Water Wars: Coming soon to a tap near you

Water Wars: Coming soon to a tap near you

Giving up on consumption that is mindless may be the best weapon in our arsenal to fight water wars

Protest against the Supreme Court verdict on Cauvery water dispute in Chennai on February 16, 2018. (AFP File Photo)

Data we are told is the “new oil”. There is an enormous global jostle for its control and ownership. Then there is the good old oil. But you don’t’ have to be an expert on geo-strategy to figure out that there’s something even more precious that is likely to trigger ever more frequent and potentially bigger conflicts. Its water. The humble H2O. No matter where you are in India or even South Asia, you just have to look around to know why.

So water stressed is Bengaluru, that numerous studies estimate that by 2025, the city will completely run out of water. Chennai is less lucky. It pretty much drank up all the water it had. Chennai, a city of close to 10 million, is perennially short of water. Since the 1980s hand pumps and colourful plastic pots had become a more readily recognisable symbol of the city than its iconic buildings and temples. The memories of the 2015 floods, biblical in proportion, have not yet fully receded even as giant IT parks and industries around the city that guaranteed its prosperity are forced to down shutters today because they don’t have enough water to keep the toilets functioning.

There is not a state in India not engaged in a water dispute with its neighbours. The Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu dates back more than 100 years; Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh bicker over the waters of the Krishna; tiny Goa fights Karnataka over the waters of the Mahadayi river; in most parts of Maharashtra’s parched Marathwada region, drinking water comes in special trains; Maharashtra says it might give Karnataka’s northern districts a drinking water lifeline from the Koyna dam only if Karnataka agrees do the same by offering up water from the Almatti dam; Kerala and Tamil Nadu have been at loggerheads over the Mullaiperiyar dam for long; Uttar Pradesh is unhappy with Uttarakhand for its dam building spree on the Ganga that affects the flows downstream.

Despite such a crisis of monumental proportions, water hardly figured in the in the ongoing election campaign. A recent report by Global Environment Change points to South Asia, China, South East Asia and the Tibetan plateau as the pre-eminent hotspots for future water conflicts. This geographical area is home roughly to 45 per cent of humanity. “The most water-fragile among them are concentrated in a strategically significant belt stretching from North Africa across the Middle East and Horn of Africa into Central, South, and East Asia,” it notes.

Scarcity triggers conflicts

According to Washington DC-based water conflict researchers Peter Engelke, Resident Senior Fellow with the Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Atlantic Council, and Russell Sticklor, a Research Fellow with the Stimson Environmental Security Program, “water stress” is a precursor to conflict. While water disputes haven’t yet led to international wars, there has been plenty of sub-national conflict. And they usually trigger violence.

“Water stress acts as an accelerant, increasing the likelihood of conflict. Moreover, water scarcity-fueled instability can have dangerous security implications for wider geographic regions. Take Syria. Between 2006 and 2010, the country was hit hard by drought, which wiped out rural livelihoods for many and caused significant internal displacement across the country. Internal displacement in turn helped stir up a pot that boiled over into all-out civil war in Syria, eventually spreading to Iraq. Over the last two years, ISIS has viewed water access and control as a primary strategic objective of their campaign, and has commandeered hydroelectric dams, irrigation canals, reservoirs, pipelines, and other water infrastructure to cement territorial gains,” they wrote in a 2015 essay in The National Interest.

In 2012, Peru witnessed a wave of violent protests against US gold mining companies destroying local water resources that forced the Peruvian government to impose a state of emergency three times in less than a year.

The ongoing civil war in Yemen has its roots in water. The country which is almost entirely dependent of groundwater witnessed water riots in 2009 that led to the current conflagration. Jordan, which relies on aquifers as its only source of water, is even more water-stressed now that more than a half-million Syrian refugees arrived.

About 30% of the earth’s freshwater supplies lie underground. But in the Indian Sub-continent, the groundwater too is depleting the fastest.

Pakistan accuses India of already waging a climactic war by drinking into its share of the waters of the Indus, flouting the World Bank-mediated Indus Water Treaty inked in 1960. Some of Asia’s largest rivers—Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra and Mekong originate in the Tibetan Plateau. India fears that China’s new water projects on these rivers will imperil the rives of 800 million people not just in India but also Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand.

The disparity of water resources in the region has led to nations and regions fortunate enough to be the upper riparian on a river system keen on over exploiting nature’s benevolence. The quest for narrow self-interest hardens differences. It is the river systems and the people who depend on them that suffer the most. There are calls in India to link its northern and peninsular rivers without much thought about its long-term ecological perils. China wants to divert the waters of Brahmaputra towards its dry northern regions such as Xinjiang to accelerate their economic development.

According to Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, and an expert on water conflicts, China having extensively contaminated its own major rivers through unbridled industrialization, it is now threatening the ecological viability of river systems tied to South and Southeast Asia in its bid to meet its thirst for water and energy.

“After building two dams upstream, China is building at least three more on the Mekong, stirring passions in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Several Chinese projects in west-central Tibet have a bearing on river-water flows into India, but Beijing is reluctant to share information,” he warned writing in The New York Times.

China itself is feeling the pinch. Beijing, its capital with 20 million people, is reported to be caving in, putting at risk the city’s infrastructure built using billions of dollars because its underwater aquifers have been sucked dry.

Future availability of freshwater for human consumption under a changing world represents one of the main concerns of the current political debate. Water crises have been placed among the major risk factors for the coming decades by the Global Risks Perception Surveys conducted by the World Economic Forum between 2015 and 2017. Increasing demographic pressure, environmental degradation, and climate change impacts on global water distribution represent the largest determinants of current and future water related issues.

What we can do

The 20th century witnessed an explosion of mega irrigation projects though dams which helped agriculture expand into drier areas. Even in India, farmers in water stressed regions such as Mandya and Marathwada have become addicted to water-intensive crops such as sugarcane. Punjab grows vast quantities of water guzzling rice when it can easily focus on other equally valuable dry crops.

The availability of water enabled farmers the world over to diversify cropping patterns indiscriminately. But water alone doesn’t determine agricultural outcomes. For instance, farmers in Punjab use dangerous levels of soil-health altering fertilizers to be able to grow rice. In China and the southern high plains of North America the farmers’ push to grow winter wheat and corn is straining water and land resources.

What adds to the problem is our lack of knowledge about our water resources. There is more data available on hydrocarbon reserves than water. Estimating the water that’s left in aquifers is tougher than divining oil.

While we in India consider water a free resource, the sale of water-related equipment and industrialised extraction is a business worth nearly one trillion dollars. Most countries, including India, offer farmers giant subsidies such as free electricity to indiscriminately plunder scarce ground water. In his book Water, Peace, and War, Chellaney contends that large corporations too have convinced politicians that commoditisation is the ideal way to control wasteful use of water. But then a litre of bottled water requires 1.6 litres of water to produce. Water consumption of refineries is far greater larger than the quantity of gasoline or diesel fuel manufactured. Growing consumption of meat, biofuels and nuclear power — all water-guzzlers — make groundwater the world’s most extracted source.

The prevention of the imminent water wars has no easy solutions. To begin with both consumers and governments need to realise that while renewable, water isn’t inexhaustible. While we can blame farmers and policymakers for growing water guzzling cane, maize and paddy in regions that are parched, it is the unceasing demand for sugar, rice and meat from the consumers that makes it profitable for them. Agricultural scientists in India have long argued that soil conditions and availability of water must decide cropping patterns rather than considerations of tradition or consumer demand for a certain crop.

In the Cauvery delta region of Tamil Nadu, rice has been the principle crop for nearly 2000 years. To be able to own rice fields is still considered a matter of social prestige among farmers there. But the new reality of reduced flow in the river should force them to revisit tradition and opt for dry crops such as pulses. Building small check-dams along the course of rivers can rejuvenate aquifers. Desilting of small ponds and lakes, part of the traditional rural water management systems can have an instant positive effect. But not only have we neglected small water bodies but have systematically encroached upon them.

In the urban areas, rain water harvesting is perhaps the only sustainable solution. One acre of land in Bangalore for example, with about 900 mm of annual rainfall receives nearly 36 lakh litres of water. A small 100 square metre of roof area would receive 90,000 litres of rainwater in an average year of rain. Even if a modest 25% of that can be harvested, instead of being allowed to wash away in the drains, they city’s drinking water woes can be dealt with.

Giving up on consumption that is mindless, and even conscious denial of certain dietary and material pleasures we have become used to, may be the best weapon in our arsenal to fight water wars.

But that weapon is also harder to make than bombs and missiles.

(TR Vivek is a Bengaluru-based journalist)
(Article updated to reflect the severe water shortage conditions in Chennai in June 2019)