Thursday, October 18, 2012

Emerging Asia Hits a Wall of Water

                                                                                                   India's Sardar Sarovar Narmada Dam 

It’s often said that people are a nation’s greatest resource. That can be true, especially with their knowledge and creativity, which can supplement physical resources. But one basic must is hard to think your way around: water.

So it is that the great emerging nations of Asia–China, India, Indonesia–face a wall in their development. All are confronted with either a scarcity of moisture in key regions, or an inability to contain the water that sometimes pours and deliver it in potable form to millions for daily life. The results can be barren fields, destructive floods or sickened populations from exposure to contamination.

Usually the water problem is a natural one of scant rainfall or the absence of topographical means of collection and retention, such as mountains for snowpack or lakes and flowing rivers. Thus you can have monsoons and still be dried out. (Some challenge the notion that this is any longer “natural” by contending that man-made climate change is involved.)

However, even tropical states can be water-constrained when the public infrastructure is so poor that inundation causes bacteria to run off from sewage and other sources and spoil the vital supply. This is the case in booming Indonesia, according to a currently featured article in the country’s fine Strategic Review quarterly.

India has both natural and man-made problems. A recent feature in the licensed edition Forbes India said the country has only 4% of the “total world resource” of water but 18% of the population. It noted: “Deficient monsoons often lead to shortage of drinking and irrigation water. Groundwater is polluted due to poor land practices, atmospheric deposition of pollutants and direct discharge of sewage into water bodies.” Quite a bill of particulars. And then there is controversy when dams have ultimately been attempted.

Forbes India cited a similar predicament in China, with 7% of “resource share” and 19% of global population. The Chinese government, of course, is more proactive on this front, at least in terms of damming and other diversions intended to route precious fluid from the mountainous south to the populous north. What this is doing or will do to areas like the Tibetan Plateau is debated, and it is now difficult for many foreigners to enter that sensitive zone to investigate. China has stumbled on an attempt to dam northern Burma.

(Dams are also a growing issue in the strategic battleground of Central Asia, where the major powers are plying for mineral wealth, whose extraction also takes water.)

So, mere expenditure for mass public works–even if done honestly and efficiently, and not riddled by graft–is not necessarily an easy response to water scarcity. (Few would object to basic water containmentl and purification projects.) There is also, for most nations, the option of the vast sea, if desalination can be afforded. Countries in North Africa and the Middle East have chosen this course as a palliative. It takes a well-stocked Treasury.

A supremely logical approach is to curb waste and misallocation by pricing water. Yet, failure to do so is common, nowhere more egregiously than in India. But this is understandable: where democracy is most rampant, the interests favored by currently free or cheap common water, if numerous, will be most able to keep their booty. Moreover, some who grasp the environmental aspects of water misuse nonetheless have a mental block on invoking the market as a remedy.

So we have a fundamental problem amid rising affluence, one that software code largely cannot solve, especially if politics blocks better allocation. Indonesia should be able to marshal its abundance, given honest government. But unless science somehow can muster rain clouds, much of Asia cannot affordably get “more” of something it needs to grow–and live. At some point, if the policy riddle of unpopular allocation is not solved, this becomes a Malthusian knot. That could trump the wisdom of the “people resource” and sidetrack a very promising growth story.

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