Brahma Chellaney: Water the 'New Oil' of 21st Century

NEW YORK, January 23, 2013 — Winner of the 2012 Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Book Award for Water: Asia’s New Battleground, Brahma Chellaney joined us to discuss the looming security challenges facing an increasingly water-stressed Asia. His prize-winning book illustrates how the region’s lack of fresh water — per capita, Asia is the most water-scarce continent — is creating obstacles to continued rapid economic growth, stoking interstate tensions over shared resources, exacerbating long-time territorial disputes, and imposing further hardships on the poor. During his discussion, Dr. Chellaney explains that most transnational Asian water resources flow through only one area, the Tibetan Plateau, which is controlled by limited stakeholders and is helping to place resources at the fore of conflicts within the continent. Additionally, Dr. Chellaney identifies the following causes of Asia's water crisis:

  1. A "dramatic economic rise, which has brought water resources under increasing strain."
  2. An "irrigation expansion," which has put over 70 percent of the world's irrigated land in Asia.
  3. And "consumption growth as a result of rising prosperity… [that's] best illustrated by changing diets, especially the greater intake of meat — which is notoriously water-intensive to produce."

Drawing parallels to other highly-prized resources, Dr. Chellaney discusses the prices of and conflicts caused by petroleum, remarking that "one indication of how the water situation has changed fundamentally can be seen from… the retail price of [plain, non-glacial] bottled water, [which is] already higher than the international spot price of crude oil." He identifies water as "the new oil of the 21st century, but unlike oil, water has no known substitutes, making it more valuable from a long-term investment perspective." Continuing to compare resources, Chellaney observes the sobering notion that soon water will likely "be a source of both wealth and conflict."

However, Chellaney stresses that as vulnerable as Asia may be to "water wars," the continent can avoid greater conflicts and challenges through engaging in good governance practices such as rules-based cooperation, transparency, collaboration, and sharing, as well as calling for governments to fundamentally shift from current policies and practices.

Dr. Chellaney's discussion in New York was followed by an event in Washington, D.C., where he was joined by Jennifer Turner, Director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center. This event was co-hosted by the Asia Society in D.C. and the India Project at the Brookings Institution.

Watch highlights of the January 23 New York event below. You can also watch complete video of this program here.

Video: Excerpts from Brahma Chellaney's talk (6 min., 5 sec.)

Related links:
Interview with Brahma Chellaney
Shop AsiaStore for Water: Asia's New Battleground