On Political Books

March/April 2012 Not a Drop to Drink

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

By Christina Larson

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

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.

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.


  • Anonymous on March 29, 2012 2:19 PM:

    water will be issue for not only in asia but it will be for the world.

    while we should aim for universal access of water to all the people, we need to develop a lot more efficient way to do so through better infrastructure, effective farming (that's including safe GMO products), conservation technologies, etc to preserve our planet's water.

    mesopotamian civilization died because of over-development. their once fertile land got dried up. and iraq never recovered from it, even today.

    we should worry for water more than oil for a long term.
    that's one big reason i'm worried about canada and its tar sands "dutch disease".

  • Jimo on March 29, 2012 2:34 PM:

    Foreign Policy magazine did list the feud between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as one of the top 10 likely spots for war in 2012. ("Terrorists" in Uzbekistan blew up a rail line that links Tajikistan to the outside world several weeks back. Repairs are still pending ... and pending, and pending. Cargo for the landlocked country sits moldering all winter. It's widely assumed that this is a way to pressure the Tajiks.)

    When the Soviet Union broke up, the already dysfunctional water system, which had been managed as a single network, became a chopped up international system divided between the various "Stans". At first, they just tried to keep things going as they had been, but life never stays fixed for long.

    In essence, the poorer, upstream country (Tajikistan) wants to finish building what would be the world's tallest hydroelectric dam. The Russians started it long ago. The thing would take something like 18 years to fill. Tajikistan rivals neighboring Afghanistan for abject poverty and desperately need the electricity and the cash.

    Uzbekistan (better known to Republicans as Uzbeki-beki-stan-stan), the (relatively) wealthier, downstream country fears (in part, justly) that this is going to deprive them of the water they use to irrigate their extensive cotton crops. Uzbekistan, a repressive police state, is one of the world's major cotton producers. This, despite the fact that growing water-thirsty cotton in a desert doesn't seem like a sustainable practice. But if the industry is controlled by friends and relatives of the dictator then it's all but impossible to dislodge (see: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson).

    The water flows -- or rather, does not flow -- to the Aral Sea, once something like the world's 4th largest lake, and now an environmental disaster. (Everyone's seen pictures of ocean-going boats sitting in what looks like desert that used to be the Sea.)

    Mix in ethnic antagonism, intermixed ethnic populations (do I hear a call for ethnic cleansing?), drug smuggling particularly Afghan heroin, insecure infant nations, terrorism, outsourced torture (the Uzbeks seem to specialize in immersion in boiling liquids as a "truth seeking" technique as well as a nifty way to suppress political opponents), massive pollution, radical Islam, people smuggling, transnational oil companies, weapons from the Afghan war, a bit of a personality cult, a dash of global warming, and the hegemonic influence peddling of China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, the need for the U.S. to have a transportation route other than Pakistan, and you have the ingredients for a real disaster.

    (Gee, if only the U.S. prioritized economic & social development and diplomacy over military basis and the "coalition of the willing"!)

    The same pressures exist elsewhere in Central Asia where other Himalayan water flows west, just as where the water flows south (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh), and east from the Tibetan plateau (China, SE Asia).