Thursday, March 22, 2012

Water: The defining fulcrum in history and politics

Water is life. All life on earth has depended on water since the first single cell organisms appeared some 3.5 billion years ago. In the geological time frame, humans evolved as a species in "recent" periods and, as tools and technology developed, water demand and consumption increased exponentially. During the past 100 years, the world population tripled, but human consumption of water multiplied six-fold. No one can deny that there is a looming water crisis in global terms; not just because of lesser per capita availability of freshwater, but more due to lack of prudence in cooperation and management.
Water's primary role as a balancing factor in history, politics and diplomacy is reflected through the combined prism of its availability, accessibility, usage pattern and quality. British historian Arnold Toynbee argued that the history of civilisations was primarily conditioned by the societies' responses to environmental challenges, and one of the most significant of those challenges is water. Although 71% of the earth's surface is covered with water, the irony is that only 2.53% of that is freshwater, and a miniscule amount of that freshwater (0.26% of 2.53%) is available for human use -- from rivers, lakes, soil moisture and groundwater.
Water's pivotal role in human sustenance is best exemplified by its acute spatial imbalance -- dividing the countries of the world into two groups, water-rich and water-poor. In terms of continent-wise statistic, the unequal distribution of water resources is staggering; South America with only 6% of world population is blessed with more than a quarter of the global water stock, while 60% of the world population living in Asia has access to only 36% of the resource.
All through the period of societal evolution, water was held in reverential perception by every community, especially since the beginning of farming some 10,000 years ago. Water continues to play a dominant role in religious rites of purification in almost all religions.
Ancient civilisations
The four major ancient cradles of civilisation were all water-centric -- the Egyptian on the Nile river, the Mesopotamian on the Tigris-Euphrates rivers, the Indus on the Indus river, and the Chinese on the Hwang Ho river. Each of them developed sophisticated irrigation-based agricultural societies in a semiarid environment, and used various home-grown technologies to harness the rivers, which were both navigable and prone to floods.
The Nile's beneficence toward Egypt earned the country's description by Herodotus as the "Gift of the Nile." While the civilisation along the Nile was solely dependent on the capricious flooding sequences, modern Egyptian history still revolves around the Nile -- albeit with much more confidence in regulating the Nile after the construction of the Aswan Dam, notwithstanding the fact that the entire quantum of water reaching Aswan originates outside Egypt's border, precipitating conflicts under the upstream-downstream syndrome with Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia. In ancient days, Egyptian rulers had constructed a myriad of structures to utilise water resources, including flood protection embankments, simple diversion dams to canalise irrigation water as well as use of water lifting device "shadoof" -- which is still used in parts of rural Iran and Pakistani Punjab province.
Extensive water structures including flood protection dikes and drainage channels also dominated the landscape in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), which skillfully regulated the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia also devised an ingenious technique of exploiting groundwater aquifers through constructing underground tunnels known as "qanat" -- which is still common in parts of Iran and Baluchistan (Pakistan). Mesopotamia was probably the first region in the world which experienced politics of water between upstream and downstream communities. Between 4000 B.C. and 800 B.C. the seat of authority moved upstream from Sumer to Akkad, Babylon and Assyria, thus progressively gaining upper hand in controlling the downstream water flow in Tigris-Euphrates.
The Indus Valley civilisation (Pakistan) was an irrigated agrarian system dependent entirely on the waters of the Indus. Indeed, this civilisation is a textbook example of ancient urban hydraulics as testified by the archaeological excavations in Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. Remains of dozens of other settlements along the Indus also reveal similar water-dependent livelihood, including provisions of storing water to synchronise with rains in the monsoon and the following dry season.
The Chinese civilisation on the Hwang Ho River, somewhat younger than the other three ancient hearths of civilisation, demonstrates superb water management practices. They engaged in the large scale construction of irrigation canals, flood control embankments, dams, drainage channels, ancient river training structures, as well as in the usage of treadle pumps (for irrigation) along the Hwang Ho valley, in order to develop a stable agricultural ecosystem in the north Chinese fertile floodplain. The Chinese rulers were torn between two contrasting philosophical ideologies -- Taoism and Confucianism, the former advocating a softer and benign approach to water and other ecosystems, while the latter was forcefully vocal in regulating and manipulating nature. By and large, the Chinese -- from the dynastic period to the 21st century -- opted for the Confucianist hard approach in regulating water resources. (It is a small wonder that 45% of large dams in the world are located in China).
Dam building and water transfer
Speaking of dams, none will probably dispute -- irrespective of whether one is a dam proponent or an opponent -- that dam building is the most significant activity in the history of various communities in their efforts to utilise water resources for their own benefits, and in most cases, dams have contributed to general economic growth and prosperity. Even as early as 800 B.C. the Assyrians (in Mesopotamia) had shown expertise in dam building in order to provide water for irrigation and meet urban consumption needs. Currently, there are 22,000 large dams (15 metres or more in height) in China -- the largest dam building country, followed by the United States, India and Japan.
Dam construction became extremely popular with development planners in the early part of the 20th century when the United States built several multipurpose dams, and they came to be looked upon as sources of cheap hydroelectricity and freshwater, especially in the developing world where they became national icons. The apogee of dam building was reached in the first decade of this century with the humongous Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China. True, many dams did not adequately address social and environmental concerns in the past, which helped to stir the flame in the anti-dam campaign. In the murky debate, real issues are often marginalised and blurred by the dam opponents in needless rhetoric. Dams need not be lionised nor demonised; each dam should be assessed on the basis of its location-specific merits and constraints.
One other example of large scale manipulation of the water ecosystem in several parts of the world in the past century -- without addressing environmental concerns and regional interests -- which resulted and could result into catastrophic consequences involves inter-basin water transfer, uncoordinated upstream diversion/withdrawal, and myopic and imprudent management. The Aral Sea in Central Asia shrank into two disjointed parts, losing two-thirds of its volume on account of the former Soviet Union's ill conceived scheme of diverting the waters of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya -- the two rivers which used to feed the Aral Sea.
An almost identical man-made disaster happened in Lake Chad in West Africa through unplanned withdrawal from the lake's source rivers, causing the lake to shrink and get bifurcated. Water's paramount role in history-making mega projects is aptly demonstrated in Libya through Qaddafi's ambitious plan to deliver underground water from the southern aquifer by means of a 3,200 km long subterranean tunnel to the country's coastal settlements. This aquifer -- the world's largest fossil water deposit -- is believed to contain an astonishing amount of 61 trillion cubic meters of water. Libya's neighbours, Sudan and Chad, however, have voiced their concerns on this groundwater transfer because the aquifer extends into their territories too. China also has a mega project of "South-to-North" water diversion through several surface channels (from the Yangtze to the Hwang Ho) across mountains, valleys, plains and transverse waterways.
Closer to home is the instance of the recently rejuvenated concept of India's river linking, aimed at intra-basin and inter-basin water transfers throughout the country. The project involves massive withdrawal of Brahmaputra waters (which is the source of two-thirds of Bangladesh's surface water) for diversion to the Ganges above Farakka, and then onward transfer to Indian Sundarban, and the Subarnarekha and Mahanadi rivers. The project completely ignores the fact that the combined flow of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna finds its outlet to the sea through Bangladesh. Along with the construction of the Tipaimukh Dam (more than four times the height of Kaptai Dam) on the Barak-Meghna in the east, the river-linking project would progressively reduce Bangladesh to a water-thirsty and parched country.
Transboundary waters
The most contentious issue in hydropolitics, however, is water apportionment and utilisation among the coriparians in a transboundary river basin. Generally, it has been observed that the upstream country wants to exert greater control of the waters by virtue of its location, which is not right since running water is a shared resource and no country can claim absolute sovereignty over it. Transboundary river basins offer scope for cooperation among the countries which share the basin, but in case of intransigence of a coriparian, conflicts are not uncommon.
Even within a country, conflicts and tensions may arise, as has been the case in India with the Cauvery water sharing dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka states, and in Pakistan with the downstream Sind province complaining about excessive water withdrawal from the Indus by upstream Punjab, leaving an emaciated lower Indus. On an international scale, the regions where tensions and disputes are still very prominent are the Middle East (Northeast Africa and Southwest Asia) and South Asia (especially Eastern Himalayan rivers).
In the Nile Basinthe world's longest river flowing through 10 countriesmore populous and economically stronger downstream Egypt has always tried to force a greater claim on the Nile against less populous and poorer upstream neighbours Sudan and Ethiopia. The giant Aswan Dam provided Egypt with security against drought and low Nile floods, yet the reality is that almost every drop of water that reaches Aswan originates outside Egypt's borders. And, hence, successive Egyptian leaders have often warned upstream coriparians with dire consequences should they try to divert water from the Nile. After a series of ad hoc agreements on Nile water sharing during the past century, a transboundary water agreement, known as the "Nile Basin Initiative" was finally reached in 1999 under the aegis of the World Bank, which included all the coriparians with a view to achieving equitable utilisation of "the common Nile Basin water resources."
A potentially explosive hydrpolitical hot spot in the Middle East is the Jordan River Basin, the strings of which are now pulled by Israel by virtue of its political and military clout. Since the 1950s Israel had systematically and unilaterally withdrawn water from this basin in order to irrigate its agricultural land. It even threatened Jordan and Syria against any effort to divert the upstream tributaries of the Jordan River. The Six-Day War of 1967 totally changed the hydrological balance in the region in favour of Israel through the occupation of the West Bank. The occupation gave Israel full control of the underground aquifers of the West Bank and the occupation of the Golan Heights further enabled Israel to control the upstream sections of the Jordan River. The net losers were Jordan and Syria. In any future demarcation of the independent Palestinian state, therefore, access to and supply of freshwater for the new country is going to be the toughest issue for negotiation.
Further north, in Turkeythe most water-rich country in the Middle Eastlie the headwaters of both Euphrates and Tigris, and consequently, the downstream countries of Syria and Iraq are both constantly wary of their upstream neighbour's (Turkey) projects on the twin river basin. Water continues to play an important power broker's role in Turkey's relationship with its Arab neighbours.
Bangladesh is the lowest riparian in the Eastern Himalayan River systemsGanges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM). The other coriparians are India, Nepal, Bhutan and China. Since over 90% of surface water in Bangladesh comes from outside the border, the country's water ecosystem is vulnerable to unilateral upstream actions. Due to lack of trust and non-transparency among the basin countries, optimal cooperation could not be attained. Of the 54 rivers entering Bangladesh from India, only one water sharing agreement currently exists between Bangladesh and India through the Ganges Treaty of 1996.
The Treaty stipulated that the countries would conclude long term sharing agreements with regard to other transboundary rivers, of which the sharing issue of the Teesta River was accorded the first priority. After negotiations for nearly 15 years, there was some hope of an agreement in recent months, which unfortunately was torpedoed by a volte face from the Paschimbango chief minister. Bangladesh's predicament in the GBM system is further compounded by the unforeseen impacts the Tipaimukh Dam on the Barak-Meghna would have on the northeastern part of the country, and the probability of unimaginable disaster the country might suffer if India starts implementing the gargantuan River Linking Plan. Water would thus continue to be a dominant factor in the political stage among the GBM countries.
It is commonly perceived by most people that access to water is a fundamental human right. However, what is not perceived by most people is that the supply of water as a natural resource is finite, and that demand for it is continually increasing. Stark inequality in water access exists among water consumers between upscale neighbourhoods and marginalised shanty towns in metropolises as well as between water-rich and water stressed countries. Among all the natural resources of this planet, water is the most profligately wasted asset. It is imperative that we all deem water as an economic good and conserve it for our progeny. Without water security, food security would be illusory.
The writer is former Professor of Geography and Environment, University of Dhaka.

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