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BRAHMA CHELLANEY
STRATEGIC IMPERATIVE

Author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.

Water emerges as a constraint on Asia’s rapid growth

s the most-pressing resource, water holds the strategic key to peace, public health and prosperity. With its availability coming under pressure in many parts of the world due to greater industrial, agricultural and household demands, water is likely serve as the defining crisis of the 21st century. This is most evident when one looks at Asia, the world's largest continent.

In Asia, growing populations, rising affluence, changing diets and the demands of development are putting strain on two resources linked to climate change. One is energy, the main contributor to the build-up of planet-warming greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And the other is water, whose availability will be seriously affected by climate change, increasing the likelihood of water-related conflicts there, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned. The sharpening Asian competition over energy resources, driven in part by high GDP growth rates and in part by mercantilist attempts to lock up supplies, has obscured the other danger — that water shortages in much of Asia are becoming a threat to rapid economic modernisation, prompting the building of upstream hydro-engineering projects on transnational rivers, with little concern for the interests of co-riparian states. If water geopolitics were to spur interstate tensions through reduced water flows to neighbouring countries, the Asian renaissance could stall in the face of inter-riparian conflicts.

Today, no region better illustrates the dangers of water wars in the future than Asia, which has less fresh water — 3,920 cubic meters per person — than any other continent, according to a 2006 United Nations report. This fact gets obscured by the spotlight on the sharpening energy competition. At a time when the assertive pursuit of national interest has begun to replace ideology, idealism and morality in international relations, there is a danger that interstate conflict in Asia in the coming years could be driven by competition not so much over political influence as over scarce resources.

The UN report has pointed out that when the estimated reserves of lakes, rivers and groundwater are added up, Asia has marginally less water per person than Europe or Africa, one-quarter that of North America, nearly one-tenth that of South America and 20 times less than Australia and Pacific islands. Yet Asia is home to almost 60% of the world's population. In Asia, two broad water-related effects of climate change can be visualised. First, climate change is likely to intensify interstate and intrastate competition over water resources. That in turn could trigger resource conflicts within and between states, and open new (or exacerbate existing) political disputes. Second, the likely increased frequency of extreme weather events like hurricanes, droughts and flooding, as well as the rise of ocean levels, are likely to spur greater interstate and intrastate migration — especially of the poor and the vulnerable — from delta and coastal regions to the hinterland. Such an influx of outsiders would socially swamp inland areas, upsetting the existing fragile ethnic balance and provoking a backlash that strains internal and regional security. Through such large-scale migration, the political stability and internal cohesion of some nations could be undermined. In some cases, this could even foster or strengthen conditions that could make the state dysfunctional.

In water-deficient Asia, most societies are agrarian, and the demand for water for farming is soaring. Asia's rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, additionally, are boosting demand for water considerably.

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India and China have entered an era of perennial water shortages, which are likely to parallel, in terms of per capita water availability, the scarcity in the Middle East before long.

Household water consumption in Asia is also rising rapidly, but such is the water paucity that not many Asians can aspire for the lifestyle of Americans, who daily use 400 litres per person, or more than 2.5 times the average in Asia. Agriculture, however, remains the major consumer of water. Some three-fourths of all water withdrawals in Asia are for agriculture.

sia's vast irrigation systems helped usher in the Green Revolution. Today, irrigated croplands produce 60% of Asia's rice, wheat and other staple food grains. But in a new era of growing water shortages, the water-intensive and wasteful nature of Asian irrigation practices are becoming apparent, including the growing of rice in saturated paddy fields, old and inefficient irrigation canals and the widespread use of electric and diesel pumps to recklessly extract groundwater.

Add to this picture the fast-rising demand for food in Asia. But to grow more food will require more water — a resource now under the greatest strain. Pollution, too, is threatening Asia's freshwater resources.

The spread of prosperity is changing diets in Asia, with people tending to eat less grain and more meat, dairy products and fruit as they rise to the middle class. In China, for example, meat consumption has doubled in the past 20 years and is expected to again double by 2035. A shift from traditional rice and noodles to a meatier diet has helped double East Asia's "water footprint" for food production since 1985, given the fact that it takes 12 times more water to grow a kilogram of beef as compared to a kilogram of rice or wheat.

Take China and India, which already are water-stressed economies. As China and India gain economic heft, they are increasingly drawing international attention. The two demographic titans are coming into their own at the same time in history, helping to highlight the ongoing major shifts in global politics and economy. However, when one examines natural endowments — such as arable land, water resources, mineral deposits, hydrocarbons and wetlands — the picture that emerges is not exactly gratifying for India and China.

The two giants have entered an era of perennial water shortages, which are likely to parallel, in terms of per-capita water availability, the scarcity in the Middle East before long. India and China face the prospect that their rapid economic modernisation may stall due to inadequate water resources. This prospect would become a reality if their industrial, agricultural and household demand for water continues to grow at the present frenetic pace. Water presents a unique challenge. While countries can scour the world for oil, natural gas and minerals to keep their economic machines humming, water cannot be secured through international trade deals. Sustainable and integrated management of national water resources is essential to prevent degradation, depletion and pollution of water. To meet the gap between supply and demand, water conservation, water efficiency, rainwater capture, water recycling and drip irrigation would have to be embraced at national, provincial and local levels.

One can hope that advances in clean-water technologies would materialise before water conflicts flare. Low-cost, energy-efficient technologies for treating and recycling water could emerge from the scientific progress on nanoparticles and nanofibres and membrane bioreactors. But until that becomes a reality, Asian states have little choice but to upgrade their antiquated irrigation systems and adopt more water-efficient agricultural practices.

 
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