Not a Drop to Drink

How water scarcity will soon be Asia’s defining crisis.

Tenzin Dorje lives in a small village on the slopes of the rugged Qilian Mountains in western China’s Gansu Province. The old Tibetan shepherd must walk farther each year to find water for his sheep to drink. He now spends as much as six hours every day leading his flock to find water, he told me; he remembers when his trek was half that.

Water: Asia’s New Battleground
by Brahma Chellaney
Georgetown University Press, 400 pp.

The glaciers on the Tibetan plateau that feed nearby streams are slowly receding, altering the pattern of snowmelt trickling down into mountain streams. The region’s glacier system delivers water to more than 300 million people in China, and 1 billion across Asia. Yet the lofty area is also among the globe’s most rapidly warming. Average annual temperatures on the “rooftop of the world” have climbed 2 degrees Celsius in two decades, about twice the global average. Chinese scientists expect the total area of the glaciers to halve every ten years. By 2100, they predict, the glaciers may have largely vanished. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that the glacial area on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the world’s largest ice sheets outside the poles, is shrinking about 7 percent each year. In some parts of Asia, precipitation and river flows are increasing with warming weather, but near his home Tenzin says water is becoming even more scarce.

You might think that the science of climate change would be the last thing on the locals’ mind, as foreign and perplexing as a visiting blue-eyed journalist in an REI jacket stopping in for yak-butter tea. But that assumption would be wrong.

Not far from Tenzin’s village stands the Tibetan Midi Temple, perched on a mountainside overlooking a snowy valley and a white pagoda temple. Here reside fifteen lamas, including the studious twentysomething Zahxi Rangou. The young monk has two rooms: the outer room is warmed by a stove for visitors; the inner room is cold and full of books and a computer. Here he spends his days in prayer and study. He has Internet access, and is well read on climate science. “The glacier is depleting,” he told me, matter-of-factly. “It’s melting in the summer. And the weather near here is getting drier.” He says he doesn’t use email, because it can so easily be monitored by government officials suspicious of Tibetan religious figures. But Zahxi is gathering information, and sees it as part of his mission and ministry to understand and explain to local residents like the old shepherd what it means that the world around them is changing.

These days, it’s hard to visit even the most remote part of Asia without finding people seriously tracking and discussing the availability of water. Meanwhile, in Beijing, city officials are worried that the depletion of the aquifer under the North China Plain (due to unsustainable withdrawals for industry and agriculture) will one day leave city faucets dry. Farmers in the mountainous northwestern corner of China’s Hubei Province are receiving knocks on their doors from “relocation officials” informing them that they must move to make room for a massive and controversial water diversion project, the government’s South-to-North Water Transfer Project. In impoverished western Burma, rebel groups are challenging the junta’s intentions to build hydropower dams on the Irrawaddy River. In Vietnam, rising sea levels and saltwater incursions into inland rice paddies are befuddling farmers with an unprecedented five-month “salty season,” endangering the country’s staple crop.

Recent years have seen a virtual flood of water-related international news articles, anti-dam and -pollution protests, scientific grants, and official pronouncements. But it’s been difficult to glimpse how all the parts fit together—how the plight of the Tibetan shepherd might relate to that of the Burmese protester—and more difficult still to contemplate what can or should be done.

That’s why Brahma Chellaney’s Water: Asia’s New Battleground comes at such a critical moment. Chellaney, a former adviser to India’s National Security Council and now a professor at New Delhi’s independent Centre for Policy Research who has also held past appointments at Harvard University and the Brookings Institution, has crafted a formidable interdisciplinary book. He has done readers a great service in tracking down reams of scholarly information, beautifully knit together, covering a dazzling range of countries and disciples, from Bangladesh to Mongolia, climate change science to regional security doctrine. Despite the vast scope of the book, the writing is clear and lively. Its main contribution is in synthesizing the many trickles of the international discussion on Asia and water into one single current. And Chellaney demonstrates that he has good reason to assert, as he writes, that “[w]ater scarcity is set to become Asia’s defining crisis by mid-century.” He adds, “Of course, [water] is not the only resource that Asia’s rapid economic rise has brought under growing pressure. But it is the most critical one, for which there is no substitute.”

Chellaney’s exhaustive research has uncovered a number of eye-popping stats—for instance, that Asia “has less freshwater available per capita—3,920 cubic meters per year—than any other continent, except Antarctica” and that countries in that area are “already using too much of their water resources to be able to meet future needs.” Moreover, climate change—which is already altering Asian weather patterns, including the Indian monsoon season— threatens to add new pressures as it redistributes where in Asia, and when, water is plentiful.

Meanwhile, Asia’s water demand is rising rapidly. The region is expected to add 1.4 billion people to its population by 2050. And as the continent continues to urbanize, its people use more water per capita. It’s not just that more water is needed for newfound luxuries including home showers and dishwashers, but also that changing diets—specifically, growing meat consumption— intensifies water demands on the countryside as well. “A growing middle class that is eating more meat (whose production is almost ten times more water intensive than plant-based calories and proteins)” coupled with “water-guzzling, energy-hogging home appliances” is, Chellaney argues, as alarming as it is inevitable. It’s not that Asians are on a course to use more water than people in other parts of the world; they’re simply catching up. At present, water use per capita in Asia is still “less than one-quarter that of North America, almost one-tenth that of South America.” But that ratio is quickly changing.

Perhaps the book’s most frustrating passages—and also most encouraging, because they reveal that there is room for improvement—highlight instances of rampant water waste. The biggest culprit is not industry or household use, but highly inefficient irrigation techniques. “Almost 74 percent of the total global freshwater withdrawals for agriculture by volume are made in Asia alone,” Chellaney writes. “This situation is partly attributable to the high dependence of Asian countries on irrigated agriculture…. At the same time, water use and management are notoriously inefficient in most countries of the region, with the exception of a few countries such as Singapore and Japan.” In China, for instance, two-thirds of all water withdrawals are for agriculture, yet nearly 45 percent of that water never makes it into fields. Instead, it evaporates off the surface of open canals, seeps into the dirt walls of poorly constructed rural diversions, or is literally skimmed off the top by unaccounted-for industrial or household users. Oversight is lax, although the government has vowed to improve it.

Unfettered industrial pollution, which renders the water in many rivers in China and elsewhere in Asia unfit for household use, is another variable that, in theory, could be better managed by governments to increase the supply of potable water.

The upshot? In the future, Asia will have the world’s largest number of people without adequate access to clean water, a fact that threatens to disrupt domestic politics and inflame regional tensions. As Chellaney notes, past wars have transferred control of strategic water supplies, and he sees such spots as ripe for future resource jousting. For instance, “it was in the 1967 Israeli-initiated Six-Day War that the water-rich Golan Heights and the aquifer-controlling West Bank were captured by Israel, along with Jordan’s Arava (Wadi Araba) aquifer. The war left Israel in control of the Jordan River’s headwaters.” Beyond the parched Middle East, Chellaney identifies several other “potential flashpoint[s] for water wars … especially between China and its neighbors, but also between Pakistan and India.”

If there is a one geopolitical implication that worries him most, it is the control that China has over many of Asia’s great trans-boundary rivers, including the Mekong, Salween, and Brahmaputra, all of which originate in glaciers on the Tibetan plateau. “Even if China has no intention to use water as a political weapon,” he warns, “the fact is that it is acquiring significant water leverage [through the recent construction of upstream dams] over its co-riparian states.” In this regard, China’s commanding position is largely a matter of geography and luck— just as random, and consequential, as Saudi Arabia being situated over vast oil reserves.

“Now history is potentially coming full circle,” Chellaney predicts. “The rise and fall of powers in Asia could be influenced by water in much the same way that oil in the past century played a key role in determining the ascent or decline of states.”

While they may be less dramatic than actual border wars, he also warns of the potentially debilitating effects of conflicts within countries over scarce water resources. In large countries like India and China, local governments will increasingly vie for access to rivers and aquifers to support provincial industry, at the expense of neighboring locales. Perhaps even more significantly, water availability is a key, and often overlooked, limiting factor on energy supply (think tank denizens refer to this as the “water-energy nexus”). Coal-fired power plants and nuclear power plants (as well as proposed schemes for carbon capture and sequestration) are big water guzzlers. Almost without doubt, water shortages will hamper energy growth, and thus the economic growth of Asian juggernauts. Water in the twenty-first century could easily become what oil was to the twentieth century—a harbinger of both wealth and war.

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