FOUNDATION FOR NON-VIOLENT ALTERNATIVES (FNVA)
Presents its Regional Roundtable on: River Waters: Perspectives and Challenges for Asia
18th – 20th November 2011

Objective:

The objective of the conference is to assess the impacts of plans and projects for utlilisation of river waters in theTibet-Karakoram Himalaya (TKH) region and to offer a common platform for countries in the region and generate awareness and sense of urgency of the issues being addressed.

Urgency:

It is well known that water has in the recent past become a very volatile issue not only because of the increase in its requirement, but more importantly because of the depletion of natural resources. Therefore it becomes imperative that countries in Asia come together to discuss all related issues emphasising that water belongs to the entire humanity. It implies that strategies to be formulated must take into account the reasonable needs of all concerned to avoid any possible conflict in times to come. Countries in South Asia share a large quantity of water resources thus making this region more susceptible to water conflicts. On the other hand, this situation has the potential of creating opportunities for inter-state cooperation as well. Such co-operation can achieve better foreign relations, ensure national security as well as water security in a more efficient manner amongst the water sharing parties. There is thus a constant need for such a dialogue, and to achieve this objective, the Foundation for Non-violent Alternatives (FNVA) convenes a conference of international scientists- geologists, climatologists, glaciologists and other related disciplines, government’s representatives and members of the civil society in various affected countries.

Background:

Through the centuries many great river systems originating in the THK Region and Eurasia have been the cultural and economic backbone of South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia and Eurasia. The great rivers and their tributaries like the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawady, Salween, Mekong, Yangtse, Hwang Ho(Yellow River), Irtysh, Amu Darya, Syr Darya and Ili have contributed to the rise and prosperity of some of the earliest civilizations in history and today are the source of livelihood for nearly three billion people. These river basins, most of which have their source in the highlands of Tibet, the Himalayas and the Tien Shan and Altai ranges in the heart of the Asian continent, support rich ecosystems and irrigate millions of hectares of fields, thereby supporting some of the highest population densities in the world.

THE THIRD POLE – its importance:

The Tibetan plateau is a unique geomorphic entity and is a vital component of the planet’s ecosystem. With more than 46,000 glaciers, it comprises the largest fresh water reserve outside the Polar Ice-caps. It is known that the “Third Pole” is the water tower for Asia, regulating the weather patterns in the region. The region as a whole is highly sensitive to global climate change. Over the past three decades the average temperature has increased by almost 1C. According to the latest NASA Data 20% of the Himalayan glaciers have retreated in the last 40 years and if the current trend continues 60% could be retreated in the next 40 years. Therefore the preservation and management of rivers flowing from this region are one of the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. The dependency on these rivers is projected to double within 50 years considering the current industrial development and the increased requirement of power and food.

Problems:

The combined effects of global warming and water scarcity on the globe’s most populous continent is creating extreme cycles of droughts, floods and storms; food shortages, famine and pandemics; population displacement, destruction of property and infrastructure. Future scenarios include clashes between nation states over resources, domestic crises and regional conflicts, as a result of which some economies and countries could be pushed to the brink of collapse. Rivers are also a cause of conflict between and within countries. Few international agreements exist for sharing data and coordinating usage of these rivers. As developing nations manage water supplies as economic commodities in an age of scarcity, water rights and laws must be reappraised in the context of the climate crisis.

Industrial Development in an Age of Water Scarcity:

70% of the world’s irrigated farmland is in Asia. China and India, the world’s most populous nations and largest grain producers, have millions of new irrigation projects that are rapidly depleting aquifers. For instance China uses 25% fresh water for industrial purposes while India only uses 8%. China uses 67% of water on agriculture while India uses 86%. China’s growth has pushed rivers system to a dangerous tipping point. Two thirds of all cities in China are short of water, agricultural runoff from chemical fertilizers, industrial effluent and urban waste have poisoned reservoirs, two-thirds of the Yangtze Valley lakes have disappeared, environmental protests are rising. In South Asia erratic monsoon rains have created droughts in many regions. Governments and communities must prepare for water shortages, cycles of droughts and floods.

Rivers vs. Nations:

Hydroelectric dams are making a comeback in Asia as an alternative to fossil fuels. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are promoting hydroelectric dams as the solution to Asia’s energy needs. The new push for hydroelectric dams ignores a track record of failure: the World Commission on Dams report that 70% of Asia’s dam projects have under performed after displacing millions of people, damaging the environment and creating enormous debts. The problem is particularly acute in China, which has more than 25,000 large dams in operation, more than any other country in the world. During the 12th Five Year Plan China has earmarked the funds for major hydroelectric projects at the headwaters of Asia’s rivers, which rise from the Tibetan Plateau, now inside the national boundaries of the People’s Republic of China. China is reportedly planning an enormous water diversion system on the Brahmaputra and a Hydro power plant twice the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam. The diversion will steer the waters of the Brahmaputra towards China’s drought-stricken northern plain. Such a project would cause untold disaster for the people of India, Bangladesh and Burma. The construction of strings of dams is also affecting the South East Asian and Central Asian countries. If all regional development projects continue as planned, Asia will soon have the highest concentration of hydroelectric dams in the world, all drawing on declining freshwater. Such development projects will have serious impacts on the loss of bio-diversity, fish migration and siltation. For example in Bangladesh the salinity front has traveled up to 280 Kms. from the coastal line. Over and above that, the negative geological impacts of water collected in these reservoirs / dams have been scientifically proven. Harnessing rivers for power generation and irrigation has become an issue and a source of controversy.The benefits of large dams have to be balanced against the impact that such projects have on displaced communities and the environment, as well as social and cultural traditions.

Issues the conference shall address:

Can the environmental crisis create a new international dialogue on the management of river systems? How can civil society persuade governments and industries to address the looming water crisis? There are solutions to Asia’s water crisis: promoting alternative energies, converting to rain-fed, local, smallscale, and traditional water management and harvesting systems, negotiating agreements among nation states that share rivers. The obstacles to implementing policy changes are institutional. How can we redefine the Tibetan Plateau as a global transnational resource? Climate diplomacy is a new model of international discussion which has emerged from the UNIPCC. Regional activists see the environmental crisis as an opportunity to create a new means of consultation and data-sharing among public and private stakeholders. These are some of the issues this conference will address.