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Asia's 'water tower', controlled by China



9 February 2012 09:37

At a time when there is much debate about the respective roles and strengths of China and the US in Asia, a new book discussing China's control over Asia's freshwater resources refocuses attention on the quip attributed to Mark Twain that 'Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.'

You don't have to take the quip to its logical conclusion to accept the importance that freshwater plays in international relations, though there is probably too much emphasis placed on the disputes arising from the existence of many trans-boundary rivers throughout the world. Among the many readily available articles on this issue, few are better than one published in the Economist nearly four years ago; it gave as much attention to the successful management of some international rivers as to those cases where this has not occurred.

But South and Southeast Asia have not been blessed by many successes relating to trans-boundary rivers. Readers of The Interpreter will know that my principal concern is with the management, or rather lack of it, of the Mekong as an international river that passes through or by no fewer than six countries (China, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam), and to a lesser extent with developments on the Salween, which flows out of China into Burma.

Now, very recently, I have had an opportunity to read Brahma Chellaney's Water: Asia's New Battleground, which undertakes the ambitious task of looking at international rivers on a pan-Asian basis.

Written with a fine sense for acerbic commentary on the political misjudgments of his own country's politicians, including in relation to the Indus Treaty between India and Pakistan ('Nehru's long seventeen years in office stood out for not learning from mistakes and continuing to operate on ingenuous premises') the key fact that pervades his book is the extent to which China's administration of Tibet means that it has the capability to control all of the major rivers of flowing into South and Southeast Asia.

As he puts it, 'the Tibetan Plateau is Asia's "Water Tower", the location of the sources of the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Salween and, most importantly the Brahmaputra, which flows into both India and Bangladesh.

By its dam-building program on the Mekong, China has already shown the extent to which it has no intention of treating that river as other than a natural resource over which it has unlimited sovereignty. Beyond this fact, and, to quote Chellaney (p.130):

The Chinese hydroengineering projects on the plateau [including consideration to diverting water to northern China from the Brahmaputra] have a direct bearing on the quantity and quality of riverwater flows to southern and southeastern Asian countries.

China has already damned every major river on the Tibetan Plateau—including the Mekong, the Salween, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Indus, the Sutlej, the Shweli and the Karnali...

Chellaney's conclusion that China's activities in Tibet pose the threat of interstate water conflict may seem extreme, and very clearly reflect concerns linked to Indian interests. But what has already happened with the Mekong is a salutary qualification to any suggestion that he is overstating the consequences of Chinese actions and intentions.

In the Mekong's case, it is not even necessary to attribute malign intentions to China's actions in building its dams to acknowledge their long-term threat to the manner in which that river functions and its capacity to act as a vital resource for food and agriculture.

So far, the downstream Mekong countries have not been prepared to challenge China's actions, given their relative strengths. But can the same be said about India in the future? For the moment, all that can be said with certainty is that China's control of Tibet means that it is in a dominant, even unchallengeable, position so far as the control of much of Asia's water resources is concerned.

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