29 March 2013

Blog entry about the unlikelihood of water conflict cites TFDD

China dams the world! I remember seeing a paper with this title. Would someone have written a similar title of Britain or the USA back when those countries led dam efforts? I am not sure. It seems that today, given what we officially now know, we should proceed with caution when developing water resources. I would argue that we knew there was risk to human and environmental systems long before the World Commission on Dams Report came out. But, the dominant voice concluded that water alterations through damming and channeling are not a threat, but a benefit. Now the dominant voice is saying no more dams, as the developing world dams the last remaining stretches of wild rivers.

Dams are not the only issue, though people like to simplify. The water resources issues we are facing globally as we increasingly use and abuse our surface water resources, increase food and industrial production (that consumes most of the available water budget) for a growing population, and head into the unknown with climate change are very very complex. Complex challenges require complex understanding - as a conversation went with the author of a blog entry about an article discussing the threat of China developing dams. The blog cites the Oregon State University's Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database's information resources.

Hydro Power and Chauvinism a Bad Mix

Apparently all that is required these days to be lauded as a “strategic thinker” is an opinion and a good supply of scary adjectives. I have both and I will employ them on deconstructing the esteemed Professor Brahma Chellaney’s recent newspaper article “Regional ties threatened by China’s dam drive“. I will argue the article is chauvinistic, ill informed, and contributes nothing to the debate on hydro power in the Mekong or elsewhere.
The version of the article I saw appeared in the Bangkok Post Roundup section Saturday, 9 March, 2013. Professor Chellaney accuses China of “riding roughshod over downstream countries”, “establishing a hydro-supremacy unparalled on any continent” by, “appropriat[ing] waters before they cross its frontiers” and remaining a “stumbling block” by “refusing to enter into any water sharing treaty with any neighbor”. Chellaney admonishes China that should it continue on its “heedless course”, the prospects for a rule-based order in Asia “could perish forever”.  Gadzooks fetch my saber Johnny Chinaman needs a lesson eh what!
With such astonishing alarmist rhetoric it’s hard to know where to begin? How about we start with the pot calling the kettle black.
China and India will consume 31 percent of the world’s energy by 2035. Total energy production by source is not that different. China’s energy mix is coal (69%), oil (22%), hydroelectricity (6%). India is coal (52%), oil (34%) and hydroelectricity (5%). Got a problem with the numbers, take it up with Forbes.
China has more nearly three times the installed electricity capacity of India (China: 391.4 gigawatts, India: 126.3 gigawatts) produces nearly four times as much electricity (2,079.7 billion kilowatt hours compared to 556.8 billion kilowatt hours), and consumes nearly four times as much (China: 1,927 billion kilowatt hours India: 519 billion kilowatt hours). Perhaps what we have here is a case of pylon envy.
And why shouldn’t China build more dams? Because they are out of fashion in the West? How else will China generate the power that drives its economy (the one Western countries are counting on to produce an endless supply of cheap goods)? More coal/oil/natural gas powered electric plants? More nuclear? Windmills?
As for appropriating waters before they cross frontiers, look no further than India’s grand plan to divert 30 rivers, or as the Indian side prefers to call it, “river linking”.  Aside from the unproven claims of benefits to Indians, these diversions would seriously threaten the livelihoods of more than 100 million people downstream in Bangladesh. At one point, Bengali ministers were so concerned they considered appealing to the United Nations to redraft international law on water sharing. The multi-billion dollar project was first proposed in 2002 and has since remained on paper, but this is beginning to change with some political momentum behind the idea since the Supreme Court made an order that the project should go ahead. The political situation in Nepal could mean India will be able to build dams and reservoirs in the countries territory in an interlinking project. Bhutan also is in a similar position geographically, and could be affected by the proposal. Bangladeshi water expert Ainun Nishat was quoted as saying, “India assumes that these rivers stop at its borders and that there will be no downstream impacts to Bangladesh if it did anything to those resources”. How’s that for hegemony?
As for “refusing to enter into any water sharing treaty with any neighbor”, China and India are both signatories to same 16 major environmental agreements2. The only one they don’t share is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. China is a member of five international river basin organizations, India eight. India’s transboundary water agreements are notoriously one-sided. In 1996 The Mekong River Commission (MRC) held its first Dialogue Meeting with China and Myanmar. China has been attending meetings as an official observer ever since. In 2002, China signed an agreement with the MRC on the provision of hydrological information on the Lancang/Mekong River. Under the agreement China provides water level data in the flood season from two stations located on the Upper Mekong in China for the MRC’s flood forecasting system. Talks are under way to expand this data sharing agreement to include dry season levels. The Lancang, the Chinese stretch of the Mekong, contributes approximately 16% of the flow of the Mekong River. That’s enough to have strategic influence, but a little short of a “strategic grip”.

Now let’s have a look at conflict over water. My source is the Oregon State University Tranboundary Freshwater Dispute Database, part of the Basins At Risk project initiated in 2002 by researchers at Oregon State University. The International Water Events Database is a library of documented cases of conflict or cooperation in 144 river basins worldwide. Each event is rated on a scale from -7 (a formal declaration of war) to +7 (voluntary unification into one nation).
Let’s just look at events for the last ten years of data (1998-2008). For the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna, the database has 118 events ranging from +4 to -3. Positive events outnumber negative by two to one. For the Indus River (India-Pakistan), half of the 190 events were positive. Overall, not a bad record ofcooperation over water.
In the Mekong River Basin, there have been 166 water related events recorded since 1952. Mekong countries have an impressive record of cooperative action on water related issues. In all those years, which include the years of the American War, there have been only 15 instances of events rated -1 or -2 (mild/strong verbal expressions at an official level). Eighty events rate from +2 to +6 on the scale. One of the +6 events was the 1995 Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin, which resulted in the creation of the Mekong River Commission. Remember this is one of the regions where China is “appropriating waters” and exercising a “strategic grip”.
In light of the record, is the good professor scaremongering? Is he following the old newspaper adage, “if it bleeds it leads”? Or is he just using the hydro power issue as a platform to take shots at India’s only rival for regional influence? My guess is the latter. The hydro power debate in the Mekong has enough polemic already thank you. Given the record, regional ties are far from threatened and in the Mekong at least water wars over dams are an unlikely future.


  1. I have come to the conclusion that we all have a little blame global warming and its consequences and guilt even more politicians who do not slow down.


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