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     Volume 11 |Issue 23| June 08, 2012 |


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Water Wars in Asia

Can the leaders of small Asian states take effective actions to ensure their citizens access to water?

Shanjida Ishita

Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Another environment day has come and gone . New pledges have been made by the world leaders as usual. However, we, the inhabitants of this dear earth, do not actually know whether these promises will be kept.

At least the world leaders now acknowledge the negative impact of climate change. The notion of national security is no longer centred on traditional military prowess. The global security concern cannot be addressed by mounting buildup of weaponry of mass destruction. Our survival depends on global environmental issues. Natural resources such as soil, air, water, forests etc are prime components of a nation's environmental foundation; if this foundation worsens, it causes great havoc, which is no less than a conflict.

Our planet is facing acute water crisis; our own continent, Asia, is on the verge of water related hazards and scarcity of fresh water. Seventy percent of the surface of our planet is covered with water, but 97.5 percent of it is salty ocean water. Our natural reserve of fresh and pure water is not unlimited, and on top of that, it is being polluted at an alarming rate.

The Himalayan river basins are the most crucial supports for the water base of the Asian region. The Himalayan river basins in China, Nepal, India and Bangladesh are home to around 1.3 billion people – almost 20 percent of the world' population and 50 percent of the total population of these countries. According to some studies, the glaciers, which have fed the Himalayan Rivers for thousands of years, will be seriously affected by global warming very soon. It is predicted that the Yellow River in China and the Ganges with its tributaries in India will be the most affected and turn into seasonal rivers by the second half of the century. They are expected to lose between 15 percent to 30 percent water due to glacier depletion. The Yangtze and Brahmaputra will also lose about 7 percent to 14 percent of the annual flow due to depletion of glaciers.

The glacial melting will reduce river flow in the dry season but eventually increase the temperatures in some areas, causing frequent over-flooding. So the future climatic pattern will be something like extreme rain over a few days and long dry periods. China, India, Nepal and Bangladesh will likely face the depletion of almost 275 billion cubic metres of renewable fresh water in the next twenty years! If that happens, the agricultural sector as well as the domestic and industrial sectors of these countries will be simply ruined.

“The wars of the next century will be over water,” said, Ismail Serageldin, former Vice President of The World Bank. He couldn't be more accurate! The Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database created by the scholars of Oregon State University provides a comprehensive inventory of all international water-related events from 1948-2005, involving 6,400 cases of water related conflicts so far.

The drying up of rivers is a cruel reality every generation must face. Photo: Star File

The recent turmoil among China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan over claims of sovereignty over the world's largest South China Sea clearly is an obvious example of conflicts over water resource. In case of Bangladesh, water conflicts exist with India over Ganges, Teesta water sharing and the Tipaimukh Dam issue. Bangladesh's suffering is going to be intensified in the near future as China and India plan to build over 200 big and small dams on the Himalayan rivers Yangtze, Brahmaputra and Ganges to meet their needs. Aside from intra-state disputes over water sharing, Asian countries, especially Bangladesh, are facing tremendous water pollution as a result of human activities including deforestation, overgrazing, wood burning, agricultural practices, over-pumping of ground water, unplanned urbanisation, industrialisation and building of unplanned dams and reservoirs.

Growing water shortage will eventually deteriorate the relations among Asian countries which could result in intra-state military conflicts. We have already experienced bitter relations between India and Bangladesh over the recent unsuccessful Teesta river deal. Unfortunately, we have 54 trans-boundary rivers with India and as a lower riparian country we have literally no control over them. Unilateral water diversion or withdrawal of water from trans-boundary or international rivers has been the common policy of India towards Bangladesh. Without any agreement with Bangladesh, it also has constructed dams or diverted water from many trans-boundary rivers. But sadly our government has failed to take any effective action against it.

The powerful states always try to establish their own needs. The last 100 years were the golden age for the developed world because of unlimited, safe and free access of water. Now the developed countries, especially the US, which uses 99 gallons of water a day on average, which doesn't even come close to the amount of water used on a daily basis by electrical power plants, have become conscious of their future water security and marine resources. Not surprisingly, America has become a key player in the recent South China Sea turmoil!

So apart from negotiations, conferences and high profile meetings, the governments of small Asian countries, like Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives, should take steps to preserve their existing water resources.

If we take the case of Bangladesh, there is no rain harvesting process to preserve rain water. Our government can easily apply the latest technology for preserving rain water during monsoon. Bangladesh can also use new waste water recycling technology as we have huge amounts of domestic waste water, and irrigation and industrial waste water each day.

Countries like Bangladesh that have sea access can adapt the desalinisation technology so that more fresh and usable water can be preserved for the future, and used for irrigation, domestic and industrial purposes. It also has enough opportunities to preserve ground water if our leaders and policy makers are willing to do so.

Our government should take stern actions against the river grabbers to ensure our rivers' free flow. The Buriganga, Shitalakkha, Balu and Turag – the four main rivers surrounding Dhaka – are extremely polluted and have been grabbed by different powerful sections of society. Unfortunately, in some cases, government officials are also engaged in river grabbing. There are as many as 8,000 land grabbers who must be immediately brought to justice.

The recent Teesta deal failure has proved that powerful states will never compromise for the smallest ones. China and India are the two most powerful upper riparian countries in Asia. Tibet has the world's largest river system and it is the lifeline to China, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. But China controls the Tibetan river system and is now planning to divert water from the Tibetan plateau to meet its own needs. So the lower riparian countries should work on ensuring water security in unison and help each other in applying newest technologies to preserve as much fresh water as possible.

Governments will not take prompt action without pressures from environmental activists. Civil society members and water experts from all parts of life have come forward to convince governments to take effective actions, but they must continue to exert pressure to bring about sustainable change.

We all know how it feels to be thirsty on a hot summer day when only a glass of cold water can satisfy us. We love the smell of rain and the soothing beauty of river. We all know what water really means to us. It is time that we not only make formal oaths and pledges to protect our environment, but also make it come true.


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