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Studying global trends and impacts in hydraulic engineering and water resources management in South Asia — and the subcontinent in particular — makes a compelling case for the interconnectedness of water in the planet’s future development. Countries exposed to increasing water stress are sometimes at loggerheads over other political disputes ranging to outright armed conflict. They are extensively investing in dams in disputed territories while grappling with the disastrous medical and ecological impacts of a deficit of water quality maintenance, coupled with staggering population growth and a rising urban-rural divide. Add to that religious disputes, climate change, a hiccupping Himalaya and Karakoram threatening with earthquakes and erosion, and on the other hand, an impressive number of successful local solutions to not so new problems, challenged to be included into modern engineering approaches.

So many issues all somehow linked to one irreplaceable resource are a treasure trove for theories on how relations of South Asian countries will develop in future. Extrapolations for different scenarios based on water are amply available from engineering to political experts. The most popular outcome of these narratives is grim — they project water as the future source for conflict, diplomatically and military, between Asian powers. This is doubly unfortunate. There are enough sources for conflict around, and some of them are being tapped already. Another one, and such a sensitive one at that, would have disastrous global consequences. More importantly, these water-war theorists have very little acumen. They generate a looming worry over international water resources, while real threats may lie somewhere else. There is ample evidence that water disputes have not led to wars in the past, so why should they now?

Brahma Chellaney’s Water: Asia’s New Battleground sums up the arguments for why South Asia may go to war over water in the near future (and how that could be averted). It is representative of a number of recent publications along these lines — and serves as a good example of where they may be going lost in the thicket of hyperbole that lushly grows when policy experts muddle in sensitive engineering or natural science topics (or equally when engineers have an urge to develop political arguments on such). Chellaney is a political analyst and professor from New Delhi who regularly opinionates in international media, with a focus on resource conflicts in Asia.

While acknowledging the importance of water disputes within countries, Chellaney aims to focus on inter-state conflicts (mainly on India and China, alluding to India’s other neighbours as well). “Although intrastate water-sharing disputes have become rife in several Asian countries — from India and Pakistan to Southeast Asia and China — the potential inter-country conflict over shared water resources should be of greater concern,” he argues. Winding between Great Game allusions (with China taking the position of the incalculable threat) and a brief summary of sources on power politics in Asia, Chellaney settles with his narrative — China, controlling the Tibetan plateau, is without any concerns for the environment, minorities and downstream neighbours, using water from rivers that India will dearly miss, while India is being far too magnanimous to it’s downstream neighbour, Pakistan.

Where Chellaney sees war looming is over the fact that territories where water crosses borders are disputed and countries may become bellicose to defend these for control over the resource. “After all, a major redrawing of frontiers involving the surrender of big chunks of real estate by one disputant to another has never happened at the negotiating table in modern world history,” he says. However, this has actually happened peacefully as recently as 2010 between China and Tajikistan (over a large chunk of the Pamir plateau, a very sensitive area for water resources itself), earlier between China and Pakistan (on a part of Kashmir that includes river sources) and has happened a number of times in the 20th century, especially in Europe after World War II. More importantly, there is no indication that China wants to expand its territories to the South. It is widely acknowledged that China is interested in containing its territories and stabilising its present frontiers.

The introduction furthermore includes a comprehensive overview of water statistics from South Asia. These serve the purpose of portraying demand and supply challenges on the water resources side (although sometimes such statistics need a lot more critical assessment) and give a good impression where the increasing worry over water resources (and the motivation for the whole water war debate) stems from. Why that worry would generally lead to interstate conflict, Chellaney takes six closely linked chapters to explain.

In “Murky Hydropolitics”, he spends too much time on general observations (from Darwin to Fukuyama) which just make the book longer, cherry picks sources, some of which are very interesting to follow up (a number of Chinese publications), some just being fun-facts (HuJintao has trained in hydrology) and others already proven to be rubbish long before the book was published (Selig Harrison’s fear mongering article on Chinese presence in Pakistan’s North) and finally narrows in on the Brahmaputra as exemplary for water conflicts.

Suggesting that the diversion of the Brahmaputra may very well happen and hence threaten India severely is coming close to pure speculation. China is well aware that this is not feasible, especially with the disastrous impacts of the Three Gorges project causing trouble. His constant advocacy for Tibet may be a topic in itself, but there are no reasons why this should be brought up when calling for attention on water issues. That China is not taking enough care of environmental impacts and its minorities may in itself be right and worth noting. However, these are not reasons to set off international conflicts over water but rather cultural and historical disputes. He may bring them up (you could do the same for India or Pakistan and Kashmir), but mixing a water cocktail with them is straying from the core issues.

Faizul Hasan notes in his supplementary paper for the World Bank report, “Pakistan’s Water Economy — Running Dry”: “All disputes stem from the crisis of confidence.” It is an agreement on water management practices and hydraulic engineering exploits that is missing nationally and between states and causes distress among users — something Chellaney also strongly argues for. Maria Saleth, who contributed the same paper in the parallel report for India, “India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future,” writes in a different publication for the case of India: “What is needed, [is] a major policy and investment shift from supply augmentation to demand management.”

It sounds too uncritically biased when Chellaney writes, “If anything, [Pakistan] needs to get ready to make do with less water,” while at the same time calling for India to use more of what it is entitled to from the Indus basin, while blaming China to take away what India should be entitled to. What is true for Pakistan, which like Chellaney and India likes to direct all the blame for problems on its upstream neighbour, is likewise true for India in its situation as a downstream riparian to China.

Just passing the trouble downstream is not a sustainable policy solution acceptable by all sides.

The advocates of looming water wars — and Chellaney’s book is a prime example of these — contribute adversely to the arguments for focusing on demand, where so much real potential is still untapped. By mixing too many assumptions from all ends of the argumentative board without any linking cause and effect on water supply disputes, they increase uncertainty over actual future actions and create doomsday scenarios where realities may not be so bleak. And they keep the focus on the supply side, while the real worries are on the demand side. From insufficient quality, to insufficient quantity caused by unsustainable overuse of resources within the country, there is a lot of potential intrastate and the headache may not come from abroad.

The reviewer studies water resources management and hydraulic engineering

Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Political Science, South Asia) By Brahma Chellaney Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C. ISBN 9781589017719 309pp. $29.95