the support of the US and Japan. The official is quoted as stating: “India has enough money to develop Arunachal Pradesh. But it wanted to test the Chinese. China opposed the loan application tooth and nail but India had its way. We lost face. And we don't like losing face. We disgrace anyone who disgraces us.”
Both India and China are becoming increasingly belligerent. Ambassador to India, Zhang Yan, urged both sides to resolve their disputes “with the utmost political wisdom". Brahma Chellaney, a strategic analyst at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, responded in the Indian Express:
"Mr. Zhang's syrupy words are designed to salvage the [border] negotiations from the damage inflicted by vituperative attacks on India in China's state-run media. China's objective is to keep India engaged in endless and fruitless border talks so that Beijing, in the meantime, can change the Himalayan balance decisively in its favour through development of military power and infrastructure." 19
In 2006, China built a major railway into the Tibetan plateau20. This was generally perceived by Indian officials and defence analysts as intended for the rapid deployment of troops to attack India. Indian strategist Dr Brahma Chellaney21, states of the rail system in military terms:
“The $ 6.2 billion Gormu-Lhasa railway, … has significantly augmented China’s rapid military-deployment capability against India just when Beijing is becoming increasingly assertive in its claims on Indian territories….22
China has also been constructing a so-called “string of pearls” of ports and other facilities for warships in the Indian Ocean. These naval constructions have caused concern in New Delhi about China's intrusion into India's “backyard”.23 In response, India is building up her own naval power. A week prior to the August 7th to 8th 2009 China-India talks on Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian defence ministry's naval planner, Alok Bhatnagar, announced that India would build 107 warships over the next decade, including aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates and nuclear submarines, to rival China's fleet. Bhatnagar stated: “China is developing its navy at a great rate. Its ambitions in the Indian Ocean are quite clear.”24 A week later Chinese and Indian officialdom were publicly enthusing over the cordial and co-operative atmosphere that
supposedly pervaded the Arunachal Pradesh talks, albeit the 13th round that again got nothing resolved.
Meanwhile, “India has this year moved two army divisions to areas adjacent to the border with China, and built three new airstrips in the Himalayan foothills. The build-up is seen as a bid to match Chinese military might in southern Tibet, and to deter increasingly frequent cross-border incursions by Chinese patrols.”25
A flashpoint is Siachen Glacier on the India-Pakistan border. The small Himalayan village of Demchok has been the centre of recent Sino-Indian tension. Two Chinese helicopters flew close over the village in August 2009 proceeding several miles into Indian territory.26 This has prompted New Delhi to change policy and begin developing infrastructure along the neglected Himalayan foothills, the lack of development having been a strategy to slow down a possible Chinese invasion.
“But in response to a major spike in cross-border incursions by the Chinese in the past few years, the Indian approach is changing, with plans to expand infrastructure and bring more of a government footprint to the contested region.
“Now the Chinese are basically doing so much damage on the Tibetan plateau, and given these Chinese border incidents and provocations, the Indians have been left with no choice but to begin infrastructure development along the Himalayas,’ says Mr. Chellaney.”27
Chellaney states that Chinese incursions over this border area went from 140 in 2007 to 280 in 2008.28 “‘That is alarming. That means the Chinese are still sustaining pressure at last year's level,’ says Chellaney.”29
In September 2009, the Indian Air Force opened a high-altitude airfield in the Ladakh district of India’s far north, bordering both China and Pakistan. Two other airfields were built in the Himalayas over the 15 months previously, including the world's highest at 16,200 feet at Daulat Beg Oldi.
“India is currently repositioning Sukhoi war jets to its north-eastern borders with China. Air Chief Marshal P V Naik said earlier this month that while the Chinese posed no imminent threat, there was a jet gap.
“‘Our present aircraft strength is inadequate. Aircraft strength is one third that of China. The government of India is doing a lot to augment Air Force capability,’ he said.”30
The situation between India and China along disputed border territories has in recent years seen a build-up of military forces on either side. Underneath the cordial talks between diplomats that lead to nothing tangible, and the talk of a ‘shared vision’, the two sides are proceeding on the basis of being enemies. New alliances between Russia and India and China and Pakistan are being formed on that basis, and behind this can be seen the same rivalry that continues to exist between Moscow and Beijing, regardless of similar diplomatic statements about ‘cooperation’ and treaties.
The combination of China, India and Pakistan as nuclear powers provides for a potent mix. China attempted to block India's access to the Nuclear Supplies Group after a civil nuclear deal between a US firm and India went ahead under the former Bush administration.31 China provides nuclear and other military assistance to Pakistan. This is widely perceived to be a reflection of super-power suspicion between the USA and China, with the USA using India in a balance of power strategy for the region. However, it is more likely that USA is attempting to woo India away from her historic relationship with Russia, whose aspirations under the post-Yeltsin regimes have been of major concern to US global power elites32, which do not wish to see a return of a “poliverse”33 in world affairs.
During US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to India in July 2009, she signed a defence pact for the expansion of US arms sales to India, including fighters and high-tech weapons. In July 2009, India launched her first nuclear-powered submarine armed with nuclear missiles, making her the sixth country with these weapons systems.
The relationship between Russia and China extends back to a visit by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to the Soviet Union in June 1955 and Khrushchev's return trip to India in 1955. The USSR remained neutral during the border confrontations between China and India in 1959 and 1962, despite the supposedly “fraternal relations” existing between the two nominally communist states and the “friendship treaty” (sic) existing between the USSR and China.
In 1962 the Soviet Union agreed to transfer technology to co-produce the MiG-21 jet fighter in India, which the USSR had previously denied to China.
Indo-Russian military co-operation is not limited to the sale of weaponry. Military co-operation extends to joint research and development, training, service to service contacts, and includes joint exercises such as the joint naval exercises that took place in April 2007 in the Sea of Japan and joint airborne exercises held in September 2007 in Russia.
A few months after the nuclear energy treaty between the USA and India, in December 2008 Russia and India signed an agreement to build civilian nuclear reactors in India during a visit by the Russian president to New Delhi.34 This indicates to what extent India regards any treaty with the USA in regard to being wooed away from her historic relationship with Russia.
Under the Integrated Long-Term Programme of cooperation (ILTP) between Russia and India, India’s Department of Science and Technology and Russia’s Academy of Sciences and Ministry of Industry, Science and Technology are co-ordinated. Joint ventures under ILTP include development of SARAS Duet aircraft, semiconductor products, super computers, poly-vaccines, laser science and technology, seismology, high-purity materials, software & IT.
There are many other important areas of Indo-Russian co-operation, including those of space and energy.
That India herself does not intend to align with the USA at the expense of her relationship with Russia is indicated by a ten-year military pact between Russia and India formalised in October 2009. The Hindu reported of the pact:
“The new programme of military-technical cooperation during 2011-2020 will cover both ongoing projects — such as the Su-30 MKI fighter plane and the T-90 tank production in India — as well as 31 new projects, Defence Minister A.K. Antony said. He co-chaired with Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov the ninth session of the Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-MTC), which met here on Wednesday and Thursday. “It will be a bigger programme than the current 10-year programme which expires next year, and will see a further shift from the buyer-seller relationship to joint design, development and production,” Mr. Antony said after the meeting.”35
Indian Defence Minister Antony stated that the new projects under the 2020 programme would be the fifth generation fighter aircraft, the Multirole Transport Aircraft, a new multirole helicopter and many other joint projects for the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. An Inter-Governmental Agreement on After-Sales Product Support would also be signed. Russia would speed up the delivery of 40 additional Su-30 MKIs commissioned by India and kits for 140 jets to be assembled in the country. “Hitches in indigenous production of T-90 tanks in India
were also resolved, Mr. Antony said. Russia would expedite the construction of 140 T-90 tanks for the Indian Army and transfer of technology for production under licence in India.”36
“Indo-Russian defence ties were ‘a unique partnership, as we do not have such a high-level defence cooperation arrangement with any other country,’ Mr. Antony told Moscow-based Indian media. ‘Even as we develop cooperative ties with other countries, they will not be at the expense of our time-tested friendship with Russia.’
“The Russian side shared this perception and that was why it was willing to expand and intensify bilateral defence cooperation, Mr. Antony said.”37
The comments by A K Antony are a clear message to the USA that Indo-Russian friendship will remain firm regardless of any accords reached with the USA or its allies, and a pact clearly aimed strategically at China and China-backed Pakistan, India’s only real antagonists in the region, as indicated by the comment by Serdyukov: “I am confident the agreements reached at this session will not only guarantee the success of our military-technical cooperation but will help maintain strategic stability in the region.”38
Sino-Pakistani alliance against India
Offsetting the alliance between Russia and India are recent Chinese interventions in regard to Indo-Pakistani territorial issues. The new strategy from Beijing appears to be to use Pakistan as a proxy for the ever-present contention over Arunachal Pradesh. As noted previously, the 13th round of talks between India and China on this area were described in enthusiastic terms by both sides, which in reality mean nothing. Soon after the supposedly cordial talks, China offered to assist Pakistan to develop Arunachal Pradesh as a proxy occupying state. Peter Ford of the Christian Science Monitor reports that, “The People's Daily, published by China's ruling Communist party, launched a blistering attack on India last week, accusing it in an editorial of ‘recklessness and arrogance’ and of harboring ‘the dream of superpower ... mingled with the thought of hegemony.’”39
The People’s Daily comments followed a statement by the Chinese foreign ministry of its “deep dissatisfaction” with the election campaign visit in October by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Arunachal Pradesh.40
One Chinese response has been to offer, “aid for a hydro-power project in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, which India claims as its own territory”.41 The offer was met with diplomatic protest from India.
India’s allowing the Dalai Lama to visit a major Tibetan monastery in Arunachal Pradesh in November 200942 can be seen in the context of this Indo-China rivalry.
Shen Dingli, deputy head of China’s South Asia Research Institute, cogently expressed the real issue: “The question is who leads in Asia?”43 Indian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has stated: “China is fishing in troubled waters”. Air Force Chief Fali Homi Major stated to the Hindustan Times that China is a “greater threat” to India than Pakistan.44
The effort by the USA to develop relations with India in the form of comparatively meagre military trade, and a nuclear agreement that does little more than try and place India under international constraints is aimed at Russia, not China. In this essay the attitude of key advisers directing Obama’s foreign policy towards Russia have been considered, along with something of the historic pro-China attitude among the Rockefeller power nexus, which significantly includes Brzezinski. As stated George Soros is a key player in both backing Obama’s presidential bid and in subverting Central and Eastern Europe.
In contrast to his anti-Russia stance, Soros has declared support for China as the focus of a ‘new global economic order’. In an interview with the London Financial Times Soros
stated that China must take a leading role in reshaping the world economic structure, allowing China to “own (sic) the reorganization of the global financial system that is underway”. Soros stated, “You really need to bring China into the creation of a new world order, a financial world order.”45
Historically, the attitude of influential business interests in the USA centred on Rockefeller and Soros have been pro-China and are presently following an anti-Russia course. These are the interests that are now dominant the present Obama Administration.
Looming crises over water resources
Into this volatile mix of long standing rivalry, border and territorial disputes, and US and Russian strategies, against the background as to who shall become the predominate power in Asia, exist numerous scenarios for natural disaster that would cause major demographic shifts and ultimately the potential for war. Just as the seething tensions that exist among Asian sates are barely recognised by the West46, so too the crucial problem of water resources is rarely understood. The basic life source of water has far grater potential to cause regional and continental havoc than problems of oil shortage.
China’s water crisis
Drought and creeping desertification are major problems facing China, concerning which China has options that other Asian states, including India, do not have; namely, control over the headwaters of the main hydro sources for India and much of South-east Asia, and even further afield into Central Asia and Russia. Obviously, if China faces catastrophic problems with water resources, it will act in its own interests regardless of what Beijing now states about ‘shared visions’ and being part of the ‘world community’. Beijing’s attitude is already clear as shown by construction plans for damming the Himalayan headwaters. The most vital of lifelines for much of Asia will therefore be subjected to Beijing’s will, and years of diplomatic discussions are not going to solve immediate, pressing problems of mass famine.
Northern China persistently faces drought. Henan, the centre of China’s food production, issued a drought red alert on February 5, 2009. Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, stated: “The provincial meteorological bureau said the drought is the worst since 1951. The drought has affected about 63 percent of the province’s 78.9 million mu (5.26 million hectares) of wheat.”47 Other provinces put on ‘red alert’ in 2009 include: Anhui Province, and Shanxi Province where approximately one million people and 160,000 heads of livestock face water shortages. Other provinces including Hebei and Jiangsu Shaanxi, Shandong are also affected by droughts. Chinese reports stated that the drought threatened about 43 percent of the China’s winter wheat supplies.48
The Chinese news service Xinhuanet reports that, “Investigations show that China has 2.62 million square kilometres of areas under desertification, double the total farmland in the country,” according to Lu Qi, a researcher with China Research and Development Center for Prevention and Control on Desertification.49 A 2009 report cited by the Xinhua official news agency states that, “About 35 % of China’s agricultural land is affected by desertification seriously threatening its ability to feed its population, a nationwide survey revealed…. About 1.6 million square km of land are being degraded by water erosion each year affecting almost every river basin. Additionally, 2.0 million square km are eroded by wind”, the report states.50
India’s water table depletion
India faces a major problem with its water table shrinkage. A report by hydrologists from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) Earth Science Team states that
water is being pumped and consumed faster than the aquifers can be recharged through natural mechanisms.51 The team found that Northern India’s water tables have fallen by approximately fifth more than expected because of excessive use.
Dr Rodell who led the study, stated that, “If measures are not taken to ensure sustainable groundwater usage, consequences for the 114 million residents of the region may include a collapse of agricultural output and severe shortages of potable water.”
Groundwater across the three northern Indian states of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryan has dropped by about 4cm a year between 2002 and 2008. The Team report states that, “The northern Indian states of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana have all of the ingredients for groundwater depletion: staggering population growth, rapid economic development and water-hungry farms, which account for about 95 percent of groundwater use in the region.”52
An increasing percentage of India’s groundwater is unsuitable both for drinking and irrigation. “This illustrates that degraded water quality can contribute to water scarcity as it limits its availability for both human use and the ecosystem.”53 Bridget Scanlon, a hydrologist at the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas in Austin, comments, “That cycle is now overwhelming fresh water reserves all over the world. Even one region’s water problem has implications beyond its borders.”54
China’s control of Asia’s water sources
Dr Brahma Chellaney in a detailed article for the Japan Times55 gives an authoritative account of the water crises confronting Asia, especially in relation to China and India, writing:
“Water shortages in much of Asia are beginning to threaten rapid economic modernization, prompting the building of upstream projects on international rivers. If water geopolitics were to spur interstate tensions through reduced water flows to neighbouring states, the Asian renaissance could stall.
“Water has emerged as a key issue that could determine whether Asia is headed toward mutually beneficial cooperation or deleterious interstate competition. No country could influence that direction more than China, which controls the Tibetan plateau — the source of most major rivers of Asia.”56
Chellaney states that Tibet has the world’s greatest river systems due to the vast glaciers and high altitude. Chellaney describes the extent and significance of this water source:
“Tibet’s vast glaciers and high altitude have endowed it with the world’s greatest river systems. Its river waters are a lifeline to the world’s two most-populous states — China and India — as well as to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. These countries make up 47 percent of the global population.”57
Although comprising more than 50% of the world’s population Asia has less fresh water than any continent other than Antarctica. Chellaney refers to a “looming struggle”, and to “the spectre of water wars in Asia… being highlighted by climate change and environmental degradation in the form of shrinking forests and swamps, which foster a cycle of chronic flooding and droughts through the depletion of nature’s water storage and absorption cover”.
Chellaney points out that there should be greater concern “for the potential interstate conflict over river-water resources” where disputes have already become rife in several Asian states from India and Pakistan to Southeast Asia and China:
“This concern arises from Chinese attempts to dam or redirect the southward flow of river waters from the Tibetan plateau, where major rivers originate, including the Indus, the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Salween, the Brahmaputra, the Karnali and the Sutlej. Among Asia’s mighty rivers, only the Ganges starts from the Indian side of the Himalayas.”
The problems with irrigation for agriculture in northern China, as discussed previously in this essay, have obliged China to focus on the water sources it controls in Tibet, and is already starting to dam rivers not only for hydropower but for diverting waters of irrigation and other purposes. Having already built two dams up the Mekong, China is building at least three more, provoking alarm from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. The vast projects that are reportedly intended for west-central Tibet that will disrupt the river water flows into India are proceeding while information from Beijing on these remains sparse. 58
The Himalayan watersheds
There are 10 major watersheds formed by the Himalayas and Tibetan highlands, which spread rivers waters throughout Asia. “Control over the 2.5 million-square-km Tibetan plateau gives China tremendous leverage, besides access to vast natural resources”, states Dr Chellaney. “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”, he writes.
Perhaps few recognise the geo-political significance of Tibet.59 Apart from the immense mineral resources, which have prompted Beijing to designate Tibet a “special economic zone”, which means that it is open to exploitation from overseas business without the usual State restrictions, Chellaney points out that China for the first time “has a contiguous frontier with India, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal”60.
A blueprint for the rerouting of the waters of Brahmaputra has been set out by a group of ex-officials, entitled Tibet’s Waters Will Save China. Chellaney described the book as “officially blessed”.61
In an update on the water issue Dr Chellaney writes of the Brahmaputra that:
“It is the world’s highest river, and also one of the fastest-flowing. Diversion of the Brahmaputra’s water to the parched Yellow River is an idea that China does not discuss in public, because the project implies environmental devastation of India’s northeastern plains and eastern Bangladesh, and would thus be akin to a declaration of water war on India and Bangladesh.”62
Chellaney considers the rerouting of the Brahmaputra as a certainty:
“The issue now is not whether China will reroute the Brahmaputra, but when. Once authorities complete their feasibility studies and the diversion scheme begins, the project will be presented as a fait accompli. China already has identified the bend where the Brahmaputra forms the world’s longest and deepest canyon — just before entering India — as the diversion point.”63
It is of interest to note in this respect that the swift rise to power of the current President Hu Jintao is due to “the brutal martial-law crackdown he carried out in Tibet in 1989”, and that Hu is a hydrologist by profession.64
Chellaney considers that China “seems intent on aggressively pursuing projects and employing water as a weapon. The idea of a Great South-North Water Transfer Project diverting river waters cascading from the Tibetan highlands has the backing of President Hu Jintao…”
“The Chinese ambition to channel the Brahmaputra waters to the parched Yellow River has been whetted by what Beijing touts as its engineering feat in building the giant $ 25 billion Three Gorges Dam project, which has officially displaced a staggering 1.2 million citizens. While China’s water resources minister told a Hong Kong University meeting last October that, in his personal opinion, the idea to divert waters seems not viable, the director of the Yellow River Water