April 17, 2011 (AP)
Water wars? Thirsty, energy-short China stirs fear
By DENIS D. GRAY, Associated Press
BAHIR JONAI, India – The wall of water raced through narrow Himalayan gorges in northeast India, gathering speed as it raked the banks of towering trees and boulders. When the torrent struck their island in the Brahmaputra river, the villagers remember, it took only moments to obliterate their houses, possessions and livestock.
No one knows exactly how the disaster happened, but everyone knows whom to blame: neighboring China.
“We don’t trust the Chinese,” says fisherman Akshay Sarkar at the resettlement site where he has lived since the 2000 flood. “They gave us no warning. They may do it again.”
About 800 kilometers (500 miles) east, in northern Thailand, Chamlong Saengphet stands in the Mekong river, in water that comes only up to her shins. She is collecting edible river weeds from dwindling beds. A neighbor has hung up his fishing nets, his catches now too meager.
Using words bordering on curses, they point upstream, toward China.
The blame game, voiced in vulnerable river towns and Asian capitals from Pakistan to Vietnam, is rooted in fear that China’s accelerating program of damming every major river flowing from the Tibetan plateau will trigger natural disasters, degrade fragile ecologies, divert vital water supplies.
A few analysts and environmental advocates even speak of water as a future trigger for war or diplomatic strong-arming, though others strongly doubt it will come to that. Still, the remapping of the water flow in the world’s most heavily populated and thirstiest region is happening on a gigantic scale, with potentially strategic implications.
On the eight great Tibetan rivers alone, almost 20 dams have been built or are under construction while some 40 more are planned or proposed.
China is hardly alone in disrupting the region’s water flows. Others are doing it with potentially even worse consequences. But China’s vast thirst for power and water, its control over the sources of the rivers and its ever-growing political clout make it a singular target of criticism and suspicion.
“Whether China intends to use water as a political weapon or not, it is acquiring the capability to turn off the tap if it wants to — a leverage it can use to keep any riparian neighbors on good behavior,” says Brahma Chellaney, an analyst at New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research and author of the forthcoming “Water: Asia’s New Battlefield.”
Analyst Neil Padukone calls it “the biggest potential point of contention between the two Asian giants,” China and India. But the stakes may be even higher since those eight Tibetan rivers serve a vast west-east arc of 1.8 billion people stretching from Pakistan to Vietnam’s Mekong river delta.
Suspicions are heightened by Beijing’s lack of transparency and refusal to share most hydrological and other data. Only China, along with Turkey, has refused to sign a key 1997 U.N. convention on transnational rivers.
Beijing gave no notice when it began building three dams on the Mekong — the first completed in 1993 — or the $1.2 billion Zangmu dam, the first on the mainstream of the 2,880-kilometer (1,790-mile) Brahmaputra which was started last November and hailed in official media as “a landmark priority project.”
The 2000 flood that hit Sarkar’s village, is widely believed to have been caused by the burst of an earthen dam wall on a Brahmaputra tributary. But China has kept silent.
“Until today, the Indian government has no clue about what happened,” says Ravindranath, who heads the Rural Volunteer Center. He uses only one name.
Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has also warned of looming dangers stemming from the Tibetan plateau.
“It’s something very, very essential. So, since millions of Indians use water coming from the Himalayan glaciers… I think you (India) should express more serious concern. This is nothing to do with politics, just everybody’s interests, including Chinese people,” he said in New Delhi last month.
Beijing normally counters such censure by pointing out that the bulk of water from the Tibetan rivers springs from downstream tributaries, with only 13-16 percent originating in China.
Officials also say that the dams can benefit their neighbors, easing droughts and floods by regulating flow, and that hydroelectric power reduces China’s carbon footprint.
China “will fully consider impacts to downstream countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu recently told The Associated Press. “We have clarified several times that the dam being built on the Brahmaputra River has a small storage capacity. It will not have large impact on water flow or the ecological environment of downstream.”
For some of China’s neighbors, the problem is that they too are building controversial dams and may look hypocritical if they criticize China too loudly.
The four-nation Mekong River Commission has expressed concerns not just about the Chinese dams but about a host of others built or planned in downstream countries.
In northeast India, a broad-based movement is fighting central government plans to erect more than 160 dams in the region, and Laos and Cambodia have proposed plans for 11 Mekong dams, sparking environmental protest.
Indian and other governments play down any threats from the Asian colossus. “I was reassured that (the Zangmu dam) was not a project designed to divert water and affect the welfare and availability of water to countries in the lower reaches,” India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said after talks with his Chinese counterpart late last year.
But at the grass roots, and among activists and even some government technocrats, criticism is expressed more readily.
“Everyone knows what China is doing, but won’t talk about it. China has real power now. If it says something, everyone follows,” says Somkiat Khuengchiangsa, a Thai environmental advocate.
Neither the Indian nor Chinese government responded to specific questions from the AP about the dams, but Beijing is signaling that it will relaunch mega-projects after a break of several years in efforts to meet skyrocketing demands for energy and water, reduce dependence on coal and lift some 300 million people out of poverty.
Official media recently said China was poised to put up dams on the still pristine Nu River, known as the Salween downstream. Seven years ago as many as 13 dams were set to go up until Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a moratorium.
That ban is regarded as the first and perhaps biggest victory of China’s nascent green movement.
“An improper exploitation of water resources by countries on the upper reaches is going to bring about environmental, social and geological risks,” Yu Xiaogang, director of the Yunnan Green Watershed, told The Associated Press. “Countries along the rivers have already formed their own way of using water resources. Water shortages could easily ignite extreme nationalist sentiment and escalate into a regional war.”
But there is little chance the activists will prevail.
“There is no alternative to dams in sight in China,” says Ed Grumbine, an American author on Chinese dams. Grumbine, currently with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan province, notes that under its last five-year state plan, China failed to meet its hydroelectric targets and is now playing catch-up in its 2011-2015 plan as it strives to derive 15 percent of energy needs from non-fossil sources, mainly hydroelectric and nuclear.
The arithmetic pointing to more dam-building is clear: China would need 140 megawatts of extra hydroelectric power to meet its goal. Even if all the dams on the Nu go up, they would provide only 21 megawatts.
The demand for water region-wide will also escalate, sparking perhaps that greatest anxieties — that China will divert large quantities from the Tibetan plateau for domestic use.
Noting that Himalayan glaciers which feed the rivers are melting due to global warming, India’s Strategic Foresight Group last year estimated that in the coming 20 years India, China, Nepal and Bangladesh will face a depletion of almost 275 billion cubic meters (360 billion cubic yards) of annual renewable water.
Padukone expects China will have to divert water from Tibet to its dry eastern provinces. One plan for rerouting the Brahmaputra was outlined in an officially sanctioned 2005 book by a Chinese former army officer, Li Ling. Its title: “Tibet’s Waters Will Save China,”
Analyst Chellaney believes “the issue is not whether China will reroute the Brahmaputra, but when.” He cites Chinese researchers and officials as saying that after 2014 work will begin on tapping rivers flowing from the Tibetan plateau to neighboring countries Such a move, he says, would be tantamount to a declaration of war on India.
Others are skeptical. Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan environmentalist at the University of British Columbia who is otherwise critical of China’s policies, calls a Brahmaputra diversion “a pipe dream of some Chinese planners.”
Grumbine shares the skepticism. “The situation would have to be very dire for China to turn off the taps because the consequences would be huge,” he said. “China would alienate every one of its neighbors and historically the Chinese have been very sensitive about maintaining secure borders.”
Whatever else may happen, riverside inhabitants along the Mekong and Brahmaputra say the future shock is now.
A fisherman from his youth, Boonrian Chinnarat says the Mekong giant catfish, the world’s largest freshwater fish, has all but vanished from the vicinity of Thailand’s Had Krai village, other once bountiful species have been depleted, and he and fellow fishermen have sold their nets. He blames the Chinese dams.
Phumee Boontom, headman of nearby Pak Ing village, warns that “If the Chinese keep the water and continue to build more dams, life along the Mekong will change forever.” Already, he says, he has seen drastic variations in water levels following dam constructions, “like the tides of the ocean __ low and high in one day.”
Jeremy Bird, who heads the Mekong commission, an intergovernmental body of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, sees a tendency to blame China for water-related troubles even when they are purely the result of nature. He says diplomacy is needed, and believes “engagement with China is improving.”
Grumbine agrees. “Given the enormous demand for water in China, India and Southeast Asia, if you maintain the attitude of sovereign state, we are lost,” he says. “Scarcity in a zero sum situation can lead to conflict but it can also goad countries into more cooperative behavior. It’s a bleak picture, but I’m not without hope.”
Associated Press writers Tini Tran and David Wivell in Beijing contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2011 Yahoo! Inc. All rights reserved.
April 1, 2010 (New York Times)
Countries Blame China, Not Nature, for Water Shortage
By THOMAS FULLER
BANGKOK — In southern China, the worst drought in at least 50 years has dried up farmers’ fields and left tens of millions of people short of water.
But the drought has also created a major public relations problem for the Chinese government in neighboring countries, where in recent years China has tried to project an image of benevolence and brotherhood.
Farmers and fishermen in countries that share the Mekong River with China, especially Thailand, have lashed out at China over four dams that span the Chinese portion of the 3,000-mile river, despite what appears to be firm scientific evidence that low rainfall is responsible for the plunging levels of the river, not China’s hydroelectric power stations.
This weekend, a group of affected countries — Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam — are meeting in Thailand to discuss the drought, among other issues.
Thailand will be requesting “more information, more cooperation and more coordination” from China, said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a government spokesman.
China has begun a campaign to try to counter the perception that its dams are hijacking the Mekong’s water as the river runs from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea.
Chinese officials, normally media shy, recently held a news conference and have appeared at seminars, including one on Thursday, to make their case that the drought is purely a natural phenomenon.
“More information will help reduce misinformation,” said Yao Wen, the head of the political section at the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok.
He presented pictures of sun-baked riverbeds and dried-up wells at the seminar, including one of a man straddling cracks in a dry riverbed.
“This old man used to be a boatman, but now he has nothing to do,” Mr. Yao told participants.
The concluding image was that of a child staring longingly into a bucket. “You can see how serious the drought is,” he said. “It is a very, very terrible situation.”
Still, many in the room continued to focus on China’s dams. Mr. Yao listened to impassioned pleas by residents of northern Thailand to stop further construction on the river.
“It’s where we fish, where we get food,” said Pianporn Deetes, a Thai campaigner for the environmental group International Rivers. “It’s where we feed our families.”
She blamed Chinese dams and the blasting of rapids to make the river more navigable for reduced fish catches, and she criticized plans for more dams without more transparent public consultations.
By one recent count, there are more than 80 hydropower projects in various stages of preparation and construction for the Mekong and its tributaries.
“How can you decide without listening to us?” asked Ms. Pianporn, a native of Chiang Rai Province, in northern Thailand.
As in so many other parts of the world, the politics of sharing water are rife with tension. Within Thailand, where the drought has affected at least 14,000 villages, one official has described “water wars” between farmers hoping to keep their crops alive.
But discussions among the countries that share the Mekong are more complicated. A common approach toward planning the river’s future means accommodating Thailand’s lively and freewheeling society, the military dictatorship in Myanmar, the authoritarian democracy in Cambodia and the Communist-ruled systems of Laos and Vietnam.
Many Thais remain particularly suspicious of Chinese plans for the Mekong, called Lancang in Chinese.
One professor at the seminar on Thursday prefaced a question to Mr. Yao, the Chinese diplomat, with this: “I realize that it’s difficult for you to speak freely — after this conference you would be fired if you talked freely.”
Some conservationists have attributed the low river levels partly to the construction of China’s fourth dam on the Mekong, at Xiaowan. The dam began filling its reservoir in July, during the rainy season, Chinese officials say, a process that was stopped with the arrival of the dry season.
In recent weeks, as water shortages became acute and navigation at some points of the Mekong became impossible, China released water from its dams, raising the water level, according to Jeremy Bird, the chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission, an advisory body set up in 1995 by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. China and Myanmar are not members but have some agreements to share information.
Over all, Mr. Bird says China has a “limited capacity” to reverse the effects of the drought for countries downstream. The Mekong, he says, has always been volatile.
“Intense droughts and intense floods have been experienced for a long time,” he said.
Mr. Bird and other experts say dams on the lower part of the river, including one planned in Laos, could have a harmful effect on migratory fish, among other problems.
But over all, Mr. Bird said he believed that more dams in China could even out the Mekong’s seasonal variations by storing water when it was plentiful and releasing it when scarce.
For Ms. Pianporn, who says she cherishes the river’s natural beauty and its bountiful fish, that argument is not persuasive.
“We don’t need more water in the dry season, and we don’t need less in the wet season,” she said. “We would like to see the water as it is.”
September 1, 2008 (New York Times)
Tajikistan Hopes Water Will Power Its Ambitions
By DAVID L. STERN
NUREK, Tajikistan — The inscription just above a tunnel at the foot of the colossal Nurek hydropower dam in south central Tajikistan is succinct: “Water Is Life.” The frigid, frothing Vakhsh River rushing under it adds a visual punctuation mark.
In Tajikistan, the source of more than 40 percent of Central Asia’s water, this is no mere platitude. The mountainous state lacks the industry and natural riches that bless other former Soviet Central Asian republics. Water is one of the few resources the country possesses in great abundance.
For this reason, President Emomali Rakhmon has pinned Tajikistan’s economic hopes — and perhaps even its continued political existence — on developing its hydropower potential.
Three projects are either under construction or being considered, including Rogun, a gargantuan structure farther up the Vakhsh River. Tajik officials say they have hopes of building more than 20 hydroelectric plants and dams.
But a number of sizable hurdles must be surmounted before the plans for a great hydropower future can be realized. Tajikistan is in an earthquake zone and the dams must be built to withstand major seismic shocks. Officials are expected to conduct environmental impact studies to determine whether any flora or fauna will be threatened.
The Tajik government is also heavily in debt and must find heavy foreign investment to build the dams. On Wednesday, China agreed to build a $300 million hydroelectric power plant, Nurobad-2, with a capacity of 160 to 220 megawatts. But Tajik officials say Rogun alone will cost up to $3.2 billion.
Further afield, the region’s complicated water politics, where upstream and downstream countries have diametrically opposed needs and aims, threaten to intensify.
Here, water irrigates endless fields of cotton, one of the main sources of income in this primarily agricultural land. Nurek — the world’s highest dam, at 984 feet, and a prestige project of the Soviet Union — is the difference between light and darkness, heat and no heat, for the majority of Tajikistan’s seven million inhabitants, supplying nearly all the country’s energy needs. It also provides cheap electricity to power the Talco aluminum plant, the nation’s largest industrial enterprise.
Rogun, as it is now envisioned, would surpass Nurek’s height by more than 100 feet.
Though for the moment it seems to be managing, Tajikistan threatens to become a failed state, say Western experts and diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. The country still has not fully recovered from a devastating civil war a decade ago. State coffers are virtually empty, while the government is viewed as unable to meet basic needs.
The situation was laid bare last winter when prolonged subzero temperatures overloaded the Soviet-era electrical grid, plunging the entire country into cold and darkness. For Western officials working in Tajikistan, the emergency was a disturbing revelation of the government’s dysfunction.
“The crisis was not caused by the winter weather,” said an official of an American nongovernmental organization, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. “The crisis was triggered by the winter weather, but caused by chronic mismanagement.”
All of Tajikistan’s power troubles will be remedied by the dam projects, the Rakhmon government hopes. They will not only provide for all of Tajikistan’s energy needs but also allow the country to export power to neighboring countries.
“It’s a good idea — hydropower is one of the few resources that Tajikistan can exploit,” said John Morgan, an official with Usaid, the American assistance program, and a power specialist. “Power lines could go to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are both energy-starved countries, and to the rest of Central Asia as well.”
Rogun, for example, will generate about 13 billion kilowatt hours per year, more than 80 percent of the country’s average consumption, officials at the construction site say. In the short term, Sangtuda-1, a hydropower plant that began operating last winter, will take on some of the country’s electrical heavy lifting, though its introduction failed to resolve the electricity crisis.
But outside investors are leery. While individual investors who are more accepting of risk may materialize, international donor organizations and banks have become more circumspect with Tajikistan. Besides the dysfunction and corruption revealed by the winter crisis, the International Monetary Fund recently announced that Tajikistan had misreported its finances six times over the last decade, an I.M.F. record. President Rakhmon has asked Tajiks to voluntarily forfeit a month’s wages, or about $10 million, to finance the initial building stage.
“I urge all the patriots and sons of our land to take active part in constructing the first phase of the plant and add your contribution to the country’s energy independence,” he said.
Water issues must also be resolved. Central Asia’s disagreements over how to allocate water resources resemble the Middle East’s in their complexity and potential for conflict. Downstream countries, most prominently Uzbekistan, have steadfastly opposed Tajikistan’s hydroelectric plans. The two countries are engaged in an undeclared cold war, Western diplomatic analysts say.
The Uzbeks, who need to provide for their expansive and inefficiently irrigated cotton fields, say that the dams will disturb the water cycle, withholding water in the summer when it is needed and releasing it in the winter for electricity.
Tajik authorities say that the opposite will be true and that the dams will better regulate water distribution: water will be held in the winter and released in the summer.
Other analysts say that the Uzbeks, who supply electricity to Tajikistan, fear they will lose leverage over their neighbors.
“The thing is, the more dams, the more control the Tajiks will have over the water, and that’s what the Uzbeks are afraid of,” said one Western diplomat in the capital, Dushanbe.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
March 8, 2007 (New York Times)
Kazakhstan and China Deadlock Over Depletion of a Major Lake
By ILAN GREENBERG
ALMATY, Kazakhstan, March 7 — A conference that convened here this week to address the fate of an ecologically threatened Central Asian basin the size of California has ended in stalemate between Kazakhstan and China, the two countries most reliant on its waters.
The heart of the basin is Lake Balkhash, the third-largest freshwater lake on earth, tucked in the southeastern corner of Kazakhstan. More than 20 percent of the country’s population draws on the lake for its drinking water. Lumbering rivers flowing through neighboring Kyrgyzstan and China replenish the lake and adjacent wetlands.
After decades of water diversion to nearby factories and farms, Lake Balkhash is threatened with “the same fate as the notorious Aral Sea,” according to conference documents.
The Aral, in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, is widely considered one of the worst human-created ecological disasters in history. Rivers feeding the lake were diverted over decades for water-intensive cotton cultivation across Central Asia. That caused the sea to shrink drastically and eventually split into two anemic parts, devastating a once thriving fishing industry and causing deadly cancer clusters in nearby villages.
Progress at this week’s conference, convened to introduce an environmentally sound economic development plan, stalled when China spurned Kazakhstan’s proposal to send China large stocks of free or heavily subsidized food for 10 years in exchange for a commitment from China to allow an unimpeded flow of river water into Lake Balkhash.
“The Chinese were cautious and wary, but they also were listening,” said Anna Bramwell, chief of operations for the European Union’s political office in Kazakhstan, who attended the meeting.
As part of its “Go West” policy, China has offered incentives to people to move to its resource-rich Xinjiang territory, which includes part of the basin area. Chinese authorities have said the now sparsely populated region may eventually have as many as 40 million new inhabitants.
On top of population pressures, the water system is fast draining into nearby rice and sugar farms that consume twice the water that European and American operations require, according to representatives of the European Commission.
According to several participants in the conference, Kazakhstan’s president, Nulsultan A Nazarbayev, strongly lobbied the other conference parties to urgently adopt preservation strategies.
But Mr. Nazarbayev has angered environmentalists in the past by appearing to endorse the building of a nuclear power plant in the basin, which yields more than 30,000 tons of fish a year and contains vast amounts of coal and building materials like marble.
Dr. Bramwell said, “We’re trying to move away from the classical environmental approach to a more win-win scenario where everyone has to pay for water and take responsibility for the damage” they create.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
November 19, 2006 (New York Times)
A Troubled River Mirrors China’s Path to Modernity
By JIM YARDLEY
DOLKA, China — At the two glacial lakes that give birth to the Yellow River, a Tibetan nomad named Tsende stands at the river’s edge and rolls up his pants. He says a dragon lives in the lakes, a god of rain. Two decades of drought convinced him the dragon is angry.
Tsende steps barefoot into the river, a human speck at an altitude of almost 15,000 feet, swallowed in the emptiness of the Qinghai Province grasslands. He is carrying five silver rings. A nomad on the other side has 20 sheep. They have arranged a trade.
He will travel across grasses that once touched his knees but now barely reach his ankles. Hundreds of nomads, prodded by the government, have sold their herds and fled the land around the lakes. Others like Tsende have rammed a Buddhist prayer pole into a hillside and prayed to the dragon. Told that some scientists offer another explanation for the weather — climate change — Tsende is unimpressed.
“The result is the same,” he said with a shrug.
Science or superstition, the result is the same: The source of the Yellow River, itself the water source for 140 million people in a country of about 1.3 billion, is in crisis, as scientists warn that the glaciers and underground water system feeding the river are gravely threatened. For the rest of China, where the economy has evolved beyond trading rings for sheep, it is the latest burden for a river saturated with pollution and sucked dry by factories, growing cities and farming — with still more growth planned.
For centuries, the Yellow River symbolized the greatness and sorrows of China’s ancient civilization, as emperors equated controlling the river and taming its catastrophic floods with controlling China. Now, the river is a very different symbol — of the dire state of China’s limited resources at a time when the country’s soaring economic growth needs more of everything.
“The Yellow River flows through all these densely populated parts of northern China,” said Liu Shiyin, a scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Without water in northern China, people can’t survive. And the economic development that has been going on cannot continue.”
China’s dynamic economic engine, still roaring at record levels, is at a corrosive crossroads. Pollution is widespread, and a nationwide construction spree, tainted by corruption, is threatening to overheat the economy. China’s leaders, worried about the unbridled growth, are trying to emphasize “sustainable development” even as questions remain about whether the party’s rank and file can carry out priorities like curbing pollution and conserving energy.
The Yellow River, curving through regions only intermittently touched by the country’s boom, offers a tour of the pressures and contradictions bearing down on China, and of the government’s efforts to address them. The river’s twisting 3,400-mile path from the Qinghai grasslands to the Bohai Sea seems to encompass not just thousands of miles but thousands of years — from nomads like Tsende sleeping under tents made of animal hair to urbanites like Peng Guihang, a homemaker living in a new high-rise building in the city of Zhengzhou.
In between, in the ancient, irrigated oasis in the tiny region of Ningxia, farmers plant rice in the desert and treat the Yellow River like a bottomless well. In a pebbled, alien expanse along the river in Inner Mongolia, an enormous industrial region has arisen in only a few years, spewing out so much pollution that a shopkeeper surrounded by factories scoffs at government promises to clean up China.
Most astonishing, cities beside the river like Yinchuan, Luoyang and Zhengzhou — places few Americans have ever heard of — are racing to become China’s next new regional urban center with almost hallucinatory building booms. Yinchuan, a modest, ancient capital, is building an entire city district for a vast government complex and is adding 20 million square feet of construction every year through 2011. Luoyang, once the capital of the Zhou dynasty, has built a cluster of futuristic sports stadiums that look like a grounded armada of metallic, alien spaceships.
From one bend of the river to the next, and the next, an evolutionary chain emerges: nomad to farmer, farm to factory and factory to city. It is the kind of change that other countries have navigated over centuries. In China, it is happening all at the same time.
The Yellow River, then, is like a path into the future. To follow it is to watch China’s struggle to get there.
Climate Change and Drought
It is July, monsoon season at 15,000 feet.
The sky is spitting. Two days earlier, it rained. Nomads hope the dragon is no longer angry. Tsende is sipping a steaming cup of yak-butter tea inside a tent overlooking the frigid blue water of Gyaring Lake. Nomads like Tsende are the descendants of ethnic Tibetans whose families have lived here for generations to when the sparse region was part of Tibet, not China. Even now, many nomads speak no more than a few words of Chinese.
Last year, a local official approached Tsende with an offer: sell his yaks and sheep and move to a township. His family would get a free cinder-block house and an annual stipend of 8,000 yuan, or about $1,000. Local cadres, responding to an edict from Beijing to reduce grazing, offered the same deal to every nomad around the lake.
“They wanted to protect the grasslands,” said Tsende, who like many ethnic Tibetans uses only one name. “They want to move all the nomads into towns, but some nomads are opposed.” He added, “I don’t think overgrazing is the problem.”
Gyaring Lake and its twin, Ngoring Lake, are considered the source of the Yellow River. Scientists began studying the region after drought took hold in the 1980s. Grasslands were turning to desert, raising fears that the river’s source could be endangered. Eventually, overgrazing was deemed to be the root of the problem, and local governments began moving nomads off the land.
More recently, though, Chinese scientists have examined the region and concluded that the pressures from herding are only one part of a much broader problem. Mr. Liu, the hydrologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and other scientists discovered that the complicated water system feeding the lakes was in crisis. Underground water levels were sinking and chains of smaller feeder lakes were receding or drying up altogether. Air temperatures were slowly rising, while the old pattern of two rainy seasons per year was down to one.
“We’ve found that the problem is much broader and is being caused by global climate change,” said Mr. Liu, who is also a professor at the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Institute.
Researchers found that the glaciers feeding the river had shrunk 17 percent in 30 years. Earlier this year, the official New China News Agency reported that glaciers across the entire Qinghai-Tibet plateau, which includes the Yellow River source region, are now melting at a rate of 7 percent a year because of global warming. The report also said average temperatures in Tibet had risen by 2 degrees since the 1980s, according to China’s national weather bureau.
At the source of the Yellow River, Mr. Liu said the combination of less rainfall and warming temperatures had thawed the surface layer of active permafrost and disrupted the underground water channels. Moisture is being absorbed deeper into the warmer ground, and less water is funneling into the Yellow River.
The warming trend has literally moved the ground. Some sections of Highway 214, the two-lane provincial highway, now gently undulate because of melting permafrost. The Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the technological marvel that recently opened as the world’s highest railroad, has already reported track problems from the warming ground surface.
Climate change sounds as strange to a nomad as a dragon god does to a scientist. Yet nomads have been witnesses to what seem to be symptoms. At a chain of lakes known as the Sea of Stars, a nomad in a camouflage jacket described how the shoreline had receded more than 20 yards during the past decade. Other nomads, including Tsende, have noted steadily rising temperatures.
“The temperature has been rising every year,” Tsende said. “It is much warmer now during all four seasons than it was 20 years ago. Sometimes in the winter, the surface of the lake doesn’t even freeze anymore.”
China ranks behind only the United States in carbon dioxide emissions, which scientists consider the raw ingredient of global warming, though that is tricky to explain to a nomad who has never seen a factory. Instead, nomads remember the Han Chinese gold prospectors and fishermen who arrived in the 1980s.
Mining shaved huge scars into the grasslands. Fishermen arrived on donkeys, then later in cars, punching holes into the icy surface of the lakes and slipping nets into the them. At about the same time, drought took hold. Nomads considered the lakes holy and refrained from fishing. They say the local Buddhist holy man, or incarnate lama, warned that the dragon in the lakes was upset that the natural order had been disturbed. The drought lasted 20 years.
“Our Incarnate Lama told us that when the Han Chinese came and started the gold mining and the fishing, it insulted the spirit of the lake,” Tsende said. “He told us that the gold under the earth offered us protection for the grasslands.”
Almost half of the roughly 400 families who once lived around Gyaring Lake have left. In other surrounding regions, the same trend has played out, as thousands of nomads are leaving — though not all of them. Atop a hillside beside Gyaring Lake, nomads have built a tower where people pray to the dragon for rain. Mining and fishing are now banned. Tsende hopes the dragon is satisfied; it is too soon to say if the drought is ending, but this year the rains have improved. He has no plans to leave and has managed to buy the newest nomad status symbol, a motorcycle.
“I think the warmer, the better,” he said of rising temperatures. “Then, there will be more grass.”
Mr. Liu, the scientist, is less sanguine. The entire source region of the river, stretching across different areas of Qinghai, accounts for roughly 40 percent of the water supply in the Yellow River. Rainfall can vary, he said, but other climate trends suggest that the threat to the source of the Yellow River is not going away.
“If the trends that we’re seeing up near the source continue — that the climate is getting dryer and hotter — the river will keep drying up,” he said.
Irrigating the Desert
The tiny, diamond-shaped region known as Ningxia could be the Rhode Island of China. It accounts for less than 1 percent of the country’s population and less than half a percent of its land mass. The terrain is arid and mountainous, and in recent years has been gripped by drought. Not surprisingly, per capita, few places drink more lustily from the Yellow River.
The Yellow River has allowed Ningxia to defy reality for centuries: rice paddies soak in the desert; sunflowers stare up at skies that almost never rain. Today, farmers repeat a phrase handed down for generations, “Tian Xia Huang He Fu Ningxia,” or “The Yellow River Is a Great Gift for Ningxia.”
But is Ningxia a great gift for the rest of China?
Water shortages are at crisis level in many regions. About 400 of China’s 600 cities lack an adequate supply for future growth , and many are now making do by draining underground aquifers to dangerously low levels. Some coastal cities are building desalination plants to turn seawater into drinking water. Over all, China has one of the lowest per capita water supplies in the world and one of the most uneven distributions of water. Northern China is home to 43 percent of the population but only 14 percent of the country’s water supply.
To address that imbalance, the government has begun work on a grandiose, and controversial, “South-to-North” transfer project, which would pump water along channels from the Yangtze River in southern China to replenish the country’s thirsty north, including the Yellow River.
Officials say they believe the plan, potentially the most expensive public works project ever in China, is the best hope for maintaining economic growth in the north, but critics point to practical and environmental concerns, and are fighting to block plans for a channel through Qinghai.
Ningxia, while far too small to blame for the country’s water travails, typifies the challenges China will face as it weighs logic against history in parceling out water. The village of Yingpantan lies in the Yinchuan Plain, a lush green stripe carved by centuries of irrigation. Rice paddies, wheat, corn and groves of red berries known as gouqi provide farmers a comfortable livelihood in a region where rain may fall twice a year.
“We used to be poor, now we are not,” said a farmer, Yang Fengyin, 52. “Water is not a problem here. On the banks of the Yellow River, we’ve never run out of water.”
Told about water problems elsewhere in China, including along many sections of the Yellow River, Mr. Yang was unconvinced. “It’s a rumor,” he said.
Yingpantan Village, built inside the bed of the river, exists solely because during the 1960s the Communist Party under Mao built a dam upstream in neighboring Gansu Province that harnessed the river below. A few doors away from Mr. Yang, a young man studying for the college entrance exam, Chen Shuangquan, told a story that has become family lore, of the raging Yellow River forcing the family onto the rooftops during the 1940s until Mr. Chen’s grandfather, then a young soldier, returned by raft to rescue his relatives.
For the younger Mr. Chen, the tale became a morality play in which the untamed river was a destructive villain and dams were the savior.
“The dams have protected our way of life,” said Mr. Chen, 20, standing less than a mile from the river as mosquitoes swarmed in the humid July air and dusk summoned his neighbors back from the fields.
Dikes and irrigation in Ningxia trace to the beginning of dynastic rule, when the Qin rulers who unified China in 221 B.C. built irrigation for soldiers garrisoned on some of the earliest sections of the Great Wall. Farmers still plant rice on the same paddies tilled roughly 2,000 years ago.
Throughout history the Yellow River has spawned floods, and emperors who could not protect the people were said to have lost heaven’s mandate to rule. The Communist Party has built more dams than any dynasty, and the river is now a top-to-bottom plumbing project that many environmentalists fear is being plumbed to death.
For several years during the 1990s, the river ran so low that it failed to reach the sea. For the moment, engineers have corrected that problem, but the dams and dikes have accentuated a different one: the river is rising into the sky. The huge amount of sediment washing downstream is now pinched by so many dikes and interrupted by so many dams that it is pushing the bed of the river upward, which means as the river goes up, so must the height of dams to prevent floods.
In Ningxia, generations of farmers in villages like Yingpantan have paid no attention to how much water they drained from the river. Their work fulfilled a national priority still evident today, as some Chinese officials sometimes voice fears of China being unable to feed itself. More recently, though, different fears — of not enough water — have prompted the introduction of local conservation efforts. In Yingpantan and nearby villages, irrigation schedules are now announced over public loudspeakers. Rice paddies have been banned in some areas.
But conservation also assumes that demand will not grow, and demand in Ningxia is driven by desperation. Drought is written on the landscape of the arid, lifeless mountains beyond the river’s reach; the name of one mountain village, Hanjiaoshui, roughly translates as Shout for Water. Conservation is becoming a national priority but a recent drought has made finding water a matter of survival for many people in Ningxia.
“People are starving and have no way of living up there,” said Wang Qirong, 64, a farmer in Yingpantan. “You just can’t let people starve. If we have water, we should take it into the mountains in trucks.”
People are already coming down from the mountains. A short drive north of the village, Ma Junqing, a grandfather in a threadbare gray Mao suit, said drought forced him to leave two years ago. He said 100 families from his home county were now leasing wasteland just beyond the edge of the river’s irrigation system. They have built water channels to turn sand into soil, and soil into survival. “There is absolutely nothing in my hometown,” Mr. Ma, 56, said. “It didn’t rain. If it rains, you eat. If it doesn’t rain, you don’t eat.”
Thirsty Factories, Dirty Air
Down a potholed street leading into an industrial park, a brick building that was once part of a forced labor camp is now another sort of prison: the small sundries shop where Zhang Yueqing lives amid the choking pollution of one of China’s newest industrial corridors.
Hulking factories spew blue smoke as hunched men shovel minerals into the red glow of open pit furnaces. They are making coke, silicon and other raw materials to be shipped elsewhere in China, as well as to Europe, Japan, South Korea and the United States. Furnace ash is spread over empty lots like black icing over a cake.
“If you are here in the morning, you’ll see an inch of coal dust on the ground,” said Mr. Zhang, 54. “We cough a lot. At night, sometimes the smoke is so thick that you can turn on your car lights and you still can’t see where you are going.”
His wife, Chen Fengying, 53, added: “We can’t plant anything. We can’t plant tomatoes or hot peppers. They cannot grow.”
The industrial park sits along the river in the region that joins Ningxia and Inner Mongolia, part of an industrial colossus built in less than six years on the arid, water-starved land surrounding the city of Wuhai.
“The kind of development that is happening is abnormal,” said Chen Anping, an advocate for restoring grasslands in Inner Mongolia. “There’s no way this can be sustained. There are not enough resources.”
With one important exception: coal. The northernmost route of the Yellow River courses through the center of China’s coal country. Under the planned economy in 1958, the central government founded Wuhai in the rocky terrain as the coal supplier for the state-owned steel maker, Baotou Steel.
But the collapse of the planned economy almost meant the collapse of Wuhai. By the early 1990s, local officials were debating how to save the city and built three coal-fired power plants to provide electricity to the east. But the city still needed jobs. So officials recruited investors to build the energy-intensive, heavy polluting industries that other regions no longer wanted.
“We told them we have cheap coal, cheap electricity, and if they came and invested here, we could give them land on credit,” said an official in the Wuhai environmental bureau, who explained the city’s history but asked not to be identified for fear of official reprimand.
The strategy worked. Before 1998, Wuhai had four factories. Now, it has more than 400. Wuhai became an industrial model for nearby cities like Shizuishan. In June, the New China News Agency reported that more than $50 billion in industrial development was planned for the 500-mile stretch of the river in Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. Experts estimated that industrial demands for water would quintuple by 2010.
Many investors had arrived in Wuhai with a frontier spirit, heeding the government’s call to develop the west while enticed by the prospect of big profits.
“A lot of people came here and invested their own savings,” said one factory owner who had been in the region for five years. “But they didn’t know it would reach such a scale and that the environmental problems would become so bad.”
Decades of strip mining had already transformed some parts of coal country into vast tracts of denuded wasteland. Rapid industrialization made Wuhai a pollution nightmare. The Yellow River itself was already one of the most polluted rivers in the world. But suddenly clouds of polluted air were drifting hundreds of miles east to Beijing. When a reporter visited the region in late July, the air was so polluted that raindrops left black spots on car windshields.
“The government is in a tough position here,” said the factory owner. “They had nothing. They had to build infrastructure and improve people’s lives. Without these factories, there is nothing.”
This spring, the severity of the pollution problem finally forced official action. The State Environmental Protection Administration closed scores of smaller, dirtier coke factories. Local regulators demanded that other factories install better pollution equipment or face closing.
Some investors felt betrayed. One woman who had invested $1.2 million to build a coke factory but who had no money left to install antipollution equipment committed suicide after it was closed.
But the Wuhai environmental official said the city could no longer ignore pollution. “We are taking it seriously,” he said.
From his vantage point inside the industrial park about an hour from Wuhai, the shopkeeper, Mr. Zhang, said factories belched pollution without restraint. People digging wells now must dig about 260 feet deeper because factories have drained so much underground water. He said local officials did little to stop them.
“They want to collect taxes and attract investment,” he said.
Mr. Zhang said factory managers were adept at duping environmental inspectors. Often, he said, they are tipped in advance of a surprise inspection.
“When someone comes from the prefecture or the provincial government, the owners shut the factories two days in advance,” he said. “Environmental protection costs money.”
A short drive away, a cluster of factories lined a stretch of the Yellow River. Outside one factory, a faded propaganda slogan promised, “Environmental Protection Is Our Country’s First Priority.”
Local residents had said factories sometimes operated at night to avoid environmental oversight. At 6:49 p.m., almost all of the smokestacks were silent. But as the sun later fell behind the Helan Mountains, the silence was broken: 17 smokestacks had just begun a long night’s work.
New Cities Scour for Water
From her fashionable apartment in one of the newest high-rises in the city of Zhengzhou, Peng Guihang is eating a bowl of dumplings in her enclosed balcony. A basketball game is playing on her flat-screen television. Her laptop is open on her marble coffee table. The only thing missing is neighbors. Mrs. Peng and her family are among the first tenants in the unfinished district known as the “new city” of Zhengzhou.
“There is not much here yet,” said Mrs. Peng, seemingly not too worried. “The shops will probably open in two or three years.”
Mrs. Peng is embarrassed by the suggestion that she is living the new Chinese dream, but she is part of a new consumer class that must grow and prosper for China to keep rising. It is for people like her that “new cities” are being built across the country. The view outside her apartment would be astounding if it were not common in many Chinese cities: a horizon filled with rising towers, each 25 stories or taller; a sleek exhibition center built beside an artificial lake splashed with colorful schools of carp; a half-built arts center resembling five massive concrete eggs. Construction cranes filling the sky in all directions.
The end of the Yellow River is still a few hundred miles downstream, but this is the destination China is trying to reach — a nation of peasant farmers transformed into a modern, urban country. And yet so many cities are expanding so quickly, at the same time, and often following much the same blueprint, that China’s urbanization rush has alarmed national leaders and raised fears of overheating. One recent gathering of city planners found that more than 100 cities aspire to become major international cities, while more than 30 cities have requisitioned millions of acres of land to build central business districts.
“Some local officials really don’t understand how to properly urbanize,” said Lu Dadao, a Beijing scholar who specializes in urbanization. “They want it to happen fast, and they want it to be big. They have all taken up urbanization without considering what the natural speed of it should be.”
Along the Yellow River, major cities, and many smaller ones, are in the throes of construction booms, competing to emerge as dominant cities. In Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia, officials are spending about $1.2 billion a year to build a government complex across hundreds of acres. It includes a huge provincial legislature, provincial ministry buildings, a government-owned five-star hotel, a residential compound for foreign entrepreneurs and an outdoor People’s Plaza that can accommodate 30,000 people.
This is a common development blueprint in second-tier Chinese cities: use government money to build government districts in hopes that they will become the equivalent of anchor tenants to attract private real estate development.
“Provincial leaders decided that Yinchuan represents the province,” said Jiang Guanglin, chief of the Yinchuan Construction Bureau. “They want to make it a bigger, more powerful and more beautiful city. They want it to be a regional center.”
But so does Lanzhou, the nearby capital of Gansu Province. And so does Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, which is on a tributary of the Yellow River. In Luoyang, just a few hundred miles east of Zhengzhou, officials are finishing a government complex as well as apartment and office towers and a sports complex with four arenas for basketball, cycling, target shooting and swimming, as well as a soccer stadium.
Rapid urbanization is already transforming the Yellow River region. Population in the region has nearly tripled since the 1950s. Government statistics show that roughly four billion gallons of wastewater are dumped into the river every year, double the amount from two decades ago. Every growing city, each trying to lure people and industry, is scouring for water. Some are building reservoirs; others are draining so much water from underground aquifers that several cities have reported serious land subsidence.
This summer, the State Council, China’s equivalent of a cabinet, approved national regulations to improve controls over the Yellow River and better regulate water use, partly by raising prices. But officials agree that regulations alone are not enough to compensate for the rapidly rising demand for water. Water saved from farming must be diverted to industry. And cities along the river want to grow like cities on the country’s prospering coast, even though the Yellow River region has none of the same natural advantages.
“The capacity of the river hasn’t changed,” said Su Maolin, a senior engineer with the Yellow River Conservancy Commission. “There is only so much water they can use. It’s already at the maximum capacity of usage.”
The “new city” where Mrs. Peng lives is fashioned after the famed Pudong, the swamp-turned-financial district in Shanghai. In 1992, an elderly Deng Xiaoping visited undeveloped Pudong and exhorted China to build faster and bigger. What followed was an economic explosion that has changed the world. But China’s new leaders are no longer encouraging projects like Pudong. They are trying to tamp down on a runaway economy by ordering provinces to build slower and more judiciously, while cracking down on the corruption endemic to so many projects.
Indeed, so many large construction projects are so infused with corruption that urbanization has become a get-rich scheme for many officials. In the first six months of this year, Chinese prosecutors secured convictions in 1,608 major bribery cases, in which officials accepted kickbacks to facilitate construction projects. A senior official in Beijing was sentenced to death, and then given a reprieve, for embezzling state highway construction funds. In June, a Beijing vice mayor in charge of Olympic construction was removed for embezzlement and kickbacks related to non-Olympic projects.
In Zhengzhou, central government investigators in September found that city officials illegally seized — and then resold, at a handsome profit — thousands of acres of land for a “university town” adjacent to the “new city” project. A month earlier, investigators used satellite technology and found 654 examples of illegal land grabs for construction projects, mostly for local government projects.
This messy, chaotic process is ultimately supposed to help China reach its goal of becoming a “well-off society” by 2040. Mrs. Peng, the tenant in the Zhengdong “new city,” is excited about her family’s new apartment, if reluctant to call herself affluent. Her husband owns a landscaping business, and they are trying to save for college for their two high-school-age sons.
“I’m not one of the rich people,” Mrs. Peng said modestly, looking around her stylish apartment. “This is just very ordinary.”
Her own parents could never have dreamed of such a home, though. Her father worked in the post office and was killed during the Cultural Revolution. She recalled the terror of Red Guards breaking into homes to threaten and harass people. Her widowed mother had to rear five children, and did so without begging. Each has done well — a brother in real estate, another brother working in Beijing, a sister working as a teacher.
“We’re all doing fine,” Mrs. Peng said. She predicts that her neighborhood will be bustling by the year’s end. Her building is apparently already sold out. Others are less certain. Local television stations are filled with advertisements promoting the “new city.” They say the district is the future.
Mrs. Peng, meanwhile, watches through her window as a friend in an adjacent building renovates an apartment. “I can see she has almost finished renovating,” she said. “But I haven’t had the courage to go see it. I don’t want it to be better than mine.”
Jake Hooker and Lin Yang contributed to this article.
October 1, 2006 (New York Times)
Often Parched, India Struggles to Tap the Monsoon
SURAT, India — Early on a Monday morning during the August monsoon, after several days of torrential rains, the engineers in charge of a massive dam about 50 miles upstream from this diamond-polishing hub faced a harrowing crisis.
With water brimming well past the permitted levels at the 350-foot Ukai Dam, according to official records, and the skies showing no sign of relief, the engineers apparently threw open the reservoir’s 21 sluice gates. Water then did what water does. It surged downriver, swallowing this city of three million people like a hungry beast. The diamond lanes of India became a warren of muck and ruin.
In less than three days, at least 120 people died. More than 4,000 animal carcasses were later hauled out of the mud. Two weeks after the floods, Surat’s diamond-polishing factories were practically empty of workers, who had fled fearing disease. An industry group estimated the losses at $60 million.
Exactly what happened in Surat is still under investigation. But the deluge has drawn new attention to a puzzle that is crucial to securing India’s future: how to harness and hold on to its rich but capricious rains.
The problem is a matter of bitter and enduring debate in this country — and the answer may hold a key to India’s prosperity. Every year, India is crippled by floods in some areas, even as it is parched in blighted corners elsewhere.
India’s average annual rainfall rate hovers at an abundant 46 inches, as much as Ireland’s. Yet growing water scarcity threatens both farms and cities. With the population hitting 1.1 billion, the amount of water available to each Indian is roughly the same as the amount available to the average Sudanese, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
India’s rains tend to come in short, furious bursts, meaning that much of that water escapes as untapped potential, washing into the sea and wreaking havoc on the fragile villages and flourishing cities that stand in its way.
India is likely to become even more vulnerable, environmentalists warn. Global climate change threatens to make weather patterns even more erratic. Steadily shrinking Himalayan glaciers will inexorably melt and rush down the flood plains.
Floods in India are already a perennial and costly affair, especially in human terms. The southwest monsoon killed 2,545 people in less than four months this year, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Part of the problem lies in India’s rapid and unruly development. As water demand has soared, the natural sponges of Indian cities — lakes, ponds, marshes, mangroves — have been lost to construction. Only a handful of city and state governments have lately begun to mandate rainwater harvesting to slowly replenish groundwater.
Moreover, the country faces a water storage crunch. Traditional small-scale Indian storage systems, from temple tanks to elaborate step-wells, have fallen into disrepair. China, a country with similar development issues, manages to store five times the water that India does per person, the World Bank estimates. But the Chinese government, with scant public debate, has moved thousands of people to make way for colossal water projects.
India, too, has tried. But here, in the world’s largest democracy, the big-money water solution — the big dam — has been the subject of rancorous disputes. Some projects have met resistance for decades.
Proponents say India must build many more reservoirs to meet its growing water and energy needs. India’s founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, under whose watch the Ukai Dam was built, called them “modern temples” of his newly sovereign nation. India has roughly 4,300 large dams, like the one east of Surat, and an additional 475 under construction.
Critics say that big dams have already proved too costly and too destructive, submerging villages and displacing people without adequate compensation.
They also argue that dams and irrigation canals, like so much Indian infrastructure, are so poorly maintained and managed that already they cannot hold all they are supposed to. According to government estimates, silt deposits make up 10 percent of total capacity. Because of declining rains, India today fills up its reservoirs two out of every three years.
When the Tapi River burst upon Surat on Aug. 7, its swollen waters broke through an already fragile concrete embankment near Abdul Bhai Patel’s apartment.
Eventually, the rising waters reduced Mr. Patel’s building to a pile of rubble and brick. His wife, Zulekha, was among nearly 40 people who were killed when the building collapsed.
“I screamed,” Mr. Patel recalled several days later, as he picked solemnly through the rubble in search of his passport. “No one heard me. There was water all around.” The river took away his only source of income, too — the auto-rickshaw that he plied on the streets of Surat.
Downstream, at the industrial park called Hazira, one of the country’s largest natural gas plants was forced to shut down. Several petrochemical plants shut down as well. The floodwaters reached as high as 18 feet at Hazira.
Government engineers who manage dams, including the Ukai, have the unenviable task of balancing the competing Indian curses of drought and deluge.
In dry years, they must take measures to store as much water as possible in the reservoir. In wet years, they must guard against drowning those who live downstream.
Whether state officials at Ukai could have taken any steps to forestall the flooding remains uncertain. The officials plead silence, citing a judicial inquiry under way.
Their critics are not silent. They argue that it was reckless to wait so long to discharge so much water, knowing it could submerge the city in a matter of hours, and they have pounced on the drowning of Surat as a model of all that is wrong with the way India uses its reservoirs.
“I call it a management failure,” said M. D. Desai, a retired state engineer who once worked at Ukai.
The reservoir was already well over 20 percent full by the time the rains began in July, critics note. Meteorological data forecasted heavy rains in early August. And dam officials should have known that a full moon, on Aug. 9, would bring high tides and further pinch the river’s ability to drain into the sea. The Hazira industrial complex, built on the estuary, also compromises the river’s ability to drain out.
Often, the wasted water is a double hit to development: Not only does it go unused, it destroys everything in its path, setting back both industry and infrastructure. In Surat, the outpouring of the Ukai Dam snapped electricity and phone lines, and suspended train service and commerce.
The Business Standard, an English-language daily, fumed in an editorial, under the headline “Man-Made Floods,” a few days after the deluge.
“Releasing the water in a rush at the monsoon time means that the stored water has gone completely waste, as runoff,” it read. “This is criminal profligacy with a scarce and precious resource.”
Modern India, urban and rural, continues to live at the whim of the monsoon.
For two-thirds of India’s farmers, who have no access to irrigation, a good monsoon is the difference between survival and penury. For fast-growing cities like this one, the monsoon lays bare the frailties of urban infrastructure.
This year, in the perennially drought-stricken agricultural region of Vidarbha, in central India, the monsoon was first tardy and then, unexpectedly furious. Those who had low-lying lands lost their crops entirely. In the western state of Rajasthan, a fluke downpour turned desert to lake.
In the cities, troubles like those in Surat are spread all around, at accumulating costs. Last year, one day’s unusually heavy rains brought Mumbai, formerly Bombay and the country’s financial capital, to a standstill.
Trains stopped in their tracks. Cars were submerged, sometimes with people inside. Shanties were washed away. All told, 400 people died in the flooding, and then, 60 more, as cholera and dengue fever festered in its waterlogged streets.
Civic scrutiny fell on years of neglect and bad planning: the narrow storm drains bursting with the city’s waste; the slums sitting on the city’s floodplains; and the sprawling complex of financial services buildings that has eaten up mangroves.
In Surat, prosperity and population growth brought a surge of new development on the river’s edge. A city official acknowledged that expanding construction along the riverbank had made it impossible to put up flood walls in some places.
Any lessons will come too late for Tulsi Mistry, 14, and her family. Before dawn, on that fateful Monday in early August, when news of flooding first reached the Rivera Row Houses, they scrambled to higher ground.
From her perch on the roof, Tulsi watched as the river rose and devoured her city. A refrigerator and washing machine coursed down her street. A body floated in the park up the road.
Tulsi and her family ended up virtually stranded on their rooftop terrace for a week. They ate whatever was left in the pantry and shared with neighbors. They drank what was stored in the rooftop tank, forgoing a bath for seven days.
Picture caption: Flooding is a perennial problem in India. A flood in Surat killed at least 120 people in August and caused damage estimated at $60 million.
September 18, 2006 (Reuters)
“Water Wars” loom? But none in past 4,500 years
By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent
With a steady stream of bleak predictions that “water wars” will be fought over dwindling supplies in the 21st century, battles between two Sumerian city-states 4,500 years ago seem to set a worrying precedent.
But the good news, many experts say, is that the conflict between Lagash and Umma over irrigation rights in what is now Iraq was the last time two states went to war over water.
Down the centuries since then, international rivals sharing waters such as the Jordan River, the Nile, the Ganges or the Parana have generally favored cooperation over conflict.
So if history can be trusted, things may stay that way.
“The simple explanation is that water is simply too important to fight over,” said Aaron Wolf, a professor at Oregon State University. “Nations often go to the brink of war over water and then resolve their differences.”
Since the war between Lagash and Umma, recorded on a stone carving showing vultures flying off with the heads of defeated Umma warriors, no wars have been fought and 3,600 international water treaties have been signed, he said.
Yet politicians regularly warn that water shortages caused by surging populations and climate change could trigger conflicts this century in a world where a billion people in developing countries lack access to clean drinking water.
“Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in 2001. The English word “rival” even comes from the Latin “rivalis” meaning “someone sharing a river.”
Other experts say international “water wars” are unlikely.
“I don’t really expect wars over water because … the benefits of collaboration are so great,” said Frank Rijsberman, head of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
And still others say water might be one factor in future conflicts. Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), says this is particularly true in border regions where countries share rivers.
“I am not somebody who believes that our third world war will be over water, but I think the potential for conflict will grow as we are faced with water scarcity,” he told Reuters.
Rijsberman led a U.N.-backed report in August that said one in three people lives in a region where water is scarce and that demand could almost double by 2050 — led by farming which absorbs 74 percent of all freshwater used by humans.
Planting extra crops to produce biofuels and global warming — which could bring more erosion, droughts and floods — could add new pressures, the report said. But it added that there was enough water to go around, with better planning.
“If there is a war between two countries the 15th reason could be water but the first 14 reasons will have absolutely nothing to do with water,” said Asit Biswas, head of the Third World Center for Water Management in Mexico City.
“But if I want to get in the media the easiest thing is to say that a water war is about to break out in the Middle East,” he said. “The last war over water was thousands of years ago.”
A problem, he said, was that water was often viewed as a commodity like oil, which cannot be re-used. Water in the Colorado River, for instance, can get used seven times for hydropower, drinking water or irrigation.
The academics’ view is not shared everywhere.
“If we don’t address the water issue in the Middle East in a coherent way there will be a war. There’s scarcity and when it comes to water it’s a matter of life,” said Shadad Attilik, a Palestinian who conducts water negotiations with Israel.
He said vital aquifers in the Gaza Strip were being polluted and causing health problems. “If you see a Palestinian with yellow teeth you know he comes from Gaza,” he said.
Experts note that violence over water often breaks out within countries — over rivers, lakes, oases or wells.
In Kenya, dozens of people died early this year in fighting between nomadic tribes over scant water and grazing rights. Tamil Tiger rebels were accused of shutting off sluices in Sri Lanka in August in their separatist war with government forces.
Steiner said countries most vulnerable to water scarcity included already conflict-prone Chad, Sudan and Somalia, as well as Ethiopia, parts of Pakistan, south India and China.
“We must work very fast in the next few decades to ensure that nations have a shared approach to deal with water scarcity,” he said, calling this a priority for UNEP.
HOW WOULD YOU WIN?
In the five decades to 1999, Wolf’s research (http://www.transboundarywaters.orst.edu/) indicates there have been no wars and just 37 military acts over water between states — 30 of them involving Israel and its neighbors.
Among signs of cooperation, Israel and Jordan held secret talks about managing the Jordan River from the 1950s, even when they were technically at war. The Indus River commission kept going despite wars between India and Pakistan.
Among military acts, Israel in the 1960s destroyed Syrian construction on the headwaters of the Jordan River which was part of a project to divert waters for an “all-Arab” water plan.
But those predicting future “water wars” should also consider another problem: how do you secure victory?
“If you conquer territory to gain control over a river you still have to provide water to people living there,” said Anders Jaegerskog of the Stockholm International Water Institute. “It’s very difficult to imagine how you win a water war.”
(Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis in Geneva)
Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.
August 10, 2006 (BBC news)
The cost of Sri Lanka’s water war
After two weeks of intense fighting, water finally began flowing again this week in the Maavilaru waterway in eastern Sri Lanka.
By Ethirajan Anbarasan
For the time being, farmers in the government-held areas in Trincomalee district may heave a sigh of relief as the Tamil Tiger rebels have finally relented to lift the water blockade that has been at the root of their bitter fight with government forces in the region.
But the fear of a fully-fledged conflict developing if neither side backs down from their aggressive military postures remains.
The fighting was described by the rebels as an attempt “to highlight the Tamil civilian misery” and by the government as “a humanitarian mission to release water for civilians”.
According to various estimates, nearly 50,000 people have been displaced from the Muttur region, which bore the brunt of the fighting.
Now the rebels say that over 40,000 people have been displaced from areas under their control because of the continuing shelling by government forces.
In the meantime, both sides claim victory.
The Sri Lankan authorities assert that they have beaten back the rebels from Muttur and have captured the Maavilaru waterway from the rebels.
The rebels, on the other hand, say they took the army head on. And they say they still control the waterway.
“The Tamil rebels have shown their offensive and defensive capabilities in this battle but their blocking of water has backfired on them,” says Sri Lanka analyst DBS Jeyaraj. “It’s not been good propaganda.”
The Norwegian facilitators appeared to have achieved a breakthrough last week when they convinced the rebels to open the waterway.
But the government’s decision to bombard rebel positions, even as the ceasefire monitors and the rebels were trying to open the sluice gates, also came in for criticism.
“It is quite obvious they are not interested in water. They are interested in something else,” Tommy Lekenmyr of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission was quoted as saying. “We will blame this on the government.”
Despite claims by some Sri Lankan officials, reports from the ground suggested that the military was beaten back on several occasions when they attempted to capture the waterway, much to the embarrassment of the top brass in Colombo.
Counting the costs
The rebels proved that they could take on the numerically superior Sri Lankan army in a conventional battle even in the eastern region, which was considered as their weak link.
But thousands of civilians are still counting the costs.
Scores of civilians have died in the crossfire in the Muslim-dominated Muttur area and a large number have fled their homes. Reports said thousands of people, including women and children, were forced to walk for nearly two days without food and water.
While severely criticising the government for failing to protect them, many displaced civilians bitterly recount the harsh treatment meted out to them by the Tamil rebels.
Muslim leaders have also demanded the release of many of their community members allegedly detained by the rebels.
The Tigers have denied all these accusations. And they say they withdrew from Muttur town as they had achieved their objective of exerting military pressure on the security forces.
The Tigers have chequered relations with the Muslim community and they would have found it difficult to hold on to Muttur town which is dominated by the community.
Militarily the rebels have may have scored a point, but they have lost out on the support of the Muslim civilians in the region.
Meanwhile the fighting in the Maavilaru waterway area continues.
The Tamil rebels have already made it clear that any more attacks on them will be considered “an act of war”
What some analysts fear is that the rebels may end up opening new fronts elsewhere in the north-east to divert the military – and then the de facto war could become official.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/08/10 11:51:10 GMT
© BBC MMVI
September 9, 2005 (Reuters)
World seen winning battle of water scarcity
By Michael Byrnes
The world is gradually winning its battle to overcome drinking water shortages through better resource management, an international conference on rivers held in Australia this week heard.
But while countries including Australia and China begin to tackle problems caused by over-damming, diverting and polluting rivers, dangers are looming elsewhere, including in India.
“We’re beginning to manage our rivers a lot better with integrated water resource management,” Dr Selina Ward, a marine scientist with the University of Queensland and convenor of Riversymposium 2005, said in a telephone interview from Brisbane.
“This is occurring all over the world or at least an attempt is being made to have this happen throughout the world. (Still), areas like India are continuing to build a lot more dams when other countries in the world are beginning to … pull them down,” she said.
“There’s that area of conflict where in many countries dams are seen as essential to the survival of the population.”
In India, the world’s second most populous nation, two key states have agreed to start the first stage of a $200 billion plan to link India’s rivers. But critics have condemned the scheme as a recipe for ecological disaster.
The first stage involves building a 230 km (145 mile) canal diverting water from the Ken river to the Betwa in northern Madhya Pradesh and building a dam and small hydroelectric plant in the middle of the Panna tiger reserve, one of the most successful.
The United Nations estimates nearly 2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, the conference was told.
But among the 430 delegates from about 40 countries there was optimism that better management was beginning to ease the problem.
“Running out of water isn’t the problem. We just need to be more careful about the way we manage it,” Ward said, citing increased efficiencies in irrigation and better recycling of urban water.
Water scarcity had become an issue partly because of increased pollution.
“In many areas, particularly in Asia, we have plenty of water, but we don’t have plenty of good water that can be used,” Ward said.
She rated China’s record on water management a “mixed bag,” with some good achievements.
The Yangtze River, with its Three Gorges Dam, flood mitigation work and better flood forecasting, was one example.
Other rivers in China had done “fabulous” restoration work.
In recent years, about 200 factories had been removed from one river’s banks, many people had been moved and re-settled in less polluting areas, and toilets that once discharged straight into the river had been removed.
“It’s a mix. An enormous amount of work on a grand scale has been done, with millions of people involved. Those sort of projects happen now,” she said.
But China also had such serious problems that water transfer, or diverting rivers, was sometimes needed when they would not be considered elsewhere.
Rising salinity in many places, including Australia, together with climate change, were adding to pressure on water supplies.
But water-use limits placed on Australia’s large-scale cotton industry, a major user of irrigated water, is one example of tighter water management designed to counteract shortages and pollution.
Australian scientist Michael Rose from the University of Sydney was also developing techniques to remove pesticides from cotton tail-water with bio-filtration, using native plants and wood chips, the conference was told.
Copyright © 2005 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.
August 25, 2004
Science Magazine: Asia Farmers Sucking Continent Dry
By Andrew Cawthorne
LONDON (Reuters) – Asian farmers drilling millions of pump-operated wells in an ever-deeper search for water are threatening to suck the continent’s underground reserves dry, a science magazine warned on Wednesday.
“This little-heralded crisis is repeating itself across Asia and could cause widespread famine in the decades to come,” London-based New Scientist said in a report on scientists’ findings at a recent water conference in Sweden.
The worst affected country is India.
There, small farmers have abandoned traditional shallow wells where bullocks draw water in leather buckets to drill 21 million tube wells hundreds of meters (yards) below the surface using technology adapted from the oil industry, the magazine said.
Another million wells a year are coming into operation in India to irrigate rice, sugar cane and alfalfa round-the-clock.
While the $600 pumps have brought short-term prosperity to many and helped make India a major rice exporter in less than a generation, future implications are dire, New Scientist said.
“So much water is being drawn from underground reserves that they, and the pumps they feed, are running dry, turning fields that have been fecund for generations into desert,” it said.
Tushaar Shah, head of the International Water Management Institute’s groundwater station in Gujarat, said there was no control over the expansion of pumps and wells.
“When the balloon bursts, untold anarchy will be the lot of rural India,” he said at the annual Stockholm Water Symposium.
Shah said Indian farmers were taking 200 cubic kilometers of water out of the earth per year, with only a fraction of that replaced by the monsoon rains.
SUICIDES AND POWER-CUTS
“The same revolution is being replicated across Asia, with millions of tube wells pumping up precious underground water reserves in water-stressed countries like Pakistan, Vietnam, and in northern China,” the New Scientist report said.
In China’s breadbasket, the northern plain, 30 cubic kilometers more water is pumped to the surface each year than is replaced by rain, it said. Officials have said water shortages will soon make China dependent on grain imports.
Vietnam has quadrupled its number of tube wells in the past decade to 1 million, while water tables are plunging in the Pakistani state of Punjab, which produces 90 percent of the country’s food, New Scientist added.
In India, “farmers have invested some $12 billion in the new pumps, but they constantly have to drill deeper to keep pace with falling water tables,” it said.
Meanwhile, half of India’s traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already dried up, “bringing a spate of suicides among those who rely on them.”
Another consequence is electricity blackouts, reaching “epidemic proportions” in some Indian states where half of the power is used to pump water from up to a kilometer down.
To counter the water crisis, some states are placing small dams across river beds in a bid to replenish groundwater by infiltration, and Hindu priests are organizing farmers to capture monsoon rains in ponds, the report said.
But the Indian government has gone cool on a proposed $200 billion River Interlinking Project to redistribute water round the country. “In any case, the water supplied would probably come too late,” New Scientist said.
August 20, 2004
Scientists Say Risk of Water Wars Rising
By Patrick McLoughlin
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – The risk of wars being fought over water is rising because of explosive global population growth and widespread complacency, scientists said on Friday.
“We have had oil wars,” said Professor William Mitsch. “That’s happened in our lifetime. Water wars are possible.”
Scientists at the World Water Week conference which began on Sunday in Stockholm said that ignorance and complacency were widespread in wealthier countries.
“I don’t know what will shake these regions out of complacency other than the fact there will be droughts, pestilence and wars that break out over water rights,” said Mitsch, professor of natural resources at Ohio State University.
Mitsch told Reuters potential flashpoints included the Middle East.
“Continuing on our present path will mean more conflict,” a report by International Water Management Institute (IWMI) said.
With the world’s population growing at exponential rates there was extreme pressure on water supplies to provide drinking water and food, said scientists at the Stockholm gathering.
“In 2025 we will have another two billion people to feed and 95 percent of these will be in urban areas,” said Professor Jan Lundqvist of Stockholm International Water Institute.
The answer was sustained investment in infrastructure.
An estimated $80 billion was invested each year in the water sector, but this needed to at least double, said Professor Frank Rijsberman, the IWMI’s director general.
“I think if I look at the numbers I can’t immediately see a way out over the next few years,” said IWMI report co-author Dr David Molden. “I think we will reach a real crisis.”
June 14, 2004 (Wall Street Journal)
To Save Water, China Lifts Price
Shortages Threaten Growth, So Government Is Ordering First Increases Since 1949
By PETER WONACOTT
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
BEIJING — In the past 50 years, China has gone from an aspiring Communist utopia to the land of a billion different business plans. But one constant has remained through the country’s economic transformation: cheap water.
Now, facing acute shortages and a true threat to future growth, the Chinese government this year is ordering local water bureaus across the country to lift the price of water for the first time since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. Officials believe it is a matter of national security.
“China’s water situation and economic security are very tightly linked,” says Wu Jisong, a senior official at China’s Ministry of Water Resources.
Among the many environmental strains created by China’s economic growth, water problems are perhaps felt most acutely and widely. From memory-chip plants in Shanghai to grain growers in the nation’s north, shortages are hindering production. Pollution poses health threats to wealthy urbanites and poor farmers alike. China’s challenge is tied up in raising prices steadily enough to encourage people to conserve water and to entice foreign companies to help overhaul creaky facilities, but not so steeply as to fuel inflation and turn people against the government.
A long era of heavy subsidies has allowed industry and ordinary citizens to waste water with few economic repercussions. But under the government’s new plan, local water bureaus this year will raise prices to what they deem the market can bear. Some have started, and cities including Beijing, which is especially short of water, plan marked increases. Within two years, Beijing plans to lift the price of water to 54 cents a ton, or nearly double the price it is now. Changing the capital’s habits is seen as crucial if Beijing is going to have enough water when it hosts the 2008 Olympics.
“We have two choices,” says Mr. Wu, the water official. “Raise prices and generate income, or not raise them and continue to suffer from shortages.”
Indeed, China is choking in a lot more places than Beijing. About two-thirds of China’s cities are short of water, according to the Ministry of Water Resources. In the cities, 90% of China’s rivers also are seriously polluted; in the countryside, 360 million residents aren’t able to drink water that meets normal sanitation standards, and water tables in the arid north are dropping.
China’s experiments with saving water go beyond lifting prices. The country is expanding water-rationing programs after test-piloting them in a handful of cities.
In the Southwest city of Mianyang, in Sichuan province, all water users receive a quota, and those that exceed it on a quarterly basis are charged higher prices. Some academics also are urging the government to allow farmers to sell the water they don’t use, a trading system that has apparently popped up in scattered Chinese villages to alleviate the burden of high water prices. The most controversial project is also the biggest: an effort to channel water from the nation’s largest rivers in the south to northern cities like Beijing and Tianjin. The South-to-North Water Transfer Project is expected to take 50 years to complete, at a cost of more than $60 billion.
“You never want to underestimate Chinese engineers,” says Ma Jun, author of “China’s Water Crisis.” “But it is not a very sustainable solution when you aren’t decreasing the demand for water and encouraging people to conserve it.”
The waste is staggering, and costly. About 20% of China’s urban water supply is lost through leaky pipes, the water ministry says. It figures that the nation’s factories use five to 10 times more water than factories in developed nations like the U.S. to produce an equal amount of goods. That means China needs to consume about four times the world average to generate about $1,200 of gross domestic product.
Spotting an opportunity, foreign companies have dived into China’s water market, with mixed results. Among the most aggressive is Veolia Water, the water-management division of Veolia Environment SA, which has invested €400 million ($480.5 million) in 11 water projects in China. “We don’t see any hurdles to expanding in China,” says Stephan Truchot, project finance director, Veolia Water Asia, a unit of the French water giant.
Likewise, ITT Industries Inc. of White Plains, N.Y., sees the market tide going its way. The company is supplying pumping equipment to projects ranging from the massive Three Gorges Dam to the relatively minuscule municipal water projects. As a result, ITT sees China as its fastest-growing market, with sales up 55% last year from a year earlier, with a similar pace expected this year. By 2006, ITT expectsto be earning $500 million a year in China, according to Mark Steele, ITT’s country chief.
“The price rise is going to encourage more infrastructure investment,” he says.
At the same time, other foreign companies’ experience points out the hazards of an evolving market and the difficulty of profiting from government-run projects. Britain’s RWE Thames Water, the world’s third-largest water provider, earlier this month said it was pulling out of a money-losing water treatment plant in Shanghai. The retreat followed the government’s decision to end a policy that guaranteed a 15% fixed rate of return on such projects.
“Foreign companies are obliged to share the risks,” says a spokesman for Shanghai Water Assets Management & Development Co., which oversees the industry. “Of course, their profits are slim at this moment with such low water prices, but the situation will improve.”
Some people say the moves are too little, too late. The prices are still too low and don’t prod some of the biggest industrial users of water to find innovative ways to conserve, argues John McAlister, whose company, Aqua BioTronic.com, is trying to interest local governments in high-technology water-recycling equipment. “Keeping prices low at less-than-prudent levels is a central fact of the Communist Party and isn’t going to be easy to change,” Mr. McAlister says.
Chinese officials acknowledge that water prices are politically sensitive and that the market is still immature. Change will come gradually, says the water ministry’s Mr. Wu. “The state will continue to control prices,” he adds. “Water rights are human rights.”
Copyright 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
August 3, 2003
Bangladesh Protests Indian Water Project
By AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
DHAKA, Bangladesh, Aug. 2 (Agence France-Presse) — A government minister said today that a multibillion-dollar Indian project to connect 37 of India’s rivers could threaten lives in Bangladesh, which is at the mouth of India’s major waterways. Bangladesh plans to lobby India to halt the project, he said.
“Definitely we will lodge a protest with New Delhi against its proposed plan,” Hafizuddin Ahmed, the water resources minister, said at a strategy meeting ahead of a global symposium on water management issues and international cooperation to be held in Sweden next week.
Mr. Ahmed, who said India had not officially informed Bangladesh of the plan, said Bangladesh’s government would also ask donors not to finance the project.
Experts in Bangladesh fear the project, which could be completed by 2016, would have serious repercussions here as major rivers flowing down from India, particularly the Brahmaputra, are crucial sources of fresh water.
Both India and Bangladesh are ravaged by chronic flooding in the monsoon season that kills hundreds each year.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
March 17, 2003 (New York Times)
A Province Is Dying of Thirst, and Cries Robbery
By ERIK ECKHOLM
GHARO, Pakistan, March 13 — Millions of people in southeastern Pakistan are seething with anger and despair — and not over the American threat to attack Iraq, the plight of fellow Muslims in Kashmir or the political role of the mullahs.
The life-and-death matter that has provoked hundreds of irate demonstrations in Sind Province in the last three years is water. More precisely, what farmers and politicians alike here charge is that “water robbery” has been committed by Punjab, the more powerful Pakistani province upstream.
“Punjab isn’t giving us the water we are owed and our lives are being destroyed,” said Muhammad Usman, a 40-year-old father of 10, who has received enough water this year to plant only one of his 50 acres. To keep his family alive he has opened a tea hut along the roadside, where he earns less than a dollar a day. “Of course we are angry at Punjab,” he said.
Mr. Usman is especially disconsolate this month because, in a fit of optimism, he paid $60 to plow a second acre in hopes of doubling his meager wheat crop. “I spent a lot of time and money on this plot but there just wasn’t enough water,” he said, crumbling the overturned earth in his hands.
With only inches of rainfall in the best of years and its underground waters saline, Sind would be a barren desert except for irrigation drawn from the Indus — a prodigious river that over the millenniums has supported grand, water-worshiping civilizations.
But after decades of dam and canal construction upstream, topped by several consecutive years of drought, the oversubscribed river carries no fresh water at all in its last 80 miles, instead offering a ribbon of useless salt water surging up from the Arabian Sea.
Millions of villagers are falling deeper into poverty as empty canals prevent them from planting crops, and even drinking water becomes scarce. At the same time, the lush valleys lining the banks of the Induszap, which have supported large settlements mixing cattle husbandry and crops, are turning to ghost landscapes.
The river’s broad, fertile delta is suffering ecological catastrophe. By official estimates, 1.2 million acres of farmland have been covered by the advancing sea while large additional areas are turning to salty desert. Biologically vital mangrove swamps are dying.
Since Pakistan split from India in 1947, the two countries have constantly argued about the division of the Indus and its tributaries. To the people of Sind, though, the main villain comes from within — the Punjabis, who tend to dominate the country’s military and government bureaus. The provincial water war is a prime example of the ethnic and regional fissures that weaken Pakistan, beyond the better-known clashes over Islamic fundamentalism and central control over defiant northwestern tribes.
In the Sindhi view, a series of internal agreements were imposed by outsiders and now those are being violated, too, as Punjab takes more than its legal share through the current years of drought.
Federal irrigation and power authorities deny the charges and insist they are fairly balancing national needs and the burdens of low rainfall. It is difficult for an outsider to sort through the decades-long tangle of accords and monthly canal allotments and judge the merits of competing legal claims, though the consequences in Sind are visible enough.
Pakistan would face a water crunch in any case because of its surge in population, from about 30 million when the country was founded in 1947, to 145 million today. Sind alone grew from 6 million to 40 million, bolstered by the arrival of huge numbers of immigrants from other ethnic groups in Karachi and other urban areas. That has left the region’s cities a different political universe from the Sindhi-dominated rural areas.
An outcry from Sind and environmental groups appears to have stopped a proposal to build a third giant dam on the Indus, which could save more water and produce more power but worsen the ecological damage. Adding to current Sindhi outrage, though, is the government’s support for yet another canal upstream, the Greater Thal, which will open up 1.5 million acres of Punjabi desert to farming at a time when Sindhi farmlands are famished.
“The Punjabi ruling classes just want Sind to be an appendage of Punjab,” said Rasul Bux Palijo, the founder of Awami Tahreek, a Sindhi-based party with a significant following. “Now they have stopped the water in a hundred different ways and they’ve turned Sind into a desert.”
Leaders like Mr. Palijo know it is unrealistic to call for outright Sindhi secession (though the red flags of a repressed Sindhi secessionist movement are visible in small towns). Still, he and others draw ominous comparisons to 1971, when the disaffected Bengali people of East Pakistan broke away to form Bangladesh.
“At least the British were more impartial when they ruled this region,” Mr. Palijo said. “I think the people of Sind will have nothing to do with Pakistan if this problem isn’t solved.
The sense of a common enemy has united — on this issue at least — the owners of giant estates and the lowliest sharecroppers. “Punjab is flouting all our agreements,” charged Qamar Zaman Shah, president of the Sind Chamber of Agriculture, which represents large landowners. “The shortages are not being shared equally.”
Mr. Shah, speaking in his large, modern house in the city of Thatta, said that in recent years he had been able to plant only one-third of his holdings and had to spend a lot on diesel fuel to pump water up to the fields.
The devastation is more visible in the village of Muhammad Khan Jat, near the river’s mouth, where even the crudely built tea shops have been abandoned, a school building sits empty because the government teacher never showed up and villagers are fleeing for the cities.
“People here are living a miserable life now,” said Muhammad Juman, who looks older than his 50 years. “We can hardly scrape together a pound of flour to survive.”
“Just give us water and all our problems will be solved,” he said.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
December 9, 2002 (New York Times)
Grand Soviet Scheme for Sharing Water in Central Asia Is Foundering
By MICHAEL WINES
NUKUS, Uzbekistan — Forty years ago, when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin ordained a colossal task: to turn this heat-puckered land and four of its neighbors, a swath of desert and scrub as big as Western Europe, into an irrigated cotton plantation.
Improbably, it succeeded.
From the mountainous Chinese border to the Caspian Sea, the Soviet Union remade the two grand rivers of Central Asia, building 20,000 miles of canals, 45 dams and more than 80 reservoirs. The government turned sand and dust into one of the world’s great cotton-growing regions.
But the Soviet Union is long dead. And here in western Uzbekistan and in areas of its four neighbors, one of socialism’s most grandiose schemes is being sundered by capitalism, nationalism and a legacy of waste.
Without a bigger supply of water — or better use of it — an economic and social crisis seems to be awaiting the region of 58 million people, already racked by Islamic insurgencies and tamed by oppressive rule.
On a dusty plain outside this regional capital, one farmer, Yerken Kharpov, unshaven and lean in blue nylon track pants, looked out at the 80 acres of state-owned farmland that he tends, and tallied the misery. In 2000, his entire crop died for lack of water. In 2001, again lacking water, he grew but 10 acres of cotton. This spring, he tried again, with 15 acres of cotton and sunflowers.
Mr. Kharpov could give up, as he did three years ago, when he was a 28-year-old millworker, but without water, it is much harder to start fresh. “There are no other jobs,” he said. “Where would I go?”
Mr. Kharpov’s question is Central Asia’s. “We talk about the developing world and the developed world,” said Sarah O’Hara, a geographer at the University of Nottingham, England, who has studied the water problems here. “This is the deteriorating world.”
The five nations at work here — Uzbekistan along with its arid neighbors, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, and two mountainous ones, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — have drunk dry the natural flow of two great rivers, the Amu and the Syr.
Not Enough to Go Around
The craving for water has turned the Aral Sea, once the world’s sixth-largest inland ocean, into a shrunken, dust-shrouded necklace of lifeless brine lakes.
Still, the nations are thirsty. Their demand for water already exceeds the entire annual flow of the two rivers by 25 percent. Adding to the pressure, Afghanistan, whose right to river water was ignored during Taliban rule, is poised to reclaim a share of the bigger river, the Amu.
The five neighbors have swelling populations — growing 15 percent a decade, with a third of the residents 13 or younger. That presents their governments with the challenge of creating more jobs and growing more food, even as the water supply is divided ever more thinly.
They also are not keeping up the waterworks, causing more waste. In Soviet times, the Kremlin spent at least $60 an acre every year to keep the water systems in repair. Uzbekistan currently spends less than $25 an acre; Tajikistan, reeling from civil war, spends $4.
One result is an irrigation network beset by staggering waste. Now in disrepair, some parts waste more water than they deliver.
The Karakum Canal, an 837-mile man-made river in the Turkmenistan desert, appears from the air as a thin line fringed by a miles-wide band of weeds. The government admits that 28 percent of its water vanishes into the sands. Scientists put the figure closer to 60 percent.
The region grew used to free water, in profligate supply. One example is in the tiny village of Dzhalagash, along Kazakhstan’s shadeless southern border not far from the Syr’s banks. Here the rainfall averages just 5.9 inches a year, yet the preferred crop is rice.
Zhakhslyk Kabyrov, who runs a former Soviet collective farm, hired Korean advisers this year to help cut water consumption in his 250-acre rice plot. Still, he reckons he will use a stunning 740 million gallons, enough to fill 1,300 Olympic swimming pools, to flood paddies with ankle-deep water to produce the rice.
He can consume so much because rice is a profitable staple of local diets, and water, at about 65 cents per swimming pool, is ridiculously cheap. Arid Kazakhstan grows an astounding 160,000 acres of rice — 250 square miles of nothing but flooded paddies.
Uzbeks grow almost as much.
An obvious solution to such excess is to raise the price of water. But that could wipe out an entire class of small farmers who comprise a future capitalist class, while enriching the already wealthy. Moreover, controls over water use are so loose, thanks in part to ramshackle equipment, that fee dodging would probably be rampant. “If you were trying to save water, you wouldn’t grow rice,” said Philip Micklin, a retired University of Michigan geographer and a specialist on Central Asian water. “But look, it’s a management problem. Everyone makes choices. And sometimes it’s not even choices, it’s who grabs the most.”
A Regional Trade-Off
That is not how things were supposed to work. Instead, the Kremlin conceived an elegant trade-off, linking the mountains rich in wild rivers and glaciers with the arid plains, rich in gas, coal and oil.
And so, in the winter, the plains would send fuel to the mountains; in return, the mountains would hoard river water, then send it downstream for crops in the spring and summer.
The desert blossomed — and the Aral Sea became starved for water. A fishing industry that had employed 40,000 workers and supplied one-sixth of the Soviet catch also evaporated. So did a trapping industry that had netted a half million muskrat pelts a year from the lush Syr and Amu deltas.
Even so, central planners judged that the trade-off was a success, with its bounty from 10 million new acres of crops.
“It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo,” said Aleksandr Asarin, an expert at the Russian State Hydroproject Institute who angered his bosses by predicting, in 1964, that the sea was headed for catastrophe. “Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans,” he said, “even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.”
If one bought the notion that a sea as big as Lake Michigan was dispensable, then the trade-off worked — for a while. Cotton boomed, but over time overwatering and leaks left farmland too salty to support crops, and the river water, used and reused on its way downstream, became ever saltier and more laced with pesticides.
What ultimately caused trouble was the potent brew of independence, which collapsed the central control and socialist economics that underpinned the tradeoffs for so long.
One colossal hydroelectric power station, the Toktogul, in Kyrgyzstan, generated 10 billion kilowatt-hours of energy last year — enough to light the Seattle area.
Yet in the winter, and the winter before, Toktogul’s mighty turbines ran at idling speed, and rolling blackouts swept across Kyrgyzstan.
Toktogul’s operators were doing what they had done for decades: hoarding water for summertime farm needs in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, rather than generating power for Kyrgyz homes. The explanation is simple: they realize that failure to open their sluices in the summer would cause their neighbors economic chaos — and perhaps bring an army to their doorstep.
To forestall just such crises, the five nations signed an accord in the early 1990’s which essentially froze in place the water-distribution scheme of Soviet times.
For the Kyrgyz, however, the trade-off of free summer water for free winter fuel has been shattered. The plains states no longer return free fuel in the winter. They sell it at market prices, or trade it for a summer allotment of irrigation water based on a complex formula.
That leaves the Kyrgyz grumbling. In rainy years, when the plains states irrigate less, they are obliged to return less fuel in the winter, meaning that Kyrgyz citizens shiver. And in dry years, when the Kyrgyz are able to send less irrigation water downstream, the plains states also return less fuel in the winter. Again, Kyrgyz citizens shiver.
They also boil with resentment. “We’re losing more than $90 million a year, just from power losses,” said Dyushen Mamatkanov, director of the Institute of Water Problems in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. “Toktogul is the property of Kyrgyzstan. We should have the maximum economic effect from it.”
Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament agrees. Tired of enduring blackouts so Kazakh farmers could flood rice paddies, the legislators voted two years ago to authorize the government to charge outsiders for Kyrgyz water.
Kyrgyzstan’s government has yet to bill its neighbors. But it has pressed them to start picking up some of the cost of running hydroelectric dams and maintaining reservoirs that exist largely to serve farmers on foreign plains hundreds of miles away.
Tackling such troubles demands money — an estimated $40 billion for serious repairs to the five-nation waterworks — and what is more, agreement among five countries with very different notions of how the rivers’ bounty should be divided up.
For the moment, both are nearly as scarce as water itself.
Disputes rooted in disagreements over water rights in places like the Fergana Valley, a cotton-growing center, actually erupted into clashes that killed hundreds in the 1990’s.
But regional resentments and jealousies abound. Despite a pledge to curb the development of new irrigated farmland, Turkmenistan has proclaimed plans to irrigate 1.2 million new acres — and to create a “Lake of the Golden Turkmen,” equal to the annual flow of both the Syr and the Amu, to water them.
Kazakhstan is upset because the Syr is rife with salts and fertilizers by the time it has been channeled through the cotton fields of the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and dispatched downstream.
Uzbekistan was outraged in the mid-1990’s because Kyrgyzstan, home to the Syr’s headwaters, was sending too much water south in the winter, too little in the summer.
The Kyrgyz bridle at what they consider a near giveaway of river water flowing from their mountains to the fields of Uzbeks and Kazakhs. And tiny Tajikistan has submitted a proposal to increase its consumption of river water over the next two decades by an amount roughly equal to 10 percent of the two rivers’ combined flow.
In the charged atmosphere, water has yet to become a weapon. But it can easily become a blunt-edged bargaining tool.
Wielding Water as a Tool
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, for example, have a longstanding and often mangled accord to swap water for natural gas. In December 2000, the flow of Uzbek gas to Kyrgyzstan abruptly dwindled. Some say that Kyrgyzstan was in arrears, or that Uzbek gas pipes had frozen or, others suspect, because it was election eve, Uzbekistan was running short of heat in its capital, Tashkent.
Whatever the reason, Kyrgyzstan warned that if gas flows did not resume, it would open its reservoir sluices, flooding rich farmland downstream. Uzbekistan got the message. Gas deliveries resumed.
Officials in Central Asia’s labyrinthine water bureaucracy tend to argue that such tiffs are the exception. Leaders of the five ex-Soviet nations are united in their public commitment to divide the water equitably.
Mr. Asarin, the hydrologist who first predicted the Aral’s demise, has given up hope. The historic and economic pressures — to supply jobs and food; to make money from cotton exports; to trump one’s regional rivals — are just too great.
None of Central Asia’s water bureaucrats is savvier than Viktor Dukhovny, whose Interstate Commission on Water Coordination in Tashkent monitors the water uses of the five nations. Armed with a bank of computers, Mr. Dukhovny’s analysts can spit out plans by the dozens, factoring in endless variables.
He is a rare optimist. “We have enough water for the survival of all five states, even plus Afghanistan, if we will work together,” he said. Then he paused. “Of course, not forever,” he added. “Only up to 2025.”
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
August 27, 2002 (New York Times)
Chinese Will Move Waters to Quench Thirst of Cities
By ERIK ECKHOLM
DANJIANGKOU, China — The booming cities of northern China are parched and constrained by a growing shortage of water. Yet in China’s rainy south, the mighty Yangtze River pours vast volumes, unused, into the sea.
So why not, Chinese leaders have long asked, cross the country with new canals, bringing that “wasted” water to where it is vitally needed for the country’s progress?
In a world short of fresh water, one of the gravest challenges facing governments is that needs and supplies are often far apart. Now China, with water scarcity reaching the critical stage in sprawling showcase cities like Beijing and Tianjin, has embarked on one of history’s great water-moving projects.
At huge cost and great risk to the environment, the government plans to rechannel vast rivers of water from the Yangtze basin to the thirsty north, over three pathways of nearly 1,000 miles each. The official price tag of $58 billion, nearly half to be spent in the next eight years, is more than twice that of the Three Gorges Dam, China’s most recent mega-project now nearing completion.
Some officials speak of delivering new waters to a “green Beijing” in time for the 2008 Olympics, an indication of the political overtones of the project as well as the crash timetable.
“We have to sacrifice so that people in Beijing can drink water,” said Zhang Jize, a 32-year-old farmer and father of two daughters who is among 370,000 people the plan will uproot.
Such immense, centrally planned projects have been tried before, notably in Central Asia, where a Soviet-era plan has steadily drained the Aral Sea, turning what was one of the world’s largest inland bodies of water into a salty desert and providing a vivid illustration of the dangers of bending nature to economic needs.
But China, convinced of its future as a great power, believes the project is essential. Some have drawn parallels to the great water works of the United States, like the Tennessee Valley Authority that spurred rural development beginning in the 1930’s or, more appropriately, the canals that took northern waters to fuel fantastic growth in arid Southern California. But the Chinese project is on an even grander scale.
Like China’s construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which set off global debate, this latest venture raises a host of tough questions, including how to deliver clean water across one of the world’s most polluted landscapes.
Perhaps toughest of all, in a country where no good patch of land lies idle, is how to provide for those like Mr. Zhang and his family who will be moved.
For Mr. Zhang and many others who live around the Danjiangkou Reservoir — a linchpin of the new project — it is not the first time they are being displaced, and their travails parallel China’s expanding ambition to meet its water needs.
Some 30 years back, when Mr. Zhang was a toddler and the dam was first completed, he and his parents were sent from their fertile valley plot to a remote spot on the banks of the new lake, receiving little compensation for their troubles.
“Life is too hard here,” he recently told a visitor, gathering with his family in their house with walls of wood and packed earth, covered with old calendars and newspapers.
As the government makes its plans for a new mass move, bitterness survives from those earlier rounds of resettlements. Party leaders know that the issue could be explosive if not handled with more care than during past projects, including the Three Gorges Dam project, which will eventually displace more than a million people.
Chinese officials have often glossed over the challenges in public, and most planning has taken place entirely behind closed doors. But they and their scientists are working feverishly on a host of issues as construction of two routes is expected to begin in the coming year.
Northern cities have begun to raise water prices for consumers and reduce waste, vital steps if the project is to provide lasting solutions. Provinces, meanwhile, are already fighting over how the water will be shared, because some of the delivered waters will require expensive cleansing.
“If we’re given smelly water and Beijing receives all the clean water, it will be bad for our image and our living standards,” said a city engineer in Tianjin, a teeming city of 10 million that desperately needs new water but fears the expense.
The demand has become urgent throughout the densely populated north-central plains, home to metropolises like Tianjin and Beijing, with a population of 13 million, as well as dozens of smaller cities that are bursting with people and construction.
Over-pumping of groundwater in the region has forced people to probe deeper for wells every year, and in some areas has caused disastrous sinking of land. Urban consumers take scarce water from farmers, while planners warn of smothering new restrictions on industry.
Much of China’s arid northwest, at the same time, is turning into a dust bowl, its land destroyed by drought and overuse and its residents caught in desperate poverty.
3 Routes and Numerous Detours
Each of the three routes envisioned to bring water to these thirsty areas has its own challenges.
Of these, the western route is most tentative, with construction scheduled to start in 2010. It would channel water from upper tributaries of the Yangtze to China’s arid, needy northwest. But as it takes water from Tibetan regions it may stir political controversy, and it poses severe engineering challenges and awesome costs. The current estimates are $36 billion for this spur alone.
The eastern, coastal route is technically simple, though it will require 13 pumping stations, which will consume large amounts of electricity to lift water from near the mouth of the Yangtze to the higher north. It will save costs by following much of the same path as the ancient Grand Canal — second only to the Great Wall as a wonder of Imperial China — that once moved silk and rice from the south to Beijing.
The main challenge is pollution. The route cuts across many of the world’s most soiled river basins. Along the hundreds of miles of the canal that is still in use, it bustles with barges carrying sand, coal and other goods. Its shores are lined with primitive houseboats, home to hundreds of thousands of people who rely on the canal for work and waste disposal as well as living space. The waterway also receives untreated sewage from hundreds of nearby towns and villages and the effluence of thousands of factories.
“If you drink the water you get rashes and diarrhea,” said Cui Xiao, 38, who had docked his sand barge at Pizhou, within sight of the waste of a chemical fertilizer factory that gushed into the stream. “You can’t even use the canal water for washing.”
Some scientists are quietly asking how the coastal route can ever affordably deliver water that will be safe enough even for industry, let alone drinking.
The cleanup plans, to the extent they have been disclosed, stretch credibility. They include the forced closure of thousands of dirty factories that line the canal’s route, many of which are owned by local governments that have evaded controls in the past.
The government is also mobilizing to build sewage treatment plants in each of 119 counties along the canal, a leading water expert said, itself a mammoth undertaking in the hurried time frame.
The people who live on the canal all expressed hope that the water project would give them an economic lift. But the government has not said what is to become of this decrepit flotilla and the multitudes who live on or near the canal.
Along the final, central route, officials say that pollution will not be a problem. But there are other challenges.
This plan calls for diverting water north from the Han River, a tributary of the Yangtze, by constructing a new canal. But to do so the Danjiangkou dam and reservoir will have to be raised, displacing about 300,000 villagers in Hubei and Henan Provinces, like Mr. Zhang, the farmer.
Even then, many engineers say, the reservoir will not hold enough water both to feed the north and to meet regional needs. Its waters will have to be replenished by a new feeder canal, built across mountains at enormous expense, to bring water from the new Three Gorges Dam — in turn reducing its electrical capacity by 6 percent or more.
Waiting for Another Moving Day
Earlier this year, sign painters traveled along the banks of the Danjiangkou Reservoir and splashed a new slogan in big blue characters on village walls urging people to support “the project,” alongside the usual appeals to limit births, trust in the Communist Party and pay taxes.
Long aware of the water-transfer plans, hundreds of thousands of people near the reservoir have waited a decade or more in limbo, putting off home repairs or construction and sometimes postponing marriages.
Now, with that day apparently approaching, many are fearful.
Local television has carried announcements that people should prepare for orders to vacate homes, and county officials have taken a census of households and assessed property. But villagers still have heard nothing about the terms of the relocation.
There are not many options. The hilly region around the lake is badly overcrowded, and entire families live off less than an acre each. The new moves may cause destruction of forests and grasslands and will require costly efforts to bring safe drinking water, electricity and roads to those moved.
In the 1970’s, 270,000 people in rich valley lands had to make way for the reservoir as it was filled. Their compensation was paltry, if they received any at all.
Many are still fuming. Rao Fumin, a 58-year-old man whose family was moved first in 1958 and then three more times, can hardly contain his fury. “We were moved around like prisoners,” he said.
His legs now crippled by arthritis, Mr. Rao lives with his sister near the foot of the Danjiangkou Dam itself, subsisting on a monthly $12 welfare payment.
“We never see a cent of the resettlement money,” he said. “All these city, county, town and village officials stuff the money into their own pockets.”
If he doesn’t get more aid this year, he said, “I’ll hang myself at the gateway of the Danjiangkou City Party Committee.”
The comments suggest the potential for fresh anger facing a government that in any case sees little choice but to push ahead with the plan. Even many of those who will be most affected, like Mr. Zhang, are resigned.
“We don’t know when or where we’ll move, but we just hope we get some decent farmland,” Mr. Zhang said, exchanging a nervous glance with his wife. “We’re all just waiting to hear what will happen to us.
“This is central government policy,” he added stoically, “so it must be a good thing for the country.”
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company