By Kumar David –
Population growth, urbanisation and droughts spell trouble ahead – World War 3 will be fought for water
In the Pacific Theatre WW2 was fought for oil. Japan had to ensure access to vital oil supplies mainly from Indonesia and protect supply routes; the US navy was a threat. Germany needed lebensraum (living space) which it saw in the East, in Poland and the Slav lands all the way to Ukraine, Belorussia and Russia. America needed to protect its hegemony of Middle East oil fields. So people say WW2 was fought for access to resources, especially oil. Now there is clamour among scientists and conservationists who see conflict for water in apoplectic terms in the next century. This piece summarises important but little known details about significant water conflict zones that could escalate to international dimensions. Much is available on the web. Try to forget terrorism for a relaxed 20 minutes.
I will deal with the three important cases; the waters of Tibet, the India-Bangladesh-Pakistan issue and the looming conflict between the riparian states of the Nile. If you have access to Netflix some of this material can be found on the documentary “The Future of Water”.
Tibet and China
Eight great rivers rise in the Tibetan Plateau or adjacent Himalayas. Arcing round from northeast to southwest they are the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus. Over 80% percent of Tibet region waters flow into the three countries of the Indian subcontinent and Vietnam, Thailand and Burma; just 15% to China. The Mekong traverses Laos and Cambodia before it reaches Vietnam. The Brahmaputra-Ganges (Brahmaputra flow is more than Ganges) after confluence near the Bay of Bengal and the Yangtze, are the fourth and fifth largest rivers in the world by discharge volume after the mighty Amazon, Congo and Orinoco. Now here is the hitch: Tibet is a part of China but since less than a fifth of its water flows into or is utilised in China, what if China diverts more of Tibet’s liquid gold for the benefit of its water-starved far-western and northern regions? There will be conflict as two billion lives in South Asia and Indochina will be threatened. Three protagonists are nuclear armed and so is Russia just north of this potential tinderbox. Vietnam has a proven and ferocious army.
There are still dormant plans to divert 200 billion cubic metres a year (equivalent to one-Yangtze) from the upstream sections of the Mekong, Brahmaputra and Salween to the Yangtze and Yellow rivers and onward to the dry areas of northern China through canals, reservoirs, tunnels and natural rivers. The concept is immense and since these rivers cross international boundaries it is also a proposal for war. Diversion of transboundary rivers will affect India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Furthermore, water diversion causes environmental damage.
Don’t underestimate China’s thirst; parched and stricken, northern regions crave for the gift of the Yangtze. A South-to-North water transfer megaproject has commenced. The scale boggles the mind; when completed it will be one of the largest engineering undertaking ever and cost $200 billion including resettlement of 350,000 to 400,000 people. The project involves three giant transfer systems; most of the Eastern Route is complete. Although only 5 to 10% of the Yangtze’s water will be diverted, altering natural flows can harm the ecosystem and fish and birds are vulnerable to habitat loss. Farmers in South China are already protesting about undermining their priorities.
India’s monumental River-Link Plan
If there is anything in the world that is more stupendous than China’s South-North water project it is India’s River-Link Plan. If it ever gets done in full it will cost a staggering $700 billion in today’s money. The concept is to bring all water resources into one coordinated system and ensure that all flow can be controlled, north to south, east to west. The plan is in two components (a) to tap the waters of the Brahmaputra and its upstream tributaries and the upstream tributaries of the Ganges for huge amounts to be diverted into peninsular India. And (b) a peninsular component of supply routes in the Indian land mass for distribution of national water resources as far south as the Cauvery and the Vaippar.
The average rainfall in India is 4,000 billion cubic meters, but is geographically very non-uniform and it comes during a 4-month period – June to September. Rain in the east and north is heavy, the south is average and the northwest is dry. Some years see floods others droughts; population is rising. Hence the case to conserve the monsoon’s bounty and spread it across the country is irresistible. Brahmaputra waters it is argued, will make the deserts of Rajasthan bloom.
Opponents are concerned about knowledge gaps on environmental, ecological and social issues as well as unknown risks in tinkering with nature. Alarmed by the diminution of flow downstream of the Brahmaputra and Ganges the project faces stiff resistance in Bangladesh,. All Bangladesh’s rivers flow into the country from India and its agriculture and fisheries will be severely affected. There is also a fear that the fertile delta and the Bay of Bengal’s sand dunes will be shifted by substantial changes in flow patterns. A comprehensive water-pact needs to be agreed between India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan, otherwise there will be conflict down the road.
Together with Mesopotamia the Nile Basin was one of two first cradles of civilisation; it is now the cauldron of potential war between Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt’s 70 million people, 50 times more than 3000 years ago, now as then live in a narrow strip five to ten miles wide along the fertile banks of the river. It is estimated that population will rise to about 150 million by 2050. Already overcrowded, Egypt will be teeming in future decades. Coincidentally, Ethiopia’s population and projections are the same.
In 1959 Egypt and Sudan signed an agreement allocating 65% (55.5 billion cubic meters) of Nile waters to the former and 22% (18.5 billion cubic meters) to the latter – 13% is “overheads”. The Nile’s discharge of 85 billion cubic meters per annum is only 1.4% of the Amazon’s, 7% of the Congo’s and 7.5% of the Brahmaputra-Ganges; so flow is not plentiful. Sudan which now only irrigates 16% of its land area wants another 10 billion cubic meters each year to become a regional granary. Egypt wants to launch vast irrigation projects deep into the Sahara and needs huge amounts of water. And Ethiopia in whose highlands the Blue Nile rises (over 80% of total Nile waters) is screaming “What about us?” Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Burundi and Rwanda all have a stake in the White Nile because they are riparian on the White Nile or located on the shores of the great African lakes that feed it.
Nile water disputes are an immediate flash point. As the economies of Sudan where oil has been found, and Ethiopia following the Chinese model, grow rapidly their resource needs burgeon and water is a crucial resource. Sudan’s economic fundamentals changed with oil; creditworthiness brought an influx of foreign investment and contracts for the Merowe Dam project were signed. Merowe (1250 MW), 350 km north of Khartoum, is the largest contemporary hydropower project in Africa. The cost is $3 billion; Chinese companies are the main contractors and China will fund $600 million while the Arab Fund, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Oman provide the balance. The US and Europe have no role in this brave new world.
Ethiopia is currently the fastest growing economy in the world at 8.5% annual. The 6450 MW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Project on the Blue Nile, when completed, will be the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa and the 10-th largest power station in the world. Ethiopia says it wishes to fund the project by itself and has issued bonds targeting Ethiopians at home and abroad. Electro-mechanical equipment costing US$1.8 billion will be financed by Chinese banks and this leaves US$3 billion of the total of $4.8 billion to be financed by the government. Ethiopia’s annual GDP is the same as Sri Lanka’s, say $90 billion. The main contractor for the dam is an Italian company. The reservoir will take 5 to 15 years to fill, depending on hydrology and on treaties with Sudan and Egypt regarding water offtake.
The 1959 Egypt-Sudan agreement, absurdly, did not make any allowance for the needs of the other riparian states even Ethiopia, so potential for conflict is high. Populations of countries in the Nile Basin have increased a great deal and they wish to employ Nile water for development. Disagreements have arisen because Egypt insists that the water rights acquired in the 1959 “agreement” be honoured and has threatened war to protect these “rights.” Upstream riparian Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia reject the demand. The concepts of equitable water allocation and water security have to be reconciled. Cairo must recognise that a new agreement respecting the needs of the other 9 riparian states is essential.
A personal addendum
I have sailed on the Mekong many times and travelled down the Nile from Abu Simbel on Lake Nasser, changed boats at the Aswan High Dam and stopped at Thebes (Valley of the Kings) on the way to Cairo. I have been to the source of the Indus, a glacier in Himalayan Kashmir and seen the Yamuna a tributary of Ganga flow by the Taj. I took a boat through the Three Gorges and was awestruck by the mountains on both sides before the valley was flooded. I defecated over the deck into the river, squatting on an open-plank latrine, watched by curious locals. After the project was completed I visited the dam and the world’s largest (22.5 GW) power station.
Here is an anecdote. If you look carefully at a map, you will see that four great rivers, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and Irrawaddy flow south through a narrow corridor one hundred miles wide. Now shift your gaze a little to the right (the East) and you will see a tiny hook (ᴗ); it’s the first of three great turns on the Yangtze. The great river meanders towards you, changes its mind and buggers-off back the way it came; an amazing U-turn. Search ‘Great Turns on the Yangtze’ on the Web for pictures. I stood by the turn with a delectable guide, walked up and down the bank, marvelled, forgotten my age and jumped from concrete slab to slab, had a toss and badly injured by shin. Oh dear!