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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

COMMENT: Hydro-politics in Asia

July 4, 2009

July 3, 2009 Pakistan Daily Times by Saleem H Ali

Because of its importance as a water source for the most populous parts of
the world, the Himalayan and Tibetan region will be the bellwether for any
progress that can be made on this vital resource issue

During a recent visit to the Netherlands, I had an opportunity to interact
with the Dalai Lama at a seminar of experts on water security organised by
the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. Sitting around a table with around
fifteen scholars from Asia and Europe, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning
spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism called the plateau a "third pole" for
water availability on the planet. The conversation was meant to be
apolitical and to focus on science as a touchstone for cooperation. The
Dalai Lama humorously commented that it is time we protect mountains not
just because they are "sacred" but because "science tells us they are
important".

Clearly the salience of the Tibetan plateau and its surrounding mountains as
sources of water cannot be underestimated, and a global strategy is needed
by scientists and policy-makers alike to address the challenge of water
scarcity in Asia.

The current economic crisis and concerns about terrorism appear to have
eclipsed the urgency of addressing the growing scarcity of our most vital
life-giving resource - water. The situation is particularly acute for the
world's largest continent. Although home to more than half of the world's
population, Asia has less fresh water - 3,920 cubic meters per person - than
any continent, except Antarctica. Almost two-thirds of global population
growth is occurring in Asia, which is expected to grow by nearly 500 million
within the next 10 years, mostly in urban areas.

In November 2008, The US National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2025
forecasting report specifically highlighted water scarcity on the world's
largest continent as follows: "With water becoming more scarce in Asia and
the Middle East, cooperation to manage changing water resources is likely to
become more difficult within and between states."

The linkage between water and terrorism is also well-established in various
ways. Water can be used as a conduit for carrying biological and chemical
agents. Infrastructure used for water delivery and for hydropower can also
be a target during armed conflict. Only a few months ago, the Taliban
threatened to blow up Warsak Dam in Pakistan, which would have been
catastrophic for the city of Peshawar.

While such threats can be averted by conventional security measures, many of
the other security challenges of water scarcity and quality are far more
diffuse and require diplomatic and technical means of prevention.

Although the desire for an integrative approach to water resources has
existed for several decades, the establishment of international water
dispute mechanisms has been painfully slow. The United Nations Convention on
the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses was
promulgated in 1997, but has failed to muster the 35 votes needed for it to
take effect.

Ecosystems transcend political borders and water is the lifeline for all
biological systems. Any attempts to contain water by political geographies
are bound to have serious consequences on the natural system. Asia's
political geography is dominated by three major countries - China, India and
Russia.

Despite the potential for conflict over water, we must also consider the
prospects for ecological cooperation more directly. Indeed, India and
Pakistan have exemplified how riparian cooperation among adversaries can be
facilitated by international agencies such as the World Bank in the form of
the Indus Waters Treaty. Furthermore, if the issue is transformed from a
purely quantitative distributional concern to one of scientific inquiry,
greater cooperative potential can also be realised.

Even in the case of a highly polarised territorial conflict such as in
Tibet, there must be an urgent call for joint research across borders to
understand the dynamics of the changing glaciers in the region and to find
and disseminate adaptive strategies. As a starting point, China can promote
interactions with Tibetan leaders purely on the issue of environmental
education while also encouraging global research teams more access to study
the decline of water resources on the Tibetan plateau.

All too often, countries assume that they will always have the last resort
of desalinating abundant seawater into fresh water. However, the potential
for using massive amounts of energy (often oil) to harness water from the
sea is financially and ecologically unsustainable in the long run. This was
most recently exemplified by the $2.2 billion debt crisis of the Dubai
Electricity and Water Authority in the Gulf. Until we find an efficient
means of desalinating water through renewable energy sources, considering
seawater as a panacea to water scarcity, especially for highly populated
Asian countries, is untenable.

Although much of the world's focus has been on the geopolitics of oil, water
may indeed be the more salient and influential resource. The latest James
Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, lends fictional impetus to what may well
become a very real struggle for water access across many parts of the world.
World leaders, particularly in Asia, must give the matter utmost importance
and move towards a clear plan for meeting water demand through binding
international agreements and domestic water conservation laws.

Because of its importance as a water source for the most populous parts of
the world, the Himalayan and Tibetan region will be the bellwether for any
progress that can be made on this vital resource issue. Initially, the
prospect of such cooperation may seem distant to many political realists but
if countries as disparate as the G20 can come together to work out solutions
to our economic crisis, we can surely do the same for our most precious and
life-giving resource.

Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the
University of Vermont and the principal advisor for the Asia Society's
Leadership Group on Water Security. www.saleemali.net and
www.asiasociety.org/water

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