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The struggle over water in India and China

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ON THE LAST day of 1956 Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of an independent India, took Zhou Enlai, his Chinese counterpart, to visit the Bhakra dam, on the Sutlej river in the north of the country. “These are the new temples of India, where I worship,” he told his visitor. Both young governments saw managing water as a central part of their mandate. In Chinese mythology, civilisation dates from the efforts by the Emperor Yu to tame the floods 4,000 years ago. Meanwhile Indian history has been a long battle to predict, harness and exploit the monsoon—or to cope with its failure. Tens of thousands of farmers have recently taken to the streets to vent their anger at the hardship they are enduring after weaker-than-usual rains.

As Sunil Amrith notes in his enthralling, elegantly written and, ultimately, profoundly alarming history, nowhere “has the search for water shaped or sustained as much human life as in India and China.” Between them they have perhaps 36% of the world’s population, but just 11% of its freshwater—and, in both countries it is distributed hugely unevenly. Their hydraulic priorities have differed: “India’s great need was irrigation; China’s was flood control.” But their approaches have had much in common: the massive investment of labour, capital and technology in a drive to contain and control the forces of nature.

The dams are an obvious symbol of this. Mr Amrith concentrates mainly on India, using China for comparison and contrast. He notes that more than 40m people in India have been displaced by dam-building. In China under Mao Zedong, an estimated 22,000 large dams were constructed. And the frenzy continues. More than 400 dams are planned by China, Pakistan, Bhutan and Nepal in the Himalayas, source of Asia’s ten great rivers.

But dams are only part of the story. Both India and China have long nurtured grandiose visions of linking and diverting rivers to mitigate the inequity of nature’s distribution. Thanks to the most expensive infrastructure project the world has ever seen, two-thirds of Beijing’s tap-water now comes from a reservoir in central China, nearly 1,500km (930 miles) away. India has dreams of “interlinking” 37 rivers through 14,000km of canals.

And both countries have sucked ever increasing volumes of water from underground. The Green revolution in India, which, in the 1970s, transformed its ability to feed itself, relied on electric tube wells. Groundwater now accounts for 60% of India’s irrigated area; agriculture’s share of total energy use climbed from 10% in 1970 to 30% by 1995—encouraged in part by the cheap or free electricity that Indian politicians love to lavish on rural voters when elections loom.

The inspiring element of this chronicle is simple: a huge increase in human life, health and happiness. Water management, and the agricultural production it has sustained, have irrigated China’s economic miracle. And India, after the repeated drought-induced famines inflicted by British rule, and its dependence on food aid into the 1960s, has become a big agricultural exporter.

The alarming aspect comes in the evidence Mr Amrith marshals to suggest that past strategies have run their course, and indeed are now causing new problems. Depleted aquifers, polluted waterways and silted-up dams threaten renewed and more intense water crises—which will be exacerbated by climate change. And as water management becomes an ever more pressing concern at home, it will create tension across borders.

Already India and Pakistan are arguing about how to interpret the treaty they signed in 1960 on sharing the waters of the Indus river. And of all the insecurities India harbours about China’s long-term aims, perhaps none is as visceral as the worry about the future of the great subcontinental rivers—the Indus and the Brahmaputra—that rise in the Chinese Himalayas.


14 Comments on "The struggle over water in India and China"

  1. JuanP on Thu, 3rd Jan 2019 5:16 pm 

    China has adjusted its Taiwan policy.

  2. makati1 on Thu, 3rd Jan 2019 5:41 pm 

    JuanP, as long as the US keeps out of it, Taiwan can be reunited in a manor similar to Hong Kong where special rules apply. The US is losing all of its “allies” in Asia and is desperate to hold on to Taiwan to start a war there.

    Only a fool would not try to work out a diplomatic solution. Ditto for the Philippines. Better to be a Chinese vassal than a ruined country with half the population dead and everything destroyed. Let it happen to Americans in America for a change.

  3. Low IQ on Thu, 3rd Jan 2019 5:41 pm 

    JuanP on Thu, 3rd Jan 2019 5:16 pm
    China has adjusted its Taiwan policy.

  4. off topic on Thu, 3rd Jan 2019 5:45 pm 

    makati1 on Thu, 3rd Jan 2019 5:41 pm
    JuanP on Thu, 3rd Jan 2019 5:16 pm

    kiss ass

  5. Davy on Fri, 4th Jan 2019 4:05 am 

    Retail was supposed to save China but it now looks like it will be part of what takes it down.

    “iPhone Sales Croak, China’s Economy Deteriorating Faster than Expected, Apple Warns. Shares Plunge”

    “Here are some of the key points Apple made in its letter (emphasis added): While we anticipated some challenges in key emerging markets, we did not foresee the magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China. In fact, most of our revenue shortfall to our guidance, and over 100 percent of our year-over-year worldwide revenue decline, occurred in Greater China across iPhone, Mac and iPad. China’s economy began to slow in the second half of 2018. The government-reported GDP growth during the September quarter was the second lowest in the last 25 years. We believe the economic environment in China has been further impacted by rising trade tensions with the United States. As the climate of mounting uncertainty weighed on financial markets, the effects appeared to reach consumers as well, with traffic to our retail stores and our channel partners in China declining as the quarter progressed. And market data has shown that the contraction in Greater China’s smartphone market has been particularly sharp. Lower than anticipated iPhone revenue, primarily in Greater China, accounts for all of our revenue shortfall to our guidance…”

  6. Davy on Fri, 4th Jan 2019 4:12 am 

    So much for that golden euro decade

    “ECB Takes Over Italy’s 10th Largest Bank as Italy Skids Towards Recession”

    “The European Central Bank has announced the appointment of temporary administrators and a “surveillance committee” at troubled Italian lender Banca Carige, as new data indicated the country is flirting with recession. The ECB intervention follows a failure in December by the middle-weight Genoan bank to achieve shareholder support for a €400m (£360m) bond issue. Italian banks are still exposed to a high proportion of bad loans on their balance sheets following the financial crisis. They are also closely tied to the course of national politics in the country as they are large holders of sovereign debt, risking a so-called ‘doom loop’ effect. It comes as fresh survey data from IHS Markit pointed towards a slowdown in the manufacturing sector across the currency bloc. On a national basis, Italy scored 49.2, just below the 50 mark that indicates growth. This added “to the evidence that the economy was either in or close to recession” in the second half of 2018, according to Claus Vistesen of Pantheon Macroeconomics.”

  7. Cloggie on Fri, 4th Jan 2019 4:25 am 

    Italy is not (equal to) Europe.
    Europe is overall doing fine, thanks for your concern.
    Let’s call it a silver decade, OK?

    Hildebrand/Black Rock spoke of a “possible golden decade”:

    But you know how these fund managers of US money bags are: up-beat by default.

  8. Davy on Fri, 4th Jan 2019 4:42 am 

    “Italy is not (equal to) Europe. Europe is overall doing fine, thanks for your concern. Let’s call it a silver decade, OK?”


    Italy is what matters with Europe economically at this moment in EU history. Europe is doing particularly bad but on par with what China is doing and what the US will be doing shortly. Try “lead” decade.

  9. Cloggie on Fri, 4th Jan 2019 4:54 am 

    Italy is what matters with Europe economically at this moment in EU history.

    Sentence devoid of meaning.

    Europe is doing particularly bad but on par with what China is doing and what the US will be doing shortly.

    Wtf does that mean? Nothing.

  10. Davy on Fri, 4th Jan 2019 5:15 am 

    neder is stuttering. Italy is the weak link, neder. The whole project fails if Italy fails. I can tell you are turning red with anger but this is reality. Europe economically is suffering subpar growth even after a massive central bank bond buying program. It is pretty obvious also with an economic downturn ahead especially with exports and trade tensions, Europe’s near term future is shaky. One needs to only look as far as yellow France to see the north now crumbling too.

    WTF, don’t you understand neder?

  11. Davy on Fri, 4th Jan 2019 5:50 am 

    “Fire and ice, part one”

    “France illustrates this process to dramatic effect. Taxation is still at 54% of GDP, roughly where it’s been for many years. This no doubt persuades the authorities that they’ve not increased the burden of taxation. But tax now absorbs 70% of French prosperity, leading to the results that we’ve witnessed on the streets of Paris and other French towns and cities.”

    “It’s been said that the two certainties in life are “death and taxes”, but ‘debt and taxes’ hold the key to fiscal challenges understood improperly – if at all – by most governments. The connection here is that debt (or rather, the process of borrowing) affects recorded GDP in ways which provide false comfort about the affordability of taxation – and therefore, of course, about the affordability of public services.”

    “The economic system has been brought into disrepute, mutating from something at least resembling ‘the market economy’ into something seemingly serving only the richest. As debt has risen, working conditions, and other forms of security, have been eroded. We can count ourselves fortunate that the public doesn’t know – yet – that the pensions system has been sacrificed as a financial ‘human shield’ to prop up the debt edifice. This at least sets an agenda, whether for 2019 or beyond. The current economic paradigm is on borrowed time, whilst public support can be expected to swing behind parties promoting redistribution, economic nationalism and curtailment of migration. Politicians who insist on clinging on to ‘globalised liberalism’ are likely to sink with it. The tax base is shrinking, requiring new priorities in public expenditure.”

    “If you had to tackle this at all, you wouldn’t choose to do it with the “everything bubble” likely to burst, bringing in its wake both debt defaults and currency crises. But this process looks inescapable. With its modest incremental rate rises, so derided by Wall Street and the White House, the Fed may be trying to manage a gradual deflation of bubbles. If so, its intentions are worthy, but its chances of success are poor.”

    “Essentially, GDP (in blue) and prosperity (in red) are diverging. This is happening for two main reasons. One is the underlying uptrend in the energy cost of energy (ECoE). The second is the use of credit and monetary adventurism to create apparent “growth” in GDP in the face of secular stagnation. This, of course, helps explain why people are feeling poorer despite apparent increases in GDP per capita.”

    “Simply put, the authorities seem to be keeping taxation at an approximately constant level against GDP, not realising that this pushes the tax incidence upwards when measured against prosperity. The individual, however, understands this all too well, even if its causes remain obscure.”

    “Prosperity per person is continuing to deteriorate, typically at annual rates of between 0.5% and 1.1%, across the Western economies. Rising taxation is worsening this trend, leading increasingly to popular resistance. The public believes (and not without reason) that immigration is exacerbating the decline in prosperity, both at the total and at the discretionary levels. Perceptions are that a small minority of “the rich” are getting wealthier whilst almost everyone else is getting poorer. Politicians are seen as both heedless of the majority predicament and complicit in the enrichment of a minority.”

  12. Sissyfuss on Fri, 4th Jan 2019 9:03 am 

    And so Cloggenspiel, are you saying that Euroland is magically protected from the Limits to Growth that is infecting the rest of the worlds countries economies? If that is so then there should be no problem accepting millions of migrants from the unenlightened corners of the Earth. Hold hands with Merkle, Clogerectomy, you know you want to.

  13. Cloggie on Fri, 4th Jan 2019 9:15 am 

    And so Cloggenspiel, are you saying that Euroland is magically protected from the Limits to Growth that is infecting the rest of the worlds countries economies?


    I say: who cares. Life will soldier on, even without a century of economic growth. I personally haven’t been growing (physically) since I was 18. I was fine ever since.

    If that is so then there should be no problem accepting millions of migrants from the unenlightened corners of the Earth.

    I reject unlimited numbers of invaders with strange habits and beliefs from “unenlightened corners of the Earth”, irrespective of economic considerations. Let them go to America, for all I care.

  14. Cloggie on Fri, 4th Jan 2019 9:19 am 

    I even think there are too many Hollanders in my country. For some time I was donator of this club (when I was still a libtard US-oriented yuppie in the nineties):

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