At the end of July 2012, India was hit with the world’s largest ever blackouts during which nearly 670 million people were without power. The lack of power for only two days brought one of the world’s fastest growing economies to a grinding halt, with financial losses estimated to be equivalent to 1.5% of the country’s GDP. The crisis revealed important lessons for India about its faulty electricity grid—but the disaster of the 2012 Indian Blackout Crisis should also serve as a warning for other countries in the region and indeed around the world. The Indian blackout demonstrates two important realities about modern economies and societies. The first is that the success of modern economies is heavily contingent upon existing circumstances (in this case regular and reliable electricity), and even short disruptions can have serious consequences. The second is that those circumstances can and do change. Environmental historian John McNeil has termed this modern tendency of societies to organize themselves around circumstances that have been unique to the 20th century (cheap energy and water, and stable climates) “an interesting gamble.”
Global leaders take gambles like these regularly. They bet on economic and social strategies that exploit existing circumstances to maximize profit and power. Sometimes they pay off; other times they entail devastating loss. Currently in Central and South Asia, leaders are making a particularly risky gamble. They are betting that sufficient clean water from the Greater Himalayan Watershed will be available to allow the region to support the economic and political strategies it has pursued through the past century while avoiding instability and war. Yet, recent research suggests that the very circumstances that form the premises of this bet are changing. Glaciers throughout the region, like the Siachen glacier, are melting and precipitation patterns in the region are shifting. Given this trajectory, water availability is set to become more uneven throughout the region in the upcoming years– some countries will have too much water, others too little. As this happens, these countries may face rising rates of disease and unemployment, unrest, and even war—unless countries can abandon antiquated water security strategies and age-old rivalries and instead engage in regional cooperation to more effectively manage their shared water resources.
The Greater Himalayan Watershed
The Greater Himalayan Watershed is a vast and diverse area that stretches from Uzbekistan to Myanmar. The Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges contain over 50,000 glaciers, the melt water of which feeds the aquifers and water tables of ten of the world’s most important river systems. The Amu Darya, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Yellow, and Indus rivers – all crossing international borders – are just some of the important systems that depend on the regular cycles of glacial freezing and melting in order to maintain their seasonal water levels. In the Western Himalayas, for instance, these cycles contribute 60% of all surface water availability, forming a crucial portion of the region’s water resources.
The mountains themselves encompass an area of more than 4 million square kilometers. More than just repositories for massive ice stores and snows, these mountains – the highest on the planet – help to regulate precipitation patterns in the region. They act as a shield separating the Indian subcontinent from the Arctic winds that batter Central Asia. They also trap the hot, moist air in the Southeast and enable the torrential monsoons that occur during the summer months, accounting for 75% of India’s annual rainfall.
As a result, the mountains divide the watershed into “haves and have-nots.” Areas to the North and West of the mountains are extremely arid and almost wholly dependent upon the rivers that flow from the mountains for their water. Conversely, those living in the South and East have an overabundance of water and are often plagued with large-scale flooding. The cases of Pakistan and Bangladesh provide a particularly poignant example of the divide; while over half of Pakistan receives less than 8 inches of water per year, even the driest regions in Bangladesh average over 60 inches.
The normal functioning of the Greater Himalayan Watershed is the result of extremely complex interactions between geography and climate that are not fully understood. Yet the connections between temperature, snow, glacier, rain and river are readily apparent. The peak runoff from glacial and snow melt that the region depends upon for annual flood cycles, for instance, coincides with the arrival of the warm winds of the Eastern monsoons. Yet, as snow cover throughout the region decreases, temperatures rise. These rising temperatures, in turn, alter weather patterns and can increase the intensity of flood cycles. Changes to any of aspect of the system, then, can precipitate dramatic consequences for the entire region
Agriculture in Central and South Asia
Despite the dynamic contingencies of the Greater Himalayan Watershed, the economies and societies in Central and South Asians are totally dependent upon the regular functioning of this system. The people that inhabit this region speak over 600 languages and dialects. They practice a variety of religions and organize their societies in many different ways. Yet, they all share an intimate and heavily dependent relationship with the water system in the region. Over 3 billion people derive their livelihoods, either directly or indirectly, from the river systems that originate in this watershed. The majority of those people works in agriculture and relies upon water from the Greater Himalayan Watershed to provide for their families. 80% of Afghans derive their livelihoods from agriculture. In Pakistan, agriculture employs 40% of the population, provides 25% of its GDP, and earns 60% of its foreign currency. Agriculture makes up 21% of India’s GDP and 10% of China’s.
Despite the fact that these countries are pursuing industrialization and modernization schemes, agriculture looks to continue to play a crucial role in the future. The Government of India’s State of Agriculture report for 2011-2012, stated that “for the economy to grow by 9 percent, it is important that the agricultural sector grow at least by 4 percent per annum.”
There is nothing new about the importance of agriculture to Central and South Asian societies. Civilizations have long flourished in this region by taking advantage of the rich alluvial deposits left after annual floods subsided. What is new; however, are the types and methods of agriculture that are currently practiced. What had been subsistence farming throughout much of the region prior to colonization has now been converted to cash cropping, especially cotton. In Pakistan, cotton and textiles make up 55% of all exports, making it the single most important source of foreign currency in the country. In Uzbekistan, cotton alone accounts for 11% of the total GDP. Cotton requires a large and steady supply of water in order to produce profitable crop yields. In most of the northern and western parts of the Greater Himalayan Watershed, the hydrological system cannot support such agriculture on its own. As such, the countries that have made cotton production a priority have invested heavily in irrigation. In Pakistan, nearly 80% of its farming requires irrigation to be viable and as recently as 1990, irrigation accounted for 96% of total water use.
The countries of the Greater Himalayan Watershed rely on it to supply the copious amounts of water they need for their large and water-intensive agricultural economies. Agriculture contributes significantly to the GDPs of all the countries in the region and provides employment to hundreds of millions of rural inhabitants. More than the dollars and rupees that these crops bring into the region however, it should be remembered that many of these countries must deal with serious food security issues. Over 230 million Indians are characterized as “undernourished” by the Food Agriculture Organization (FAO) and they are joined by millions more in all the other countries of the region. That number may continue to grow if significant changes occur to the availability of freshwater for farming.
Central and South Asian economies need water for more than growing food and cash crops. It has also become a crucial part of their energy security strategies. The July blackouts in India were only the largest and most recent in a series of large-scale blackouts that the country has had to face over the past two decades. India routinely fails to meet 8-9% of its energy demands. In Pakistan, the problem is far worse with energy production falling so far below demand that the government has mandated load shedding in order to ensure that crucial industries and services are able to function. Even then, many industries are operating on a limited basis, stifling economic growth.
The extreme altitude of the mountain ranges and the large volume of the rivers in the Greater Himalayan Watershed give it excellent hydropower potential. The unexploited potential energy capacity of the Himalayas in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan amounts to around 192,000 megawatts (a staggering sum given that the world’s total currently installed hydroelectric capacity is around 675,000 megawatts). Nearly all countries in the region have already built multiple hydroelectric dams meant to harness this potential. 99.5% of Bhutan’s energy needs are met by hydroelectric power. It exports 70% of its hydroelectric output to India and these sales make up to 45% of its gross national revenue in a given year. A single dam in Tajikistan – the Nurek – provides nearly all of that country’s energy needs.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the entire region seems to be depending on increased exploitation of hydropower potential in the years to come. Tajikistan plans to build 20 more dams and hydropower stations along the Amu Darya. India has plans to build 33 more dams in Kashmir along the border with Pakistan alone, exacerbating tensions already strained by the controversial Baglihar dam. Pakistan’s dam building plans for the next ten years are set to cost at least $90 billion. Yet these hydropower ambitions pale in comparison to those proposed by China. Plans for a 40,000 megawatt dam on the great bend of theYalong Zangbo river (which helps to form the Brahmaputra) would cost billions of dollars and require nuclear explosions to form tunnels that would divert water to the east.
Countries in the region are clearly committed to relying on hydropower to fuel their economic growth in the coming decades. They plan on utilizing the massive potential of the Greater Himalayan Watershed to increase electricity availability to their citizens and avoid the dangerous blackouts that have recently plagued Pakistan and India. Yet these plans are predicated upon the belief that the watershed will continue to be able to supply water in a way that will allow for effective dam building. Both environmental changes and political conflicts could alter the ability of countries to utilize the watershed to meet their energy needs, constraining economic growth throughout the region.
Change in the Greater Himalayan Watershed
Agriculture and hydropower are crucial economic drivers throughout Central and South Asia. They both figure prominently in the national economic and political strategies of all countries throughout the region. Yet their ability to facilitate economic growth and meet the food and energy needs of a rapidly growing regional population depends on the normal functioning of the Greater Himalayan Watershed. Clearly, then, even small changes to the hydrological system should be cause for concern. The changes facing the region today, however, are anything but small. According to a survey from the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), many of the glaciers in the area are retreating at an average of 15 meters per year. In some cases, glaciers have lost 60 or even 160 meters in a year. Additionally over the past thirty years there has been a 20% increase in early monsoons in the southern parts of the region. As a result, the wet season has become shorter with more intense flooding and the dry season has grown longer, causing serious droughts.
Changes like these are due to a number of different causes, not the least of which is the increasing amount of black carbon deposits in the Himalayan glaciers. A large smog mass known as the “Asian Brown Cloud” is visible across the region. This cloud has deposited black carbon particulate in glaciers at even the highest Himalayan altitudes. This carbon is emitted from the increasing number of cooking fires, smokestack industries, and cars in the area. Its presence in the glaciers not only speeds their melt rates, but also traps heat from the sun that would otherwise be reflected by the snow – thus raising atmospheric temperatures and affecting precipitation patterns.
As these glaciers melt they, in turn, raise the overall temperatures in the mountains – speeding the rate of glacial and snow melt. Indeed, between 1976 and 2006, temperatures throughout the Greater Himalayan Watershed rose by an average of 1 degree Celsius and the rate of temperature increase seems to have risen in recent years. These higher temperatures have been accompanied by a marked shift in precipitation patterns with more falling as rain than snow. Most current projections predict that by the end of the century regional temperatures will have risen between 4-5 degrees Celsius with a 20-40% increase in rainfall.
A Region in Crisis
These changes are occurring just as a stable hydrological system is becoming more necessary than ever. In South Asia alone the population is growing at a rate of 1.7% per year. In addition to safe living environments, the 25 million new people added each year will require the region to produce more food to eat, water to drink, power to light their homes, and jobs to employ them. Yet, freshwater is becoming scarcer just as demand for it is rising. Inefficient irrigation systems, pollution from urban areas and industries, and toxins from fertilizers are putting serious constraints on the availability of clean, usable freshwater throughout the region.
The region has already experienced an increase in devastating floods. These floods are not only costly, as in 2005 when flooding in India caused $103 million in damage to crops alone, but they also kill people, wash away farm land and homes, and create breeding grounds for disease vectors that spread malaria and waterborne diseases. Although malaria is already present in every country in the region, it currently has a relatively short transmission window in most places (1-3 months). This window is set to expand, with most predicting that by 2030, malaria will be transmittable for almost half the year in some places.
Droughts take their own toll on the rural areas. Water scarcity has become such a serious issue in Northern India that, in 2009, 1,500 farmers committed mass suicide to protest government attempts to curb water usage. In Pakistan, drought and water scarcity have already taken such a severe toll on crop yields that there has been a ban on the export of wheat since 2007. Water has become so scarce in Uzbekistan that in 2010, the country had already withdrawn 116% of its total renewable water resources.
It has already been noted that the impressive economic growth rates that countries in Central and South Asia have posted throughout the past decade would not be possible without strong and growing agricultural sectors. These countries rely on solid agricultural output to employ the hundreds of millions of citizens that inhabit their rural areas while producing the raw goods they need to fuel their industrial growth. Yet it does not seem likely that these regions will be able to continue to support these large and rapidly growing populations for long. Grain production has been slowing region-wide since the 1990s. This is due, on one hand to increased flooding and longer drought periods that disrupt normal growing cycles, and on the other to increased soil salinity as water tables in some parts of the region rise. The problem of crop yields is so serious, in fact, that some models predict a 40% drop in maize production and 20% for wheat region-wide by 2030.
Environmental instability in the rural areas of the Greater Himalayan Watershed is already contributing to mass migrations across the region. 15% of the world’s total migration occurs in the GHW, filling the already overcrowded cities with masses of rural poor. Unable to find work and decent wages, these people settle in slums on the outskirts of regional mega cities. They arrive at cities lacking in sufficient infrastructure and are left to eek out an existence in slums rife with disease, crime, and unrest. Most of the countries in the region have already recognized this issue and are attempting to bring more employment to rural areas by increasing the area of irrigated farmland in their countries. In 2009, for instance, the Pakistani government offered 6 million acres of previously uncultivated land to foreign agricultural investment, some of which came with stipulations requiring investors to fund irrigation schemes.
Still, increased irrigation is not the answer to the food security and other issues facing the region. Paradoxically, irrigation is partly to blame for the lower yields. Traditional methods of irrigation increase soil salinity, causing crop yields to fall. Drawing from non-renewable groundwater resources brings with it a whole other set of negative consequences. It contributes to soil salinit
y over the long term, inhibiting plant growth and ruining farmland. Last year in Bangladesh, up to 77 million people were poisoned by arsenic-laced water from deep aquifers. China, which has 8% of the world’s water resources but 20% of its people, has been over-pumping regional aquifers for years in order to sustain its massive agricultural industry. The North China water table has been dropping by 4-6 feet per year, and if this rate continues, the aquifers will be completely dry within 30-40 years. The depletion of this water table will be particularly devastating, as it irrigates over half of China’s arable land and supports roughly 214 million people, about 80% of them living in rural areas. What those people will do, and how China will feed its population is questions that demand immediate attention if China is to avert this looming catastrophe.
Leaders in Central and South Asia are now finding themselves stuck in a difficult situation. Their societies and economies have gambled that copious amounts of clean water will continue to be available to support regional agriculture and provide electricity for economic development. Yet, the clean water they need comes from a hydrological system that is currently threatened by rising temperatures, increased pollution, and unsustainable extraction by farming. The region is already faced with many of the consequences of these changes. Furthermore, decreasing agricultural yields, more frequent flooding and droughts, increasing unemployment, more rural to urban migration, and higher rates of disease, are all current causes of unrest and instability throughout the region. Clearly, something must be done to stem the tide of environmental degradation before these crises become disasters on a truly horrific scale.
Traditional solutions to these problems are fraught with an additional set of dangers. The temptation to solve an agrarian crisis by expanding irrigation or an energy crisis by building more dams will seem strong to politicians who must deal with anxious and increasingly mobilized constituents. Yet, these strategies will almost certainly put governments at odds with their regional neighbors. China’s potential Great Bend Dam, for instance, would divert water from the Brahmaputra to the northern plains. In doing so, it would tamper with the source of 30% of India’s and 50% of Bangladesh’s freshwater. Though unlikely to ever be built, mere mentions of this plan raise regional political tensions so high as to draw responses from India’s Prime Minister. The Indian Rivers Inter-Link project – set to cost over $100 billion – has drawn similar criticism from Bangladesh, despite claims by the Indian government that it will not link any common rivers. It is not difficult to imagine that, given the heavy tolls that droughts and blackouts have recently taken on their economies, unchecked competition for increasingly scarce water resources could lead to open conflict. Indeed, a 2009 CIA report argues that “the likelihood of conflict between India and Pakistan is expected to increase” as a result of competition for scarce water sources.
However, this does not have to occur. Leaders can hedge their bets by working together to develop real and meaningful cooperative agreements on water sharing. If the various countries throughout the region can establish rules and standards for dam building, water sharing, and irrigation efficiency they can mitigate some of the effects of environmental degradation while also avoiding the threat of conflict. Given the scale and degree of the interconnected problems and issues involved, as well as the long histories of intense rivalries in the region, any such agreement or consensus would require a sea change in regional relations and attitudes about economic growth and environmental protection. The odds may be stacked against regional leaders attempting to bring about greater cooperation on water security; however changes to the Greater Himalayan Watershed mean that the region simply cannot afford to continue to bet on unilateral water security strategies.
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