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Looming Water Shortages Seen Leading to Pan-Asia Tensions

The conflicts of the 21st century will be fought over the most important resource: water.

That was the theme of a speech by Professor Brahma Chellaney at the JMSC on September 23, whose recently published book, Water: Asia’s New Battleground examines the problem.

Brahma Chellaney

Chellaney’s extensive work with India’s National Security Council and a Policy Advisory Group make him one of India’s leading strategic thinkers.

Chellaney said water scarcity would become another cause of political tension in the increasingly unstable relationship between India and China.

He described how water shortages were  being caused at an accelerating rate by a variety of anthropological factors.

As Asia experiences population growth and a rise in aggregate prosperity, consumption growth continue to swell. Based on current water-intensive methods of production, this will only lead to an exponential increase in water exploitation, he said.

Chellaney said the other major cause of unsustainable water consumption was food production. As populations grow, so does demand for food.

Asia used to be a continent of acute food shortages. Famines were frequent and food was scarce.

The irrigation programmes of the late 20th century led to an economic revolution as Asian countries became food exporters. Chellaney asked what would happen when food becomes scarce and Asian countries could no longer export food.

In Chellaney’s eyes, the problem is exasperated by what he called the short-sighted and an imprudently rapid increase of groundwater pumping, especially in China.

The size and volume of the planet’s aquifers is still unknown but they are certainly shrinking. As countries drain more from the earth’s water supply, people are forced to dig deeper.

In addition to pumping, the construction of over 85,000 hydro-dams in China has drastically reshaped the ecology of ancient rivers throughout the continent.

The aquifers are shrinking and the rivers are drying.

Chellaney has mapped the economic and political consequences of this man-made crisis.

“We are at the cusp of a new era of serious water shortage,” he said.

As global demand for water increases, mankind’s unsustainable exploitation of fresh water will impact security and peace in Asia and the world.

“The rivers fed by the Himalayas will become the fault-lines of the future.”

Chellaney said China is a country run by engineers. Their influence within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has led to the creation of projects that fail to adequately consider the socio-economic stability of the continent.

Additionally, China’s refusal to co-operate with other South East Asian nations in multi-lateral institutions, while knowingly lowering their water supply, continues to fuel tensions.

When asked what could be done to mitigate the impending water shortage, Chellaney’s suggested a number of simple solutions, including the development of desalination mechanisms powered by renewable energies, rain-water collection and water recycling.

A multi-lateral organisation (which includes China) is absolutely necessary in order to prevent conflict, he said. There is also a need to reassess the use of water in terms of food production and irrigation which currently account for 81% of Asian water consumption.

Chellaney said China’s practice of transferring fresh water from southern to the north for agriculture and then sending the food produced back south was a waste of both water and energy.

Chellaney has held positions at Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University. He is currently Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi Centre for Policy Research.