On Political Books

March/April 2012 Not a Drop to Drink

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

By Christina Larson

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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  • 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).