The emerging discourse on Hydro-politics and its relevance (Part-I)

The emerging discourse on Hydro-politics and its relevance (Part-I)

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Shahzada Rahim

Review of the famous book “Water: Asia’s New battleground” by Brahma Chellaney


The battles of yesterday were over land

The battles of today are over energy

The battles of tomorrow may be over water


Background

Water stress has become Asia’s defining crisis of the twenty-first century that has become an obstacle to rapid economic growth and stocking tension over the shared resources and extraordinary longtime territorial disputes. The major competitors over water in Asia are India and China. It is the economic and population size of both Asian powers, which is compelling them to battle for the control of major water reservoirs. For instance, China is building mega water projects in the Tibetan Plateau and it has also built dams on the Brahmaputra River. Likewise, China is also a leading competitor for water resources in the Himalayan region with high stakes and the legal upper hand. Similarly, China’s Great South-North water transfer project is the largest of its kind in world history. Hence, it has become clear that it is not geopolitics rather hydro-politics, which is going to determine the security architecture in Asia.

Major River Basins in the region

1. The Amu Darya River Basin

2. The Mekong River Basin (there are major plans to construct major dams on Mekong River)

3. The Brahmaputra River Basin (There is a proposal to re-route the Brahmaputra River)

4. The Syr Darya River Basin

5. The Amur River Basin

6. The Irtysh River Basin

7. The Salween River Basin

8. The Ganges River Basin

Introduction

In recent decades, water has emerged as a key political determinant that could define Asia’s future cooperation and competition. Though Asia hosts Three-fifth of the world population but it has the lowest per-capita freshwater availability among all continents. Consequently, the fact cannot be denied that Asia will host more than half of the population of the globe by 2050. In this regard, the interconnected water, energy, and food sectors are set to come under the growing strain. Hence, it seems that the future of Asia will be shaped by hydro-politics, not geopolitics that will determine cooperation and competition among the major powers in the region.

Hydro-politics means rising competition over water

In the last two decades, the major economies in Asia are booming at a greater pace but with critical border and territorial disputes. Basically, the territorial battles among the major economic powers such as India and China merely aim at controlling resources such as water, energy, and trade routes. The territorial disputes and turf war among the major powers in Asia are rooted in the colonial era and are cold-war legacy. As a matter of fact, in recent years water has become a major resource and a key factor behind the territorial disputes among major powers in Asia — consequently, the future of politics in Asia will be determined by water and peace. [1]

china’s new assertive claim on Arunachal Pradesh (China calls it Southern Tibet) is because of the rich water resources in the region. Similarly, some major areas in the Asian region are also suffering from separatist unrest and conflicts.

As an illustration, in the coming decades, it seems that tensions might arise over the international waters such as Amu Darya, Syr Darya, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Salween, Indus, Jordan, Tigris, Euphrates, and Amur. Similarly, it is a vivid fact that Tibet is Asia’s largest water repository, water supplier, and rainmaker. In this respect, it is a strategic area for all Asian countries — Thus, Tibet has a central role as the major supplier of water on the Asian map. Hence, the water politics (hydro-politics) in Asia in the coming decades a major security challenge.

On the contrary, in the broader strategic domain, Asia as a densely populated region might suffer from resources, environmental, and security challenges. Especially, the fastest growing economies in Asia are the water-stressed and there is a lack of “security architecture” in Asia. Moreover, there are major disputed and occupied territories are at the heart of the geopolitical tensions in Asia ranging from Kashmir, Tibet, Golan Heights to the West Bank.[2] These disputed/occupied regions are strategically valuable because of their water wealth and advantageous location.

it is the growing water-Scarcity in the Asian region that is sharpening hydro-politics in Asia. Factually speaking, in the present time, India and China are hosting 37% of the world population and the total water they possess is 10.8%.

As an illustration, China’s new assertive claim on Arunachal Pradesh (China calls it Southern Tibet) is because of the rich water resources in the region. Similarly, some major areas in the Asian region are also suffering from separatist unrest and conflicts. For instance, Kyrgyzstan’s Fergana Valley, and Turkey’s Kurdish Southeastern part — both regions are strategically located and rich in water resources. Likewise, Asia’s largest water flows come from China’s controlled territories, which indeed serve as lifelines. Basically, from China’s controlled territories water is flowing to various countries in Eurasia i:e Russia, India, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam. In this respect, no country in the world can compete with China’s position as a multi-directional and transboundary water provider.

But the fact cannot be denied that China’s water-rich region is suffering from separatist conflicts. For instance, Xinjiang, Tibetan Plateau, Inner Mongolia, and Manchuria are also suffering from separatist conflicts. Basically, it is the diversion of water from the international routes to other regions of China, which is fueling ethnic conflicts in these regions. As a matter of fact, in Asia, there is a transboundary geopolitical competition among major powers over the transboundary river basin. [3] As a result, water has become an important commodity in the Asian continent because of its dense population.

Since the 1980s, there has been a severe decline in the per-capita availability of water resources. Basically, it is the water thirst that is threatening the international security environment in the Asian context. Another major issue is the riparian state’s dominance over the existing water reservoirs.

The geostrategic dilemma

Although, at the moment the countries in Asia are postponing the day of the reckoning the rising geostrategic political dilemma has raised the specter of Water Wars 1 (WW1). Similarly, there are also many issues related to the environment such as shrinking forests, wetlands, and large-scale water pollution that might further exacerbate water tensions in Asia. Likewise, global warming is also threatening glacier reservoirs — because the glaciers are melting at a faster pace. As a matter of fact, it is Asia’s economic boom zones, which might suffer from the scarcity of water resources — the real scarcity. Perhaps, it is the growing water-Scarcity in the Asian region that is sharpening hydro-politics in Asia. Factually speaking, in the present time, India and China are hosting 37% of the world population and the total water they possess is 10.8%.[4]

Since the 1980s, there has been a severe decline in the per-capita availability of water resources. Basically, it is the water thirst that is threatening the international security environment in the Asian context. Another major issue is the riparian state’s dominance over the existing water reservoirs. For instance, China’s Great South-North water transfer project. As a riparian state, China is exerting a huge influence over the Brahmaputra water basin. Moreover, China is also focusing on hydro-engineering in order to overcome the rising need for water.

The growing water stress and scarcity in Asia is fueling tensions in both intra and inter-state spheres. Now, it has become a vivid fact that water will shape the future economic and political life in Asia. Whereas, the intra-state tensions seem much violent than the inter-state conflict. Hence, in order to overcome these mounting and burning challenges, there is a need of institutionalized water sharing. The point to ponder here is that once water becomes a political and diplomatic battleground then it would have an exact geopolitical cost. To tackle the huge geopolitical cost, a cooperative institutional mechanism must be developed to deal with the water crisis. Moreover, the hydro-engineering projects developed by the upper stream nation might use it as a political tool against the downstream nations.

Notes

[1] Water is also a major factor behind disputes among the major powers in the Middle East especially between Israel and its Arab neighbors. For instance, in recent years Jordan is planning to save the dying Dead Sea through a 178 km long canal.

[2] Due to mounting disputes in major regions, the permanent International Commissions have been established to resolve these conflicts, which includes Mekong Commission, Indus water Commission, and Israeli-Palestinian joint Committee for the West Bank

[3] Only in the case of Jordan and Israel, Water is serving as a peace guarantee because the water arrangements were spelled out in the Annex II of the 1994 Peace Treaty.

[4] For instance, the rising grain crisis or scarcity is threatening the population. Likewise, the situation of clean water accessibility has worsened in recent years.


Author

Shahazada Rahim is a postgraduate scholar based in Islamabad. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of the news website “The Eurasian Post”. He is a frequent contributor to oriental Review, Geopolitica.Ru, 4PT, and other international newspapers such as Jerusalem Post and Eurasia Review.


Republishing is allowed with the copyright tag of the Radical Outlook

About Post Author

The Radical Outlook

The Radical Outlook is an online news web Portal designed for in-depth news analysis from the Eurasian region and beyond. It is Founded by a geopolitical analyst Shahzada Rahim.
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