Thirsting for solutions

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Two books on water crises in Asia and the US sound the alarm bells with their intensive research and incisive analysis, says Sanjoy Hazarika

Illustration: Anand Naorem

IF THERE ever were two contrasting styles of writing, they are to be found here — one, ponderous, solid and meticulously researched with a broad sweep of issues and the universe of water, our need for it, its role in the lives of individuals, societies and nations and the critical ‘water towers’ of the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau especially, and the threats they face. The other, free-flowing and chatty, but also well documented with stories of here and there, of now and then, but encompassing a fundamental difference with the first book — it focusses almost entirely on an American perspective to the challenges of water resources, problems and greed and need and amplifies that to look at the global context.

The issues are similar but looked at and portrayed through completely different lenses of the writers and the degree of magnification of a point here, a fact there, a story that pulls at the heart and a barrage of disturbing facts (and indeed they should) about who controls the life sources of the world. For without water, we would not survive a day.

Brahma Chellaney, one of India’s leading strategic analysts, brings to his work a prodigious attention to detail that overwhelms the reader, almost silencing him (or her) with an extraordinary barrage of facts: his focus is clear and undiluted (forgive the pun) — it is Asia that matters here, a continent that is home to 60 percent of the human race but gets less freshwater per capita than any other continent. As we are all aware, in different parts of India, a great thirst is overcoming our cities and states with plummeting groundwater tables, erratic climate changes (though thank god, the monsoon, that harbinger of hope and despair, has not been too bad these past years, though somewhat delayed). He shows that through bad planning or ecologically and people-unfriendly, unsustainable approaches and strategies, India, China and South Korea are playing critical roles in making conditions worse.

The Ripple Effect
The Ripple Effect
Alex Prud’homme
Simon & Schuster
448 pp; Rs 799

How can the stress on water meet the growing demands of the human race for more food, settlement and greater lands for foraging as well as agriculture and irrigation? Chellaney marshals his facts and channels them well through a range of well-structured chapters. He gives considerable space to the Central and state governments although he says that declarations by both on controlling and using (often misusing) water resources are a declaration of “pious intent”.

Indeed, the most complex and longest disputes between the states of the Union — dating from the pre-Independence era — are those related to sharing of river water. These appear near impossible to resolve whether by conferring rights on upstream and downstream riparians, which seek to satisfy both, or through a redressal mechanism, which invokes a judicial intervention or an independent tribunal.

The problem is — whether it is Karnataka-Tamil Nadu imbroglio over the sharing of Cauvery waters or whatever — no side is prepared, for the obvious reason of losing or gaining votes, to compromise for the larger good because no ruling party wants to go into the Opposition in the next elections or face public agitations about “selling out”.

Chellaney also dwells on the way the Chinese are furiously developing and devastating the great water tower of the world — Tibet’s sacred waters, whether it is of the Pemako Lake or the Yamdrok Tso or the Yarlung Tsangpo — by tapping their waters to develop what he calls “a grand water larceny in the making”. He spends a good portion on proposals to reroute the waters of the Tsangpo, later the mighty Brahmaputra in Assam and which merges with the Ganga in Bangladesh to become the Padma. This is known as the xibu da kaifa or the ‘Great Western Development Programme’ which, briefly, is another Chinese effort to ‘integrate and assimilate ethnic minorities and facilitate greater exploitation of their natural resources’ and incorporate what the Chinese call the ‘Great Western Route’, which would connect the great Asian rivers — the Brahmaputra (Tsangpo), Yangtze (three tributaries), the Salween and the Mekong, all barring the Yangtze being international rivers, in a megalomaniacal leap to supply water to China’s northern water- deficient regions.

Prud’homme’s book reads like a thriller about the unsolved mystery of a scientist who was pushed into a tank of cold water to die

Of course, Chellaney and others writers, like this reviewer, have consistently warned that such a proposal would bring disaster to South and Southeast Asia. A few weeks ago, at an international conference in New Delhi on rivers, the Chinese declared that as of now they had no plans to divert the Tsangpo because it was currently not possible technologically or financially to do so. Note — they haven’t said they won’t. They’re just saying, maybe not now, not until we have the know-how and the funds.

Water: Asia’s New Battleground
Water: Asia’s New Battleground
Brahma Chellaney
HarperCollins
400 pp; Rs 699

That is why we need to keep the pressure going on Beijing, through its many neighbours, not just through Delhi. Another interesting project that Chellaney writes of at length is the expansion and deepening of four rivers in South Korea, showing that water megalomania is not restricted to the Indians (remember Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ill-conceived River Linking Programme that envisaged river basin transfers, a concept rejected by water-rich states like Assam since it saw no value in the concept).

Part of the problem is that neither India nor China or most Asian nations have even become a signatory to the International Convention of Water Courses that goes back to 1972. Even as eminent a jurist as Soli Sorabjee wants India to accede to this convention; it does not compromise national sovereignty issues, which our water planners are so concerned about (water flows are a State secret). So apart from the bilateral route, there is little that disputing states can do barring yelling at each other through the media or non-government groups such as scholars and specialists. There is another way forward: that lower riparians get their act together, like India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries, and work together to confront the Chinese juggernaut.

BUT WE’RE also deeply divided within national boundaries — there are agitations in Assam against big dams in Arunachal Pradesh; Arunachal says it doesn’t care. Assam has a disgraceful record of destroying active watercourses and bodies by filling them with ugly urban construction such as in and around Guwahati. And there’s no space here to talk about big dams and the lies that engineers broadcast about ‘run of the river’ projects — as if these are ecologically sustainable; they’re not.

As far as Alex Prud’homme’s book is concerned, it is a riveting read: the first few pages are a bit like a thriller about the unsolved mystery of a 43-year-old scientist who was pushed into a tank of cold water in a plant in New Jersey to die. Prud’homme has taken a very different approach to water issues — he looks through the prism of individuals and groups, battling for change and accountability in the United States. It’s certainly a better read than Chellaney’s tome, more engaging, making complex issues easy to understand, weaving storytelling with analysis and seeking to wake up Americans (and not just them, of course) to the crisis of our times.

I don’t think there will be wars between nations over water. But there will be water riots, water confrontations as we struggle with rules, regulations and systems to make governments and powerful private corporations more accountable.

There’s no walking away from this one — our quality of life and that of the vulnerable and poor especially (who don’t figure much except as statistics in either book: one wishes there were more of them in these narratives and analyses) depends on continuing to engage and dialogue with stakeholders and others, fight for sustainable water use. The luxury of taking the planet’s hydrology for granted is no longer an option, as Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, says.

Hazarika is Director, Centre for NE Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia and Managing Trustee, C-NES, Guwahati.

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