Posted by: shipbright | March 14, 2010

Asian water security…Tibetan Plateau Series #7 wrap up

“We must recognize that the past may not be an adequate basis from which to draw conclusions about the potential for future conflicts arising from water security issues” …Asia Society, Securing the Region’s Water Future report

Water security in Asia…Unlike the other major reservoirs of freshwater on this planet – Greenland and Antarctica – Asia’s Tibetan plateau is a critical “water bank” to millions of people downhill from the vast plateau.

China is the upstream water holder and countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar [Burma], Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam are all at the mercy of the owner of the “Water Bank”.

Water needs such as irrigation, hydropower, personal consumption by people, and ecosystem sustainability are all obvious and basic needs.  Is water a right for all people as the UN has stated or is it a commodity to be traded, charged for, or controlled by a corporate entity or a government?  Big questions and so far we have managed to avoid armed conflict…but the problem is getting bigger and more complex-not easier.

The Tibetan plateau glaciers are shrinking in mass—it is a water bank whose withdrawals exceed deposits. Academics, environmentalists, government policymakers, and large multinational corporations who see profit for their stockholders are increasingly aware of these issues.  But it’s the general public that needs to come up to speed on these issues so that we the people, from whatever country you come from, can monitor and hold elected officials, governments, corporations and Non-Governmental Organizations [NGO’s] accountable.  Knowledge is power and forethought prevents problems and conflicts.

For my last post, for now, on the Tibetan Plateau, here is an edited version of the Asia Society’s report:  Asia’s Next Challenge: Securing The Region’s Water Future.  The full report is available by following this link: What I have posted below are highlights but it summarizes the issues and challenges.  What happens in Asia doesn’t stay in Asia–it will affect all of us:

Water problems in Asia today are severe—one out of five people (700 million) does not have access to safe drinking water and half of the region’s population (1.8 billion people) lacks access to basic sanitation.  As population growth and urbanization rates in the region rise, the stress on Asia’s water resources is rapidly intensifying.  Climate change is expected to worsen the situation….Experts project that reduced access to fresh water will lead to a range of consequences, in­cluding impaired food production, the loss of livelihood security, large-scale migration within and across borders, and increased geopolitical tensions and instabilities.  Over time, these effects will have a profound impact on security throughout the region

…Although Asia is home to more than half of the world’s population, it has less freshwater—3,920 cubic meters per person per year—than any continent other than Antarctica.  Almost two-thirds of global popula­tion growth is occurring in Asia, where the population is expected to increase by nearly 500 million people within the next 10 years.  Asia’s rural population will remain almost the same between now and 2025, but the urban population is likely to increase by a staggering 60%.

…The term “security” is often used to connote conflict, but it has a much broader meaning for the purposes of this effort.  The nexus between an essential resource such as water and security encompasses individual physical safety, livelihoods, health and human welfare, as well as a re­alization of the cooperative potential between nation-states and sub-national jurisdictions….The report also draws attention to some of the most significant current and future water-related challenges facing the region—from water disputes involving hostile states such as India and Pakistan to water conflicts in China’s villages and provinces resulting from agricultural and industrial pollution, and from the alarming rise in waterborne diseases, especially among children, in Indonesia attributable to inadequate wastewater facilities to the negative impact that climate change will have on Asia’s glaciers, which for many countries are the primary freshwater source. The scope and scale of these problems demonstrate in stark relief that no matter how we approach water resources—whether it is on the basis of quality and quantity, or as the most potent manifestation of extreme climatic events—hydropolitics is likely to be a growing force in Asian security that will require a broader understanding of and strengthened institutional capacities for water governance.

…The U.S. National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2025 report has forecasted that “cooperation to manage changing water resources is likely to become more difficult within and between states” in Asia. The emerging picture under­scores an urgent need to re-frame the debate and to begin looking at these issues in a more comprehensive way that takes into account the complex national security and development challenges that countries and communities will face as water scarcity intensifies.

Solutions are well within reach, but they will require high-level political will and a suf­ficient amount of investment. Governments need to develop coherent national responses and policies to simultaneously address multiple problems, with the aim of reducing security risks and vulnerabilities and providing economic benefits, such as investments in infrastructure for water conservation and management. Countries should forge a regional approach in which governments and other key stakeholders, including nongovernmental organizations, civil society groups, and businesses, work together to clarify responsibilities and coordination mechanisms to address water security concerns.

Water as a security concern is beginning to gain attention worldwide. Researchers and in­ternational organizations are developing specific indicators to consider watersheds that could be vulnerable to ecological stress and resultant conflicts…9 out of 12 of the basins at risk were located within Asia.…The historical record demonstrates that water issues have generated more cooperation than conflict. According to Yoffee, Wolf, and Giordano, 28% of all recorded international water-related events between 1948 and 1999 were conflictive, while two-thirds were cooperative.

The absence of major conflicts over water suggests that we should consider the coopera­tive aspects of hydropolitics more seriously. At the same time, we must recognize that the past may not be an adequate basis from which to draw conclusions about the potential for future conflicts arising from water security issues. Demographic pressures and resource scar­city dynamics in the coming decades will be unprecedented, and the potential for conflicts sparked by the direct and indirect impacts of an increasingly volatile water supply should not be underestimated, particularly in light of rising concerns about climate change. As Rajendra K.Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, observes in his essay on page 31 of this report, “climate change challenges the traditional assumption that past hydrological experience provides a good guide to future conditions, because the consequences of climate change may alter the reliability of current water management systems and water-related infrastructure.” [emphasis mine]

Remote, exotic, a siren call for adventurers, romantics, dreamers and hardy souls, the Tibetan Plateau holds the key to Asia’s water security for up to 400 million people.

China’s needs will drive the actions taken by governments in the area…we need to pay attention to this.  Far off lands with seemingly unrelated events and actions have a way of dramatically affecting our lives around the world…they can be a Casus belli [latin: justification for act of war] such as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria which brought to a head regional conflicts and sparked World War I…Will the dragon take the water or will China clean up its own pollution and recognize the right of water for all people?

[Thanks to flyinureye for the graphic!]

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