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Published: April 25, 2015 23:15 IST | Updated: April 26, 2015 03:54 IST April 25, 2015

Water wars and geopolitics

Swaran Singh

The fusion of autocratic politics and capitalist economics makes China play with nature. Rising China also rejects the very concept of
water-sharing and shies away from any such dialogue

Water is the most essential resource next only to air; yet, over half of humanity continues to live in water-stressed conditions. This is because,
while 70 per cent of the earths surface is water, less than one percent of it is potable. And now, in face of unprecedented economic and
demographic expansion and soaring water consumption, our shrinking freshwater is getting increasingly laced with harmful organic and
inorganic chemicals discharged from their excessive use in agriculture, from industries and from mega urban centres.
Apart from our everyday needs for drinking, cooking, or bathing to fighting famines and epidemics, water supports biodiversity and
ecosystems. Civilisations bloomed around rivers. But the 20th century saw an onslaught of damming and diverting of rivers. Climate change
now threatens to submerge the worlds low-lying regions, producing refugees who will bring their new habitats under further stress and
exacerbate existing ethnic, sectarian or political tensions. Water insecurity not just triggers political instability but corrodes social fabric and
peace forever.
Along with western experts like Honey Rand, Diane Raines Ward, Oscar Olivera, Hussein Solomon and Anthony Turton, water wars were
popularised by Vandana Shivas four celebrated works starting from 2002. A decade later Chellaney revisits several of these issues in his
three volumes since 2012. Compared to Shiva, who carried an activists perspective to examine how this public good was being
misappropriated, Chellaneys wears the geopolitical lens to update us on the multifaceted global linkages between peace and water and how
it has been manipulated and monopolised by powerful nations and corporations.
Commoditisation and securitisation

Water market, says Chellaney, is the next big investment opportunity because water management reflects corporate business models.
Global sales of water-related equipment and services total up to half a trillion dollars a year. But there is zero charge on withdrawing water.
Indeed, most countries subsidise electricity to farmers resulting in overexploitation. Corporations have convinced politicians that
commoditisation is the ideal way to control wasteful use of water. But a litre of bottled water requires 1.6 litres of water which makes this a
wastewater generator apart from colossal plastic-bottle waste. Water consumption by refineries is usually larger than the quantity of gasoline
or diesel fuel manufactured. Growing consumption of meat, biofuels and nuclear power all water-guzzlers make groundwater the
worlds most extracted source.

After the advent of aerial bombing, dams were routinely pounded during the World War II and the author believes that the 1967 Arab-Israeli
war was triggered by the Arab Headwater Diversion Project. It ended up with Israel capturing all regional freshwater which had been the
main purpose of this war according to Ariel Sharons Memoirs. Today, cities like Abu Dhabi (UAE), Sanaa (Yemen) and Quetta (Pakistan) are
expected to soon run out of water.
Hydro-hegemon China

The author shows how having absorbed the sprawling water-rich Tibetan plateau and Xinjiang, China is today a source of trans-boundary
river flows to the entire Indochina, South Asia and Kazakhstan and Russia. China is also the worlds leading dam-builder and the largest
producer of hydropower. Chinas Three Gorges Dam generates 22.5 gigawatts power, which is three-and-half times the next largest Grand
Coulee project in the U.S. China is now constructing hundreds dams across the developing world.

Chellaney believes that it is this fusion of autocratic politics and capitalist economics under the leadership of engineers that makes this
aspirant superpower play with nature. Rising China also rejects the very concept of water-sharing and shies away from any such dialogue.
Even in strictly bilateral channels it is not ready to share anything more than hydraulic data, that too on commercial terms. Meanwhile, the
number of Chinas dams has risen from 22 in 1949 to over 86,000 including 25,000 large dams.

But China has also suffered for this damming overdrive which has further sharpened regional imbalances. In August 1975, 62 dams had
caved in resulting in 230,000 deaths driving millions homeless. The author prescribes persuading China to halt its unilateral appropriation

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which seems lame given his own track-record on China.

The way forward

Exhaustive on triggers of water wars, the author becomes rather verbose and circumlocutory when it comes to solutions. He focuses more on
how efforts have not worked so far. For instance, about 20 states of the worlds hungriest Sub-Saharan Africa have sold/leased their fertile
lands to foreign firms especially from petrodollar-rich Arabia. This profit driven enterprise has brought temporary respite for locals but will
soon result in depletion and degradation of local waters. Such land-grabs had triggered political turmoil in Bolivia in 1999 bringing Evo
Morales to power or in pulling down the regime in Madagascar in 2009.
At the U.N., after three decades of negotiations a Convention on the Laws of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses was
drafted in 1997 but its enforcement seems nowhere in sight. The fundamental objection of powerful countries such as China flows from their
unwillingness to accept the doctrine of restricted sovereignty where management of their resource can become subject to multilateral
arrangements. The author perhaps prefers technical solutions urging efficiency and conservation. The bulk of freshwater is used for food
production but about a quarter of global food ends up in trash. He believes water security can be ensured if all of us became vegetarian. He
also talks of virtual-water trade i.e. importing commodities with high water content and exporting those with low water content.
His final mantra that improving regional geopolitics is indispensable for building better hydropolitics feels like holyspeak. But he also
alludes to scenarios about effects of unregulated competition providing critical triggers for cooperation. Water crises can undermine any
state, creating breeding grounds for terrorism. He fails, though, to underline the indivisible nature of peace: how the powerful cannot grow
by marginalising the weak. One could also talk of growing global connectivity or asymmetric strategies that call for sustainability becoming a
prerequisite of any development paradigm.
WATER, PEACE, AND WAR Confronting the Global Water Crisis: Brahma Chellaney; Oxford University Press, YMCA
Library Building, 1 Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 595.
Printable version | Oct 13, 2016 4:42:23 PM | http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/water-peace-and-war-book-review
The Hindu

10/13/2016 4:42 PM