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Asia’s Sacred, Wicked Waters
By Dipak Gyawali

A STRANGE United Nations definition, and subsequent organizational setup, for Asia is ESCAP, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, which is headquartered in Bangkok. It encompasses a mind-boggling diversity: from population giants like China and India to countries of less than 10,000 people like Nauru; from the tropical deltas of the Mekong River to the hot deserts of the lower Indus or the cold plateaus of Tibet and Mongolia; from island states like the Philippines to the land-locked mountain fastness of Nepal and Afghanistan (to say nothing of Alaska and the Netherlands, which are also members of this body!). This quixotic historical act, lumping such a multiplicity of the globe into one unit, is symbolically apt in framing what Asian water diversity is and what the challenges are.


Water in Asia is both sacred and wicked. One of the ancient Hindu Rigvedic hymns of creation composed over 3,000 years ago invokes water as the origin of the universe: Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning, with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that One arose through the power of heat.


Water is a purifier of our transgressions, hence a medium for spiritual regeneration and rejuvenation. The Kumbh Mela, a once-in-twelve-years astrologically-determined event held in Allahabad at the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers saw an estimated 80 million pilgrims in mid-February 2013, the largest one-time gathering of humans ever. The mainly Buddhist Mekong region similarly sees festivals such as Thailand’s Loi Krathong, where people float a small leaf boat with a lamp into a river or a lake asking Mae Khongkha, the “mother river,” to take away their sins. In Islam, a religion that originated in the West Asian deserts, the spiritual significance of Zam Zam spring waters is a constant reminder of the Almighty’s bounty of life. Whether it is baptism in the Jordan River or a holy dip in the Tirtha Ampul springs of Bali, the sacredness of Asian waters has a civilizational hold that transcends generations.


Water is sacred because it is the very stuff of life. The Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus declared it to be the “ultimate reality,” superior to the other elements like earth, air or fire. Today’s Asia is poised on the brink of what some say is the Post-Industrial Age of the 21st century, where this sacredness has been transmuted into one in which water is an absolutely critical resource because of the frightening dependence of our economic processes on its dwindling availability. Indeed, Swedish water scientist Malin Falkenmark’s Water Stress Index, as well as the work on virtual water and water footprints by British water scholar Tony Allan, indicates that a country with an index lower than 2,000 cubic meters of water per capita per annum might even stop thinking of industrialization as an environmentally healthy national goal. It is estimated that over four dozen countries, mostly in the Global South, including India and China, today fall into the “water stressed” category.


In a debate about mistranslations, many discussions have centered on the Chinese character for a flood-protecting river embankment as the conjunction of the symbols for both “danger” and “opportunity.” Water is life, but also death and destruction from floods, droughts, pollution, typhoons and tsunamis. Having to wrestle with the dual nature of water in its benign and terrorizing aspects is not new in history. Rulers in both the rice civilizations of “wet” and semi-arid regions of Asia have left a heroic record of their struggles to tame the ferocity of water and harvest its bounties. Sri Lanka’s history books deify 12th century King Parakramabahu for his work building storage tanks and other water-harvesting measures. Indian Nawabs and emperors promulgated “food for work” programs that saw the building of canals and reservoirs to bring water to parched cities and fields. Indeed, the first recorded mediation of a water conflict was by the Buddha himself between two clans in the 6th century BC in Southern Nepal.


The core predicaments surrounding water currently lie in the “wicked” nature of the inherent problems surrounding its use. A “wicked problem” is one where the conundrum is intertwined and interlinked with so many different issues, definitions and emphases that easy agreement among the contending stakeholders is fiercely difficult. Now, if the definitions of the problem are different, one can be certain that the proffered solutions will be even more contradictory. This plethora of “contradictory certitudes,” i.e. opposing groups absolutely convinced that their view is the right one, is what makes the water problem so challenging and interesting.


The sheer diversity of water’s manifestation in Asia is awe-inspiring, as are the problems of coping with the curse of too much or too little of it. In the lower reaches of the major river basins such as Bangladesh, its over-abundance is a key problem and flood control takes on a priority over all other considerations, including those of pollutants such as arsenic in its abundant shallow groundwater. In the semi-arid regions of Gujrat or the Deccan plateau, the uncontrolled pumping of groundwater in a free-for-all scramble has led to the dwindling of resources for all and the sad spectacle of farmer suicides, as they fail to find water to grow crops to pay off their loans. Nepal’s mid-hill Himalaya are seeing a drying of its spring sources, which is proving to be a push factor for outmigration to cities and foreign countries in the search for jobs.


This physical diversity is matched only by the services that water is put to in the myriad niches that sustain the planet’s biodiversity and economic activities. Water is a “fugitive” resource, which means that even when left alone, it is constantly on the run, trying to escape. It is obvious in rivers and perhaps less so in the stillness of a glacier or reservoir. It melts silently, evaporates invisibly, and inexorably flows downhill, seeping underground only to emerge back onto the surface as springs and oases in the unlikeliest of places. In its ubiquity, it seems to permeate everything and its natural cycle sees it flowing to the sea, evaporating and falling back on land again as rain or snow. And when humans enter this cycle, with their ever-increasing demands and powers, the result is water stress, which is experienced most acutely by plants and animals but also by traditional societies whose values differ from those prevailing in the modern world.


Human economies have varied needs, but since the rise of the market economy that entered Asia through European colonization, ever-expanding imperatives have to be satisfied by different properties of water — its flowing properties to flush away the waste of major cities, its dissolving properties to catalyze major industrial production processes and its very chemistry to sustain life. Indeed, ever since the dawn of civilization and much more intensely since modernization and industrialization, human ingenuity has been tested by the desire to arrest the natural flow of water and divert it elsewhere to quench the ever increasing thirst of economic activity. And it has been the source of ill-will originating from economic competition, if not outright fighting, between diverse efforts in different sectors, be it agriculture or industry, domestic consumption or environmental flows.


But there is not enough water to meet the unbridled demand of the globalized market, and a realization has set in, since about 2008, with the financial and political crisis of rising food prices, that water, energy and food are facing what is called the “nexus problem” — the entwined predicament of the limitations of each. Energy production cannot be expanded because there is not enough water to cool the thermal or nuclear power plants; water cannot be pumped from groundwater sources because there is not enough energy or because it is too costly; and food cannot be grown, transported, processed and stored, because both water and energy are lacking.


V10N1-Cover-Gyawali-GraphicDisputes over conflicting demands are thus inevitably part and parcel of the rights to, risks of, responsibilities toward and rewards from, a flowing yet fugitive resource such as water. This predicament is made worse by the fact that our “water studies” programs, which train and produce our water managers, favor civil engineering, prioritize cement construction and cater to liberal economics. They measure value only through the prism of efficiency for profits, not through other values dear to many diverse facets of human society. Water intersects subjects ranging from meteorology, hydrology, chemistry and microbiology to economics, law, sociology, history, culture, philosophy, and even literature and poetry. Privileging one field in policy formulation (e.g., civil engineering or finance economics) while ignoring others that better express human aspirations (e.g., politics or ethics) in modern water management has been at the root of many contemporary conflicts.


How might a better water future emerge for Asia? As mentioned earlier, water is a “wicked” problem with multiple definitions and attempts to solve the entwined predicament by using only one management style often fail because they run up against other uses, users, aspirations and values. Large bureaucracies (or “hydrocracies”) define the problem as one of scarcity and the solution as capital-intensive, multi-year projects of large dams and trans-boundary water transfers. Investment bankers favor letting the private sector — which is already supplying private water in bottles or tankers — into the large dams arena, where the imperative of market players for short-term profits is in direct collision with society’s long-term needs for infrastructure used by generations as well as inter-generational equity.


Markets are best equipped to produce efficient technical solutions, but not socially equitable or environmentally desirable ones. Governments should be able to meld the interests of markets and social as well as environmental needs, but unfortunately, and especially in the developing Global South, they have assumed a secondary and subservient role to the powerful market under misleading slogans like public-private partnership. Mainstream politics is increasingly becoming market-driven and less friendly to social and environmental concerns.


Such non-market, non-profit values and concerns, many of which are deeply-rooted and cultural, are carried by “social auditors” who often prefer small-scale, conservation-oriented approaches as well as behavioral changes from ethical perspectives. Southern NGOs, unlike their Northern counterparts, are not knee-jerk anti-dam: they realize that the poor with no access to electricity or clean drinking water need to be served by dams and other products of modern science. As a result, their slogan is not “No Dams!” but “No Bad Dams!” — where the fierce debate is about what constitutes a good dam, who should decide and what other more socially acceptable options should be laid on the policy table. An attempt in this direction, to include social and environmental concerns, was made through what is called Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), but the process was too bureaucratic to be effective and is now being re-visited through the “nexus” approach.


The concern of “social auditors” is made all the more pointed by the imperatives of climate change. There is little doubt that global temperatures are rising and weather patterns, especially extreme events such as cloudbursts and unseasonal droughts, are on the rise. However, at the current state-of-art it is nearly impossible to predict what climate change does to precipitation. A study of different global circulation models examined for the Nepal Himalaya prior to the climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009 showed a remarkable similarity in predicting temperature rise, but when it came to precipitation, the predictions varied from a 53-percent decrease to a 135-percent increase, highlighting near total uncertainty in the science. Glaciers are receding from lower elevations but they are also thickening in some of the higher reaches due to increased snowfall. Thus, climate change is saying two things: first, society is going to be affected through suspected dramatic changes in the availability of water in different parts of the globe; and second, the future is not going to be like the past, which means that future weather patterns are uncertain and our past hydro-technical tools to predict precipitation and estimate river flows are nearly useless. We may have to further develop and increasingly rely on new satellite imaging techniques, which poor countries do not have access to.


Thus, Asian water managers and experts might serve the region better if they err on the side of caution, if they manage to bring different and often contradictory voices of markets, governments and social activists onto a constructively engaged platform to inform one another of mutual concerns in the face of physical uncertainty and increasing social vulnerability. They may also like to re-visit traditional water management and harvesting technologies to see if the inherent ancient wisdom therein may have potential value for our uncertain future. It has been said, half in jest, that if the concept of Integrated Water Resource Management had been proposed in Asia instead of Europe, the term “integrated” might have been replaced by “harmonious”, the more oriental preference. That which brings contradictory voices together to find common ground, and not the ramrodding of a single big solution, might be the “Asian Way” — if there is to be one — to deal with Asia’s sacred but wicked waters.


Dipak Gyawali is an academician at the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, chair of the non-profit Nepal Water Conservation Foundation and vice-chair of UNESCO’s World Water Assessment Program’s Technical Advisory Committee. He has been a UNESCO visiting professor of water and cultural diversity at the United Nations University in Yokohama and a member of the panel of experts for the Mekong River Commission.

Back to Issue
    Behind the modern challenges of dealing with the scarcity or excess of water in Asia lies a deep and long history in culture, religion, politics and everyday life of viewing water as both sacred and wicked, as the great sustainer of life and the horrifying destroyer. That profound dichotomy, writes Dipak Gyawali, will perforce underwrite current strategies to cope with an emerging water crisis in the region.
    Published: March 2015 (Vol.10 No.1)
    About the author

    Dipak Gyawali is an academician at the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, chair of the non-profit Nepal Water Conservation Foundation and vice-chair of UNESCO’s World Water Assessment Program’s Technical Advisory Committee. He has been a UNESCO visiting professor of water and cultural diversity at the United Nations University in Yokohama and a member of the panel of experts for the Mekong River Commission.

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