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Water: A New-Age Conflict - Arindam Mukherjee

Water is the stuff of life. Without it, we are just another lifeless planet. And the meagre 3% available is not only embroiled in conflicts and politics, it is also getting irreversibly polluted.

Its use has tripled over the last 50 years or so. With the demand continuing to rise, the hydrological circle that has remained the same presents us with a grave concern. The rivers are running dry; the underground water table is falling. Rivers like the Nile or the Colorado barely make it to the sea. Same for the Ganges, after being shared by India and Bangladesh for agricultural needs. China’s famous Yellow River first ran dry in 1972 for around a fortnight; by 1985 it usually remained dry for a part of the year. Then came 1997, when it failed to even make it to Shandong – the last province en route to the sea. 

If we look beyond the borders of appeasement or political correctness we have a real problem here and now. Let us understand the different issues that come under light. 
A part of the water problem is environmental. Excess population and the resultant urbanization have put us in a position where ground water sustainability has become a major issue. Many countries pump up many times more water than is replaced – effectively eating into the share of our future generation. Add to that, problems like deforestation and urbanization which lead to soil erosion and a resultant hardening of the top layer or earth, making it difficult for the rain water to be absorbed to sustain the groundwater levels. Then there is the issue of global warming. The 15 warmest years recorded in the last century have all come after 1980. The resultant ice melting has shrunk the ice sheet by 40%. We might not have any ice left in the Arctic Ocean in the near future. The problem is, when the same phenomenon hits the mountainous regions (an average rise of temperature by 1 or 2 degrees), then the rain-snow precipitation mix gets altered. With more rain and less snow, there are floods every now and then (as we witness increasingly), resulting into more “runoff and less ice stored in the mountains for use in the dry season” [Lester R Brown, keynote speech in Stockholm Water Conference].

And this is for real. Glacier National Park located in the State of Montana, had 150 glaciers in it a century or so ago. Now there are only 50. Ditto for Andes and Alps where there has been an enormous shrinkage of ice mass. The ice mass in the Himalayas – the third largest in the world after the two polar ice caps, is shrinking too. Whether it is the Indus shared by India Pakistan, Ganges shared by India Bangladesh, the Brahmaputra shared by China India and Bangladesh, the Mekong or the Yellow River, every major river in Asia originates in that snow/ice mass. And that leads to the second problem.

A part of the water problem is political. Rivers don’t follow political boundaries. Naturally the upstream country (that is closer to the source) optimizes its fresh water utility – usually through dams, irrigation networks, barrages and canals. This also fashions 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” says Brahma Chellany. That adds to the already existing environmental issue. Rivers like Nile, Euphrates, Brahmaputra, or the Teesta have all been sources of contention for some time now, some more threatening in the international arena than others. 

“In fact”, continues Chellany, in his article Coming of the Water Wars, “China has been damming most international rivers flowing out of Tibet, whose fragile ecosystem is already threatened by global warming.” Only after it was widely blamed for the drought in the South East Asian countries of Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia did China open one of its six dams on the upper Mekong River in 2016 to help these countries cope with difficult conditions.

Take the contested case of the river Brahmaputra. Brahmaputra originates in Tibet, which, with its vast glaciers, huge underground springs, and high altitude happens to be the world’s largest freshwater storehouse after the polar icecaps. Brahmaputra is the world’s highest and one of the fastest-flowing rivers. And China plans to divert it. Of course, this diversion is not something that China talks about openly, because it’d be tantamount to an acceptance of the resultant partial destruction of North East India and Bangladesh’s environment; but rerouting of the river to the Yellow River is something that finds a mention among the official corridors of PRC (through an officially blessed book published in 2005, Tibet Waters Will Save China). There is very little idea about the environmental feasibility – there is a blackout on the scientific studies done – and there is no idea how this ambition might impact the already fragile ecosystem. Yet, political observers across South Asia warn that it is not “whether” China will; it is “when”. China has already identified the spot as the proposed diversion point – it is just before the river enters India. 

Teesta is another example of a source of subtle conflict; this, between India and Bangladesh. With its source in the Indian state of Sikkim, the Teesta flows through North West Bengal before entering Bangladesh. It courses through 45 kilometres of irrigable land there before merging with the Brahmaputra (also known as Yamuna in Bangladesh). An ad hoc water sharing agreement between the two nations was signed in 1983 where India and Bangladesh were allocated 39% and 36% of the water flow respectively. However, talks of a new bilateral treaty proposing an equal allocation of water from the river fell flat in recent times owing to the lurking fear on the part of India that loss of higher volume of water would cause problems in North Bengal during the drier seasons. [see Aparna Ray, 8/6/2012,, India, Bangladesh: Water Dispute and Teesta River Diplomacy]

Water-conflicts is gradually acquiring the shape of a major geopolitical headache, with lack of hydrological data and information sharing across nations that share the common resource. Unfortunately, that doesn’t put the conflicting nations under a good light, because beyond the rhetoric and political posturing, a hard look takes one to the cause-effect cycle that lies beneath. And it is environmental. For example: unstructured growth, overpopulation and the need to feed industries has made China the 13th most water-poor” country in the world with 80% of its cities severely water stressed. As water becomes scarce and supplies get strained the quality of water deteriorates rapidly leading to further ecological sufferings. India, according to a 2010 report published by Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, faces a serious water problem, is expected to become “water stressed” by 2025, and “water scarce” by 2050. The real causes are the country’s rapid population growth; inefficient transport and use of the stored surface water; the planting of water-intensive crops such as rice and sugar cane in dry areas by politically powerful landowners; and a failure to control demand for water because of free electricity and subsidised diesel provided to hundreds of millions of farmers for their pumps.

A lesser known, yet equally dangerous problem is corporatization for profits. In other words, human greed. In 2012, California governor Jerry Brown tried to trick his voters to approve “one of the most brazen water heists in American history” [Yasha Levine, Exiledonline]. The plan was to hand over a large chunk of Northern California’s water supply to a handful of oligarchs – Central Valley plantation owners and Southern California real estate developers – allowing them to use more of the state’s over-tapped water supply, a shared public resource, as a private commodity that they could turn around and sell on the open market for easy profits. The signs are ominous. In the way Monsanto is aiming to control the food supply through genetically modified seeds, a handful of transnational corporations (Suez, Vivendi, RWE) are on the prowl, trying to control the world’s water supply. 

As we witness this new world with all its manmade anomalies, one wonders what is water – a resource or a commodity? Who owns or controls it? When unplanned expansion and win-lose “growth” in the name of economic one-upmanship within a physically finite planet gives rise to unprecedented ecological and environmental disasters should the governments across borders cooperate and co-opt for long-term and environmentally sustainable forms of resource utilization, or plan on the right to give away, control, politicize, sell, and pollute it? 

Asiatimesonline – March 19 and April 1, 2016.
Roomana Hukil, India-China: A Water War over Brahmaputra
Aparna Ray – June 8, 2012 -
Brahma Chellany – Coming Water Wars, THE MAGAZINE OF INTERNATIONAL ECONOMIC POLICY 888 16th Street, N.W., Suite 740 Washington, D.C.  20006 Phone: 202-861-0791 • Fax: 202-861-0790
Lester R Brown - How Water Scarcity Will Shape the New Century, AUGUST 14, 2000, Keynote Speech presented at Stockholm Water Conference
Yasha Levine – Water Wars: Gov Jerry Brown’s pet Public-to-Private Wealth Transfer project is a Go. Exiled Online.  
Victor Mallet – India: Water Wars.
Manny Santiago – World Water Wars,

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