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Asia: Analysis From Washington -- When Drought Extends Beyond National Borders

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A second year without adequate rainfall in an enormous region spreading from the Middle East to China threatens the countries there with agricultural failure, disease and starvation, and political instability.

But so far, the international community has sought to address problems in particular places rather than this region as a whole.

Over the last two weeks, the consequences of the drought in this region have been highlighted in a series of ever more disturbing media reports. Israel and its neighbors have been warned to cut back on the use of water. Iran has had to evacuate more than 650 villages because of water shortages. And the United Nations has warned that five million people now face starvation in Afghanistan and Tajikistan because of the continuing drought.

Meanwhile, more than half a million people in the Karakalpak region of Uzbekistan currently lack sufficient food because of the increasingly severe shortage of uncontaminated water. Officials there said the situation will only get worse as the country deals with the worst drought in more than a century. Many are already ill as a result, and at least some are likely to die, according to Indian government reports.

And in India, UN officials report, water is now so scarce in certain northern districts that farmers are selling livestock to stay alive, and officials in New Delhi are predicting even more severe water and food shortages over the next decade. The drought has hit China as well, forcing water rationing and leading to predictions that millions there will soon be without drinking water.

This list of national tragedies could easily be extended -- to Mongolia where severe drought appears to be at the verge of wiping out an entire way of life and to North Korea where the lack of rainfall has forced the government to open itself to the West in the search for food and medicines. And none of the reports this week give any reason to think that this situation will change anytime soon.

Most international efforts to help have focused on particular countries rather than the problem as a whole. That is perhaps not surprising given the extent of this drought and the problems it is causing. But such an approach carries with it three serious problems.

First, it sets up a kind of competition among the victims for assistance. Some countries, either because of their size or political significance, are far more likely to get help than their neighbors, a pattern that will only exacerbate tensions both within and between these countries and that may contribute to national instability and even open conflict among water-short countries.

Such tensions are already visible in the Middle East, in Central Asia, in India, and in China, and there are political figures in each of the countries involved who are casting often envious glances at neighbors with more water than they have. In the absence of a more general approach to the drought, it seems entirely possible that these glances may become something more if the drought worsens.

Second, the country-by-country approach fails to call attention to just how serious a problem this current drought is for the world as a whole. A report that 500,000 people in Uzbekistan are without water is unlikely to lead policy-makers to address the larger issues. But the recognition that this drought has hit countries with more than half the world's population could force them to do so.

That in turn highlights a problem with media coverage of issues like this drought. Reporters are inevitably based somewhere, and they report best what they see and hear immediately. But by reporting on only part of the problem, they risk not describing it accurately.

And third, this approach is likely over time to unite the victims of drought against those who have enough water not only within this region but even more against those in countries with more than sufficient water for their own citizens. To the extent that happens, and there are political figures across this region who are already talking in these terms, the current drought could re-energize the North-South divide in international politics.

Such tensions have been overshadowed recently by the power of economic globalization, but the impact of drought appears likely to call attention to the fact that natural forces are ultimately far more important than those developed by human beings.

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