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Interview: Author Discusses Asia's Water Woes

Children run past ruined ships abandoned in sand that once formed the bed of the Aral Sea. Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan faces the danger of becoming another Aral Sea because of upstream diversion by China.

Children run past ruined ships abandoned in sand that once formed the bed of the Aral Sea. Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan faces the danger of becoming another Aral Sea because of upstream diversion by China.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, has sounded alarms about the potential for conflict over water resources in Asia.

In his award-winning book, "Water: Asia's Next Battleground," Chellaney argues that Asia has less freshwater per capita than any other continent, but is both guzzling and polluting its resources at an ever-increasing rate.

RFE/RL correspondent Courtney Brooks speaks with Chellaney about where the potential conflicts lie.

RFE/RL: What are some of the hotspots for water disputes in Asia and how do you see the situation evolving?

Brahma Chellaney:
I see water becoming an increasingly divisive issue in large parts of Asia -- the Middle East, Central Asia, and [the] Caucasus, for example. I see water stress being a driver of conflict.

RFE/RL: You mention in your book that battle lines in Afghanistan tend to follow the lines of water courses. What exactly does that mean? Can you give me some examples?

Afghanistan and Yemen are examples where internal conflicts are being waged along hydrological lines. Where waterways run those lines of water courses tend to be the lines separating feuding parties because the object of control in the feud is control of a water source.

And in Afghanistan we are finding that in some parts where scarcity is acute the control of wells and streams has become a source of conflict by itself. Warlords have emerged that can be called water warlords, whose basic job is to maintain control over a source of water. These are warlords with militias, and they are controlling sources of water for their community or for their province and such kind of overt use of force to assert control over a source of water is found in Afghanistan more than any other country.

RFE/RL: And the situation in Central Asia?

Water is the most divisive issue in Central Asia. Along with unsettled borders, water has become an even more explosive issue. Because you have in some parts of Central Asia borders that are not clearly demarcated and therefore the issue of water sharing and transnational water resources, their delineation. These issues are compounding the interstate and intrastate competition [and] the struggle for water.
Water is clearly, of all issues, the one that carries the highest risk of destabilizing Central Asia.

Water is clearly, of all issues, the one that carries the highest risk of destabilizing Central Asia. And also, Central Asia is a very water-scarce region, and therefore the struggle is over scarce resources. The only countries that actually have the water resources are the small upstream countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, [which are] small and powerless against the main users of water -- the countries located downstream: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.

Standing Up To China

RFE/RL: You note that China supplies water to Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Can you explain these hydrological ties?

China, because of its control of the Xinjiang [region], which it absorbed forcibly in 1949, has become the source of water [supplies] to Russia, to Kazakhstan, and to Kyrgyzstan.

For example, the Black Irtysh flows to Kazakhstan and then goes on to Russia. It connects with the Ob River in Russia. And then there's the other river called the Ili River, [which] has caused a lot of disquiet in Kazakhstan and Russia because these are important rivers for Russia, for western Siberia, and for Kazakhstan. And Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan faces the danger of becoming another Aral Sea -- because of the upstream diversion of the waters of the Ili River by China through new irrigation and other hydro projects.

RFE/RL: And how has all of this affected relations between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan?

The relationship between Kazakhstan and China has an undercurrent of tension, but Kazakhstan is a weaker state, and so also is Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, these two countries can merely protest. They can do little about Chinese actions, but they tend to be more vocal in private rather than in public.

Yet, to the credit of the Kazakh government, it has raised this issue publicly also, talked about China's unilateral projects on the Ili River and the Black Irtysh (Kara-Irtysh) River. And the Russians, being a large country which is able to deal with China on a legal basis, the Russians have been the most vocal in public.

But apart from protests even the Russians find that their options are constricted because, after all, what can they do? They can't wage a war to stop Chinese dam-building activity. Short of military action they have tried everything else -- they have tried diplomacy, they have tried protesting loudly, they've tried reasoning with the Chinese -- and nothing has worked.

Economic Impacts

RFE/RL: You write in your book that Pakistan is a water-distressed country, but you also say that India gives Pakistan 80 percent of its own water, which in turn has a severely negative impact on India's own hydrological health. Can you please explain the state that Pakistan is in?

The reason why the water situation in Pakistan has deteriorated is that Pakistan is growing food for export. It's a water-distressed country which is exporting products that are water-intensive. It's growing rice and cotton, which are the two most water-intensive of all agricultural products, for export. It's the world's third-largest exporter of rice and the fourth-largest producer of cotton in the world.

And what that shows is that Pakistan's water distress can only be rectified through an overhauling of the economy and by changing the present pattern of growing water-rich crops for export.

RFE/RL: What effect do you think Tajikistan's Rogun Dam would have both economically and on relations between neighboring countries if it were to be completed?

The Rogun Dam is a Soviet-era enterprise which has been stalled by Uzbek threats against the upstream country [which is Tajikistan]. There's also the Vakhsh Dam (eds.: Sangtuda hydropower plants) from the Soviet-era that Tajikistan wants to build but the Uzbeks have threatened military reprisals privately and even publicly.

And I think given the fact that Uzbekistan is located downstream, but able to assert its political and military supremacy in the region, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan find themselves hamstrung. They're not able to embark on projects because the downstream power is unwilling to provide consent, and they're too afraid to embark on projects on their own.

So I don't think the Rogun Dam or the Vakhsh Dam will ever be built given the power realities in Central Asia. But if either of the dams were built or both dams were built the downstream flows to Uzbekistan are likely to be affected, and of course every dam has an ecological impact, especially large dams, and these are large dams that were proposed during the Soviet era.

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