Water Wars: China's New 'Political Weapon'?
- From: ww <lbt006@xxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Sat, 16 Apr 2011 21:14:29 -0700 (PDT)
Water Wars: China's New 'Political Weapon'?
By DENIS D. GRAY 04/16/11 10:44 AM ET AP
BAHIR JONAI, India -- The wall of water raced through narrow Himalayan
gorges in northeast India, gathering speed as it raked the banks of
towering trees and boulders. When the torrent struck their island in
the Brahmaputra river, the villagers remember, it took only moments to
obliterate their houses, possessions and livestock.
No one knows exactly how the disaster happened, but everyone knows
whom to blame: neighboring China.
"We don't trust the Chinese," says fisherman Akshay Sarkar at the
resettlement site where he has lived since the 2000 flood. "They gave
us no warning. They may do it again."
About 800 kilometers (500 miles) east, in northern Thailand, Chamlong
Saengphet stands in the Mekong river, in water that comes only up to
her shins. She is collecting edible river weeds from dwindling beds. A
neighbor has hung up his fishing nets, his catches now too meager.
Using words bordering on curses, they point upstream, toward China.
The blame game, voiced in vulnerable river towns and Asian capitals
from Pakistan to Vietnam, is rooted in fear that China's accelerating
program of damming every major river flowing from the Tibetan plateau
will trigger natural disasters, degrade fragile ecologies, divert
vital water supplies.
A few analysts and environmental advocates even speak of water as a
future trigger for war or diplomatic strong-arming, though others
strongly doubt it will come to that. Still, the remapping of the water
flow in the world's most heavily populated and thirstiest region is
happening on a gigantic scale, with potentially strategic
On the eight great Tibetan rivers alone, almost 20 dams have been
built or are under construction while some 40 more are planned or
China is hardly alone in disrupting the region's water flows. Others
are doing it with potentially even worse consequences. But China's
vast thirst for power and water, its control over the sources of the
rivers and its ever-growing political clout make it a singular target
of criticism and suspicion.
"Whether China intends to use water as a political weapon or not, it
is acquiring the capability to turn off the tap if it wants to – a
leverage it can use to keep any riparian neighbors on good behavior,"
says Brahma Chellaney, an analyst at New Delhi's Center for Policy
Research and author of the forthcoming "Water: Asia's New
Analyst Neil Padukone calls it "the biggest potential point of
contention between the two Asian giants," China and India. But the
stakes may be even higher since those eight Tibetan rivers serve a
vast west-east arc of 1.8 billion people stretching from Pakistan to
Vietnam's Mekong river delta.
Suspicions are heightened by Beijing's lack of transparency and
refusal to share most hydrological and other data. Only China, along
with Turkey, has refused to sign a key 1997 U.N. convention on
Beijing gave no notice when it began building three dams on the Mekong
– the first completed in 1993 – or the $1.2 billion Zangmu dam, the
first on the mainstream of the 2,880-kilometer (1,790-mile)
Brahmaputra which was started last November and hailed in official
media as "a landmark priority project."
The 2000 flood that hit Sarkar's village, is widely believed to have
been caused by the burst of an earthen dam wall on a Brahmaputra
tributary. But China has kept silent.
"Until today, the Indian government has no clue about what happened,"
says Ravindranath, who heads the Rural Volunteer Center. He uses only
Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has also warned of looming
dangers stemming from the Tibetan plateau.
"It's something very, very essential. So, since millions of Indians
use water coming from the Himalayan glaciers... I think you (India)
should express more serious concern. This is nothing to do with
politics, just everybody's interests, including Chinese people," he
said in New Delhi last month.
Beijing normally counters such censure by pointing out that the bulk
of water from the Tibetan rivers springs from downstream tributaries,
with only 13-16 percent originating in China.
Officials also say that the dams can benefit their neighbors, easing
droughts and floods by regulating flow, and that hydroelectric power
reduces China's carbon footprint.
China "will fully consider impacts to downstream countries," Chinese
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu recently told The Associated
Press. "We have clarified several times that the dam being built on
the Brahmaputra River has a small storage capacity. It will not have
large impact on water flow or the ecological environment of
For some of China's neighbors, the problem is that they too are
building controversial dams and may look hypocritical if they
criticize China too loudly.
The four-nation Mekong River Commission has expressed concerns not
just about the Chinese dams but about a host of others built or
planned in downstream countries.
In northeast India, a broad-based movement is fighting central
government plans to erect more than 160 dams in the region, and Laos
and Cambodia have proposed plans for 11 Mekong dams, sparking
Indian and other governments play down any threats from the Asian
colossus. "I was reassured that (the Zangmu dam) was not a project
designed to divert water and affect the welfare and availability of
water to countries in the lower reaches," India's Foreign Secretary
Nirupama Rao said after talks with her Chinese counterpart late last
But at the grass roots, and among activists and even some government
technocrats, criticism is expressed more readily.
"Everyone knows what China is doing, but won't talk about it. China
has real power now. If it says something, everyone follows," says
Somkiat Khuengchiangsa, a Thai environmental advocate.
Neither the Indian nor Chinese government responded to specific
questions from the AP about the dams, but Beijing is signaling that it
will relaunch mega-projects after a break of several years in efforts
to meet skyrocketing demands for energy and water, reduce dependence
on coal and lift some 300 million people out of poverty.
Official media recently said China was poised to put up dams on the
still pristine Nu River, known as the Salween downstream. Seven years
ago as many as 13 dams were set to go up until Chinese Premier Wen
Jiabao ordered a moratorium.
That ban is regarded as the first and perhaps biggest victory of
China's nascent green movement.
"An improper exploitation of water resources by countries on the upper
reaches is going to bring about environmental, social and geological
risks," Yu Xiaogang, director of the Yunnan Green Watershed, told The
Associated Press. "Countries along the rivers have already formed
their own way of using water resources. Water shortages could easily
ignite extreme nationalist sentiment and escalate into a regional
But there is little chance the activists will prevail.
"There is no alternative to dams in sight in China," says Ed Grumbine,
an American author on Chinese dams. Grumbine, currently with the
Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan province, notes that under its
last five-year state plan, China failed to meet its hydroelectric
targets and is now playing catch-up in its 2011-2015 plan as it
strives to derive 15 percent of energy needs from non-fossil sources,
mainly hydroelectric and nuclear.
The arithmetic pointing to more dam-building is clear: China would
need 140 gigawatts of extra hydroelectric power to meet its goal. Even
if all the dams on the Nu go up, they would provide only 21 gigawatts.
The demand for water region-wide will also escalate, sparking perhaps
that greatest anxieties – that China will divert large quantities from
the Tibetan plateau for domestic use.
Noting that Himalayan glaciers which feed the rivers are melting due
to global warming, India's Strategic Foresight Group last year
estimated that in the coming 20 years India, China, Nepal and
Bangladesh will face a depletion of almost 275 billion cubic meters
(360 billion cubic yards) of annual renewable water.
Padukone expects China will have to divert water from Tibet to its dry
eastern provinces. One plan for rerouting the Brahmaputra was outlined
in an officially sanctioned 2005 book by a Chinese former army
officer, Li Ling. Its title: "Tibet's Waters Will Save China,"
Analyst Chellaney believes "the issue is not whether China will
reroute the Brahmaputra, but when." He cites Chinese researchers and
officials as saying that after 2014 work will begin on tapping rivers
flowing from the Tibetan plateau to neighboring countries Such a move,
he says, would be tantamount to a declaration of war on India.
Others are skeptical. Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan environmentalist at the
University of British Columbia who is otherwise critical of China's
policies, calls a Brahmaputra diversion "a pipe dream of some Chinese
Grumbine shares the skepticism. "The situation would have to be very
dire for China to turn off the taps because the consequences would be
huge," he said. "China would alienate every one of its neighbors and
historically the Chinese have been very sensitive about maintaining
Whatever else may happen, riverside inhabitants along the Mekong and
Brahmaputra say the future shock is now.
A fisherman from his youth, Boonrian Chinnarat says the Mekong giant
catfish, the world's largest freshwater fish, has all but vanished
from the vicinity of Thailand's Had Krai village, other once bountiful
species have been depleted, and he and fellow fishermen have sold
their nets. He blames the Chinese dams.
Phumee Boontom, headman of nearby Pak Ing village, warns that "If the
Chinese keep the water and continue to build more dams, life along the
Mekong will change forever." Already, he says, he has seen drastic
variations in water levels following dam constructions, "like the
tides of the ocean — low and high in one day."
Jeremy Bird, who heads the Mekong commission, an intergovernmental
body of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, sees a tendency to blame
China for water-related troubles even when they are purely the result
of nature. He says diplomacy is needed, and believes "engagement with
China is improving."
Grumbine agrees. "Given the enormous demand for water in China, India
and Southeast Asia, if you maintain the attitude of sovereign state,
we are lost," he says. "Scarcity in a zero sum situation can lead to
conflict but it can also goad countries into more cooperative
behavior. It's a bleak picture, but I'm not without hope."
Associated Press writers Tini Tran and David Wivell in Beijing
contributed to this report.
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