Sat, Aug 08, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Water worries at the roof of the world

The potential for international conflict over China’s control of upstream river segments cannot be understated

By Brahma Chellaney

As China and India gain economic heft, they are drawing ever more international attention at the time of an ongoing global shift of power to Asia. Their underlying strategic dissonance and rivalry, however, usually attracts less notice.

As its power grows, China seems determined to choke off Asian competitors — a tendency reflected in its hardening stance toward India. This includes aggressive patrolling of the disputed Himalayan frontier by the People’s Liberation Army, many violations of the line of control separating the two giants, new assertiveness concerning India’s northeastern Arunachal Pradesh state — which China claims as its own — and vituperative attacks on India in the state-controlled Chinese media.

The issues that divide India and China, however, extend beyond territorial disputes. Water is becoming a key security issue in Sino-Indian relations and a potential source of enduring discord.

China and India are already water-stressed economies. The spread of irrigated farming and water-intensive industries, together with the demands of a rising middle class, have led to a severe struggle for more water. Indeed, both countries have entered an era of perennial water scarcity, which before long is likely to equal, in terms of per capita availability, the water shortages found in the Middle East.

Rapid economic growth could slow in the face of acute scarcity if demand for water continues to grow at its current frantic pace, turning China and India — both food exporters — into major importers, something that would accentuate the global food crisis.

Even though India has more arable land than China — 160.5 million hectares compared to 137.1 million hectares — Tibet is the source of most major Indian rivers. The Tibetan plateau’s vast glaciers, huge underground springs and high altitude make Tibet the world’s largest freshwater repository after the polar icecaps. Indeed, all of Asia’s major rivers — except the Ganges — originate in the Tibetan plateau. Even the Ganges’ two main tributaries flow in from Tibet.

But China is now pursuing major inter-basin and inter-river water transfer projects on the Tibetan plateau, which threatens to diminish international-river flows into India and other co-riparian states. Before such hydro-engineering projects sow the seeds of water conflict, China ought to build institutionalized, cooperative river-basin arrangements with downstream states.

Upstream dams, barrages, canals and irrigation systems can help fashion water into a political weapon that can be wielded overtly in a war, or subtly in peacetime to signal dissatisfaction with a co-riparian state. Even denial of hydrological data in a critically important season can amount to the use of water as a political tool.

Flash floods in recent years in two Indian frontier states — Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh — served as an ugly reminder of China’s lack of information-sharing on its upstream projects. Such leverage could in turn prompt a downstream state to build up its military capacity to help counterbalance this disadvantage.

In fact, China has been damming most international rivers flowing out of Tibet, whose fragile ecosystem is already threatened by global warming. The only rivers on which no hydro-engineering works have been undertaken so far are the Indus, whose basin falls mostly in India and Pakistan, and the Salween, which flows into Burma and Thailand. Local authorities in China’s Yunnan Province, however, are considering damming the Salween in the quake-prone upstream region.

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