The Asian Balance: Temples, rivers and other disputes

The list of regional security issues where ASEAN is falling short is growing

Excerpts from today’s Business Standard column:

Yet, ASEAN, a regional grouping often celebrated for its pragmatism and competence, has been unable to keep two of its members from going to war with each other. It will now try to play peacemaker, but it is unlikely that it can achieve anything beyond temporary damage control. Cambodia has legal title, but Thailand is more powerful. Preah Vihear is intertwined with Thailand’s domestic political turmoil, and because ASEAN cannot interfere in the internal affairs of its members, meaningful mediation will have to wait until the unrest, intrigue and ferment in Bangkok subsides. Even then, there is no guarantee that the Thais will allow their relative power advantage to be neutralised by accepting third-party arbitration.

ASEAN’s failure to prevent the Thai-Cambodian border dispute from escalating into a shooting war calls into question its ability to take on the more challenging project of anchoring East Asia’s security architecture. That’s not all. ASEAN states have been extremely reluctant to maintain solidarity with their counterparts in the latter’s disputes with non-ASEAN states. It is to the US that Vietnam and the Philippines turned last year when China upped the ante over the maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

But Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam—lower riparians of the Mekong river—have no one to turn to in the dispute over water sharing with China. [Business Standard]

Related Links: More on the Mekong dams, from this interview with Ame Trandem. I also cite Timo Menniken’s academic paper on lessons from the Mekong on China’s behaviour in international resource politics.

Damming the Mekong

Who can resist China?

While researching for today’s Business Standard column I came across Ame Trandem’s article in Vietnam’s Than Nien newspaper on the controversy relating to the Xayaboury (Xayaburi) dam in Laos. Here’s an excerpt of my subsequent email interview with Ms Trandem:

Nitin Pai: What is China’s position on the downstream dams that Laos is building & Thailand is financing? China is not in the Mekong River Commission (MRC) but are they playing a role in the shadows?

Ame Trandem: While China is not a member of the MRC, it is a dialogue partner. However China’s own upstream dam construction on the Mekong has helped pave the way for the Lower Mekong mainstream dams to re-emerge on the region’s agenda. With four dams built on the mainstream in China, its dams have begun changing the river’s hydrology and sediment flow, which has helped ease past reluctance in mainstream dam building.
Continue reading “Damming the Mekong”

Strategic trust-building follies

Washington should not undermine the sanctity of the Indus Waters Treaty

The formidable Richard Holbrooke and his talented team could have been more effective in their Af-Pak brief if they had a better grip on reality. They can achieve a whole lot more if thety were to solicit and receive genuine co-operation and support from New Delhi. Unfortunately, their thinking appears to be in the direction of reinforcing failure.

See what Steve Clemons says (via @vali_nasr). Writing about US efforts to help Pakistan raise funds after the flood disaster, he says, “…even with Clinton and Holbrooke on board, the US government is still not doing as much as it should in terms of contributing at a systemic level to helping the Pakistanis and Indians turn this nightmare into a strategically significant trust-building event.”

While that statement sounds logical, and more importantly, nice, it is largely bereft of the former. India has been making strategically significant trust-building events since Atal Bihari Vajpayee took that bus to Lahore in 1999. These were all perceived as weaknesses and exploited by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex to attack India. Other than Operation Parakram—which was itself carried out after grave provocation—India’s policy can be described as strategic reassurance. Satyabrata Pal, India’s former high commissioner to Pakistan, strongly argues that New Delhi must continue along this direction. It appears that the likes of Mr Clemons weren’t paying attention when Manmohan Singh responded to the Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attack, and its brazen refusal to act against the perpetrators, by…delivering sweet lollipops to the Pakistani prime minister.

Yes, there is a need for a strategically significant trust-building event. It has to come from Pakistan. Getting the Pakistani government to obtain a guilty verdict against the Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders fingered in the 26/11 conspiracy would be a good start. But Team Holbrooke isn’t concerned with trust-building in India.

Mr Clemons refers to David Rothkopf’s post on what this trust-building event might be. Apart from using tired and absurd cliches like “few relationships on the planet are as important or as potentially dangerous as that between India and Pakistan” he suggests the Mr Obama must propose a “a massive, multilateral Indus River Valley Development Initiative” on his trip to India.

The problem with Mr Rothkopf’s proposal—of massive technical and financial assistance to improve river water management—is that India doesn’t need that help. Pakistan does. So President Obama should be announcing this if and when he goes to Islamabad.

Actually, there is something Mr Obama can do before, during or after his trip to India with regard to Indus waters. And that is to say that “both sides must abide by the treaties they have signed”. The Indus Waters Treaty is a strategic trust-building device. Undermining its legitimacy by pointing to its being “strained by dam projects and shifting demand” is counterproductive to stability because it allows Pakistan to opens up another unbounded dispute with India.

Related Link: See Dhruva Jaishankar’s post on Indus river water issues.

Groundwater management and farmers’ suicides

Poor management of groundwater resources contributes to agrarian distress—but is anyone listening?

Over at Reporting on a Revolution, Suvrat Kher throws more light on an angle that is almost entirely missing from the national discourse on farmers’ suicides.

…if the wells themselves are dry then there is no backup for failed rains. A Tata Institute of Social Sciences report on farmer suicides found that farmers had little or no groundwater available to them during times of rain failure. A combination of complex hydrogeology and poor management of groundwater resources has exerted a powerful influence on the lives and livelihoods of Maharashtra farmers.

(Tushaar) Shah makes the following recommendation for complex hydrogeological terrains:

What hard-rock India needs is a new mindset of managing dug wells as dual-purpose structures, for taking out water when needed and putting water into the aquifers when the surplus is running off. Recharging aquifers needs to get the first charge on monsoon run off. Unfortunately, government planners give it the last priority.

Water available for recharge is estimated after allowing for the requirements of existing and planned surface reservoirs. This is absurd in a country where 70 percent of irrigated areas and 90 percent of drinking water needs are met from groundwater.

Is the government listening? The Prime Minister of India’s special relief package for Maharashtra farmers wants to attack the problem on a broad front which includes tinkering with the economics of cotton farming, encouraging a diverse array of crops and reducing dependence on pesticides and fertilizers. But water underlies any successful agricultural strategy. In terms of water it lists irrigation development as the only long term solution to the water problems faced by farmers and doles almost 10 times more money to irrigation development than to watershed development. Irrigation development in the language of the government of India means canal irrigation (read mega infrastructure projects) and not local groundwater irrigation.

This despite the revealing statistic that even though thousands of crores of Rupees have been spent on canals, they irrigate just about 15% of arable areas over the landmass of India and marginal farmers and farmers with small landholding benefit most not from canal networks but through groundwater irrigation. [Reporting on a Revolution/What’s with the Climate]