It is a pleasure to review for the Yale Press the new book by Professor Brahma Chellaney, “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.” It is a manuscript I highly recommend.
As the long-time chief executive officer of a mining and minerals company, and as the founding chairman of Business Executives for National Security—a nonpartisan organization of senior executives who help apply business best practices to security issues, while taking delegations of business executives to countries on six continents—I’ve had the opportunity to work with geopolitical experts for over 40 years. For the past 30 years, I have taken annual trips to Asia, including India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma) and have written monthly columns about those trips and others, mostly for the International Herald Tribune. In other words, I have witnessed a great deal of change in Asia and the Subcontinent over the past half century. In that context, when I hear experts address the challenges of the coming decades, there are routinely two trends that appear poised to drive change in the 21st century: Asia’s economic rise and increasing worldwide levels of water stress and conflict.
These issues are often taken independently of one another. However, in Water: Asia’s New Battleground, Professor Chellaney makes the original and persuasive argument that the two trends are inextricably linked. As Asia becomes more prosperous and more populous, water will become scarcer, and water conflict will grow more likely. If we do not find a way to avert a water crisis, Chellaney warns, Asia’s inevitable growth makes water wars inevitable.
Chellaney’s book joins, and complements, large bodies of work on Asia and on water conflict. Asia’s economic rise has captured the imagination of both scholars and the public at large. From popular journalistic works such as Ted Fishman’s China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World to more scholarly pieces such as Dilip Das-Gupta’s Asian Economy and Finance: A Post-Crisis Perspective and Sujian Guo’s The Political Economy of Asian Transition from Communism, much has been written on the emergence – or reemergence – of Asian countries as powerful players on the world stage.
Water stress, and the complicated geopolitical issues it creates, has also been the subject of a large body of scholarly work. In Troubled Waters: the Geopolitics of the Caspian Region, R. Hrair Dekmejian and Hovann H. Simonian present a comprehensive analysis of the political and economic dynamics of the Caspian basin. In India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future, John Briscoe and R. P. S. Malike perform a similar analysis for riparian issues in South Asia.
Water: Asia’s New Battleground engages this past scholarship, but also it sets itself apart with the breadth of its argument and the depth of Professor Chellaney’s scholarly expertise.
In his first chapters, Professor Chellaney shows how the growing prosperity – and populations – of Asian countries will increase their levels of water stress. He demonstrates how Asia’s geographic layout make it particularly vulnerable to riparian conflict, and how climate change will only exacerbate the challenges the continent faces. Examining Asia’s recent history, he argues that interstate conflict has already been exacerbated by malfeasance and mismanagement involving water resources. In fact, he shows that many of Asia’s traditional disputes over land, such as those in Tibet and in Kashmir, can actually be seen as disputes over the control of water.
Chellaney’s book broadens the scope of other works on water issues by examining the entire Asian continent. By 2030, he warns, Asia could be facing full-fledged water wars.
In the second section of his book, Chellaney goes into detail on several examples of waterrelated conflict throughout Asia. In particular, he discusses the Himalayas and the Mekong River, two crucial Asian water resources. He explains how the Himalayas are the source of many of the major rivers that downstream Asian nations – including those in South and Southeast Asia – rely on for their water. This way of thinking about the Himalayas helps frame the conflict in Tibet in a different light, one focused not on religion or political systems, but on access to vital resources. Chellaney also devotes time toward explaining the significance of the Mekong River, which is a crucial water source for several countries.
In these chapters, Chellaney goes beyond describing the significance of Asia’s most important water resources. He also sounds the alarm bell about how these resources are currently being managed and manipulated. He describes China’s current policies toward both water sources, which may create short-term advantage for the Chinese government but will almost certainly result in long-term conflict across the continent. While Chellaney is not shy about identifying China as a major culprit in building tensions over water, he also shows how the policies of other countries – which are often incoherent – set the stage for geopolitical conflict as well.
In the final section of this book, Professor Chellaney turns his attention from the past and present to the future. In Chellaney’s words, “Managing intercountry water competition in Asia demands transparency on projects that carry potential transboundary implications. It demands a binding commitment not to reroute the natural flow of a river or to diminish crossborder water supplies either through upstream river projects or overexploitation of underground aquifers straddling political frontiers. And it demands the formation of a basin-wide community, functioning on the basis of institutional mechanisms and well-defined rules.” He lays out several specific examples of the kinds of projects, commitments, and institutional mechanisms that might meet these criteria and help avert future crises.
Professor Chellaney matches his far-reaching argument with impressive scholarship. His expertise is evident on every page, whether discussing future climate models, past conflicts over water resources, the energy issues that contribute to the challenges Asia faces, or anything in between. Throughout the book, he draws from numerous resources for evidence – both anecdotal and statistical – that lend credence to his argument.
I have come to know Professor Chellaney personally and professionally. He holds a Ph.D. in arms control, and has contributed to the understanding of geopolitical security in countries around the world, including Harvard University, the Brookings Institution, and the Australian
National University. As a frequent columnist and commentator—and as the bestselling author of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan“—Professor Chellaney has vast experience in presenting his ideas to a wide range of audiences. This manuscript clearly benefits from that experience.
In my reading of his work, I have also found that Professor Chellaney combines this deep knowledge with a pragmatic approach. Until 2000, Chellaney was an adviser to India’s National Security Council, where he helped write India’s first nuclear doctrine and its first strategic defense review. Whether he is examining a problem or outlining a solution, Chellaney clearly thinks about the real-world implications of his scholarship.
I strongly recommend this manuscript for publication by The Yale Press. As I learned from my own writing, like many manuscripts, its flow could be improved with help from a professional editor. But this is a small quibble that should not detract from what is an impressive, original, and vital contribution to our understanding of the issues and challenges affecting the Asian continent.