The Big Thirst

Water has no substitute. With that maxim, Brahma Chellaney begins his bracing interdisciplinary study of potential conflicts over this most necessary, beautiful, and elusive substance.

Asia, the world’s largest, most populous landmass, extends from Turkey and Israel to Japan, from Russia south to the Maldives. Chellaney’s scholarly, extensively footnoted study touches on all of the continent’s diverse cultures and peoples. A former adviser to India’s National Security Council, Chellaney has published five earlier books. He has also taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, and is now on the staff of New Delhi’s independent Center for Policy Research. In Water he blends elements of hydrology, international law, geography, climatology, culture, and international relations, arguing for the need to create peaceful means of reconciling international water disputes, particularly among India, Pakistan, China, and their neighbors. Though hampered by a serpentine and repetitive approach, Water will undoubtedly cause most readers to look at the world differently.

The scarcity of fresh water is a chronic problem across much of Asia, a dilemma that will only grow as Asian populations continue to balloon and the demand for better food and more manufactured goods increases. In turn, these demands will inevitably lead to the accelerated depletion of regional aquifers and to the drying up and salinization of riverbeds. The rapid melting of the Himalayan glaciers due to climate change creates another threat to water availability for hundreds of millions of Asians. Beyond these realities of supply and demand lie deep political fault lines, particularly China’s control over the Tibetan Plateau, the pristine repository from which much of Asia’s water initially springs. Furthermore, according to Chellaney, there are at least fifty-seven transnational river basins in Asia, each a potential flashpoint for conflict because most lack any legally binding agreement regarding water sharing or cooperation.

Water is intended for scholars, policy makers, and what the author calls an educated public. While far more comprehensive and detailed than an extended supplement for, say, the Economist (as in its special report on water, “For Want of a Drink,” May 20, 2010), the book lacks journalistic sizzle. Much of it reads like a white paper—dry and repetitive—but even its maps and charts are less illustrative than they could be. In addition, the author’s partisanship has the effect of diminishing his overarching argument. (China is the world’s “largest, strongest, and longest-surviving autocracy,” whose objective is “to steal a significant portion of Asia’s water supplies.” Pakistan is “a global terrorist-training hub” whose “military establishment continues to export terror to India,” whereas India’s policy makers are “limp-wristed.”) Still, Water tells an immensely important story and Chellaney has myriad facts at his fingertips. It could be the resource that academics, journalists, statesmen, and policy makers need to bring this issue to a wider audience.

Chellaney makes a convincing if alarming argument that China—until now not a strong ecological steward of its own waters—is the central player in the Asian water drama. Crucially, China has failed to make “a single water-sharing treaty or agreement” with any of the countries with which it shares rivers. On the contrary, writes the author, China has demonstrated an “increasing riparian and territorial assertiveness” toward them. (Some maps recently published in Beijing, for example, even include the upper Indian state of Arunchal Pradesh as part of China.) What frustrates the author most is that, because the Tibetan Plateau is now entirely under Beijing’s control (an annexation that Britain, the United States, and even India foolishly acceded to), the People’s Republic retains sole rights to the waters that originate there. More alarming still to Chellaney is China’s potential use of “water as an ‘asymmetric’ political tool” against its neighbors.

Present international water law is porous and ill-defined. It allows a source state “first rights” to exploit the water originating in its territory (think of Mexico’s unhappy situation at the terminus of the Colorado River). Downstream countries are generally left with little legal leverage, other than holding out the proverbial empty cup. With China’s own domestic water needs growing, it is not hard to imagine Beijing gradually turning off the spigots to its neighbors. In fact, as Water amply demonstrates, China is feverishly working to redirect large quantities of its Tibetan store to its own distant northeastern agricultural, manufacturing, and population centers—a Herculean but now technically feasible task.

Water thus turns out to be a very troubling but necessary book. Its reasonable conclusion is that if political tensions and endemic drought, not to mention serious conflicts, are to be avoided in Asia in the next half-century, there must be improved cooperation among the interested states. The author thinks the United States might play an important diplomatic role here (he holds up water cooperation between Canada and the United States as one viable model). But more realistic is his emphasis on the need for all nations to improve their water-use policies. He also draws attention to a voluntary 1996 water agreement between India and Bangladesh that guaranteed downriver Bangladesh a minimum share of water from the Ganges, year-round. It was premised on the principle of “no harm to either party,” and has worked remarkably well. In fact, it has had a positive effect on all subsequent Indian-Bangladeshi interactions.

The paramount question Water raises is how to convince China that a similar exercise of “gratuity” would be in its interests as well as that of its neighbors. In view of the facts Chellaney presents, it is hard to imagine the Malthusian leadership in Beijing experiencing such a change of heart without concerted effort—indeed, worldwide pressure.

Published in the 2012-08-17 issue: 
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Patrick Jordan is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

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