Friday, 3 May 2013

Water availability and management

Growing industrialization, population growth, and increasing levels of consumption are placing heavy demands on water resources, which provide vital support for the subsistence livelihoods of millions of people. Figure 1 explains in brief the baseline water stress regions in Asia. The tension on water availability is further raised by the rate at which Chinese are commissioning damming projects on those trans-boundary rivers. With no foreseeable increase in the water availability and no water sharing treaty in action, all the riparian states from Pakistan till Vietnam are at the mercy of these massive reservoirs within Tibet and China. As for India, its water demand will double by 2030 reaching 1.5 trillion cubic meters, principally driven by population growth and the domestic need for agriculture [1]. 

Figure1. Baseline Water Stress Regions in Asia Map © EDD/ DIIR 

According to recent report released on Himalayan Glaciers, the combined river basin of Indus, Ganga/ Brahmaputra benefits/ supports more than 744 million people living within the contiguous arc from Afghanistan to Bangladesh (Fig 2). The use of water in the agricultural sector has increased over the past few decades. It is estimated as per 2000 data that the irrigation area for Indus (15 MHA), Ganga/ Brahmaputra basin (29 MHA) - million hectares and will continue to increase further[2]. 

Fig 2. Fraction of the land equipped for irrigation in the HKH region. Irrigation is widespread in both the Indus and Ganges/Brahmaputra basins. A relatively large amount of irrigated water consumption in the Indus basin is for cotton production. In the Brahmaputra basin, by comparison, irrigation water use is dominated by rice production, while in the Ganges basin, irrigated water is used primarily for wheat production.
Source: National Academy of Science (2012)

Looking towards China, a survey data analyzed by the Joint Monitoring Program for Water and Sanitation of WHO and UNICEF mentioned that about 100 million Chinese still did not have access to an improved water source in 2008, and about 460 million did not have access to improved sanitation. Water scarcity threatens the ability of China's farmers to irrigate their crops, impacting food security as well as social stability, especially in northern China. A case in point is the impact in Yunnan province which is facing a severe drought and government is responding by proposing huge reservoirs and dams on the already stressed rivers flowing from the province[3].   Every year, water shortages cost the country an estimated 40-60 billion RMB  in lost economic output. Continued scarcity and uncertainty will affect the willingness of foreign and domestic companies to invest in China, further lowering the production of existing facilities, and ultimately affecting its job market[4]. 

For China, Tibet's rivers are proving as rich resources for hydro electric and geo-political power as its mineral wealth. Chinese 12th Five Year Plan (2011- 2015) has prioritized the development of Hydro power projects, it also plans to revive two third of those unfinished hydro power projects detailed in the 11th Five Year Plan. According to South China Morning Post, (on line edition -January 2013)[5], the Chinese state council has released an energy sector blueprint for 2011-2015 in which they have decided to construct at least 54 hydro power stations with a total capacity of 120 GW on the upper reaches of Drichu (Yangtse), Zachu (Mekong) and Salween. It clearly disregards the geological risks, global biodiversity, resettlement and impacts on downstream communities. This plan also includes the reopening of previously shelved dam projects on the Salween River due to environmental concerns. On a macro level, China is planning to install 1.2 TW (1200 GW) of water-reliant power capacity by 2030 and 277 GW of coal fired power plant by 2015. As for the latter case, the majority of the coal reserves in China are in water scarce regions of Shanxi and Inner Mongolia and it is a well known that coal mining requires heavy water use[6].

Managing and securing the water resource in Tibet could be the biggest and most important challenge for the new Chinese leaders. Downstream users of water originating in Tibet should establish a regional forum to create policies on trans boundary issues that effectively safeguard access and quality of water, at a time of accelerating glacier melt and damming activities.
[1] As quoted in (‘The McKinsey Report’)by IDSA, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, 'Water Security For India: The External Dynamics,' IDSA Task Force Report, September, 2010, ISBN # 81-86019-83-9
[2] Himalayan Glaciers: Climate Change, Water Resources, and Water Security Committee on Himalayan Glaciers, Hydrology, Climate Change, and Implications for Water Security; Board on Atmospheric Studies and Climate; Division on Earth and Life Studies; National Research Council
[4] Yusha Hu, Foreign Investment in China’s Water Infrastructure, A New Strategy for National Security.
[5] Ban lifted on controversial Nu River dam projects,
[6] HSBC Global research, ‘No water, no power, Is there enough water to fuel China’s power expansion?’ September, 2012.