CSIRO cuts could affect Antarctic rights; New chairman for Golkar party; China’s efforts at total control By Hamish McDonald.

Asia’s drought crisis may lead to water wars

A woman walks along the fringe of the dried-up Varuna River, in the village of Phūlpur, Uttar Pradesh, India.
A woman walks along the fringe of the dried-up Varuna River, in the village of Phūlpur, Uttar Pradesh, India.
Credit: Prabhat Kumar Verma/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Some wonks are lamenting the absence of foreign policy issues in Australia’s long election campaign, but footballer Jarryd Hayne’s defection to Fiji’s Olympic rugby team leading the ABC evening news bulletin during the week might be the closest it gets.

Richard Di Natale is doing his best, suggesting more distance in the United States defence alliance in a Lowy Institute talk, but with Labor and the Coalition in lock step on the Pacific Solution to asylum seekers, draconian national security laws, hosting of US forces and massive defence spending, there’s little real contest.

But there’s one huge international issue that intrudes at the end of every news program with the weather report. Record high temperatures into the winter should be forcing climate change onto the top of the political agenda. Yet despite bleaching extensively affecting the Great Barrier Reef, the Tasmanian oyster industry being devastated by unusual sea temperatures, and that state’s hydro dams running perilously low, the issue gets only the most diffident handling by the major parties.

If we look to our north, the impact of an exaggerated El Niño cycle is ruinous. Famine is hitting regions from the Papua New Guinea highlands to Ethiopia. As the Indian strategic policy analyst Brahma Chellaney writes for Project Syndicate, an unprecedented drought is hitting Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and its central highlands, 27 of Thailand’s 76 provinces, parts of Cambodia including the Tonle Sap lake, Myanmar’s largest cities Yangon and Mandalay, and areas of India home to more than a quarter of its 1.3 billion population.

The drought threatens to set off inflation across Asia. About 72 per cent of the world’s rice is grown and consumed there. Production is badly hit in two of the biggest rice exporters, Thailand and Vietnam. Reduced water flows in the Mekong have led to salt water intrusion, rendering about 10 per cent of Vietnam’s paddy fields infertile, possibly for many years.

“This drought may be unprecedented, but it is not an anomaly,” Chellaney writes. “On the contrary, environmental challenges in Asia, such as ecosystem degradation, groundwater depletion, the contamination of water resources, the El Niño tropical weather pattern, and the effects of global warming are causing droughts to become increasingly frequent – and increasingly severe.”

The crisis is bringing a long-brewing conflict in Asia to boiling point. Writers such as the Australian National University’s Gavan McCormack and former Australian diplomat Milton Osborne have pointed to the prospect of wars over fresh water this century. It’s getting closer. China has been damming the headwaters of the major rivers flowing southwards from the Himalayas. Flows in the Mekong during the current dry season are at the lowest level since records began about 100 years ago, a United Nations agency reports.

Chellaney observes that while China is now “trying to play saviour” by releasing water into the Mekong from one of its six mega-dams, this “simply highlights the newfound reliance of downriver countries on Chinese goodwill – a dependence that is set to deepen as China builds 14 more dams on the Mekong.”

1 . Antarctic white flag

Certainly putting Australia in the news overseas are the efforts of the Coalition government and its appointees to stick the nation’s head in the sand about the cause of the severe floods, droughts, bushfires and tropical cyclones that seem to be hitting the world more and more frequently.

The Abbott government-appointed head of the CSIRO, Larry Marshall, is pursuing his redundancy program, which hits hard at the agency’s expertise in climate change. The science is proven, he says, so resources should be devoted to potential commercial solutions for living with the problem. One of the world’s most renowned researchers on rising sea levels, John Church, has just revealed he is one of 275 scientists tipped this week for redundancy, about a third of them working on measuring climate change. The Cape Grim station in Tasmania’s north-west that measures baseline atmospheric carbon pollution levels is also threatened. Another activity to go is an Antarctic research program that together with international partners would study ancient ice formations to extend knowledge of long-term climate change patterns.

This is not just a blow to climate research. To one leading scientist, Neil Hamilton, it signals a waning commitment to Australia’s claims to 42 per cent of Antarctica, and the system that keeps the continent free of military activity and commercial exploitation. The international court rules that title to a piece of remote and unpopulated territory is subject to effective occupation by the claimant country.

Although Malcolm Turnbull announced a new $500 million icebreaker to replace the ageing Aurora Australis by 2019, Hamilton wrote in the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter, cuts at the CSIRO and the federal environment department have effectively slashed the Antarctic science budget by 30 per cent since 2012. This won’t go unobserved by countries positioning to access the continent’s resources when the present treaty on environmental protection comes up for review in 2048.

2 . Golkar fights back

When Joko Widodo became Indonesia’s president nearly two years ago, it looked like the system was stacked against him, with opposition parties controlling a majority in the national parliament over which the president has little or no veto power. Now Golkar, one of the largest opposition groups, is falling into disarray and is desperately coming to heel.

Last December we recorded how Golkar’s appointee as parliamentary speaker, Setya Novanto, had to resign after he was exposed trying to shake down the country’s biggest mining company, Freeport, for an equity stake valued at $US4 billion. On Tuesday, Golkar appointed Setya as its new chairman, ending a long power struggle between tycoons Aburizal Bakrie and Jusuf Kalla.

The party convention in Bali had amused Jakarta political circles. Golkar’s currency is patronage not policy ideas. With candidates unable to express what they were offering in the backrooms (more money than the other guys), public debate was vacuous. Now with a discredited figure at its head, Golkar wants to end its uncomfortable opposition role and return to government ranks to get a share of perks and opportunities.

3 . Great Firewall gap

With China’s communists giving only a stiff acknowledgement of the 50th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s launch of his Cultural Revolution on Monday − People’s Daily assuring everyone it couldn’t possibly happen again − current leader Xi Jinping is doing a passable Mao imitation in the eyes of many Sinologists, enforcing rigid ideological orthodoxy.

To this end, a trusted apparatchik, Politburo Standing Committee member Zhang Dejiang, was dispatched to restive Hong Kong this week. Trained in economics at the Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, Zhang has had a career marked by ruthless suppression of protesters, censorship of critical media, and cynical news management around major industrial accidents and the SARS epidemic. Nervous Hong Kong authorities took the precaution of gluing down paving stones in the places Zhang will visit.

Meanwhile, the renowned “father” of the Great Firewall of China – the system of internet censorship administrated by thousands of cybercops – had an embarrassing moment. While speaking about internet security at the Harbin Institute of Technology last month, Fan Binxing tried to access a South Korean website to demonstrate that Seoul also censored the web (it does, but comparatively sparingly on North Korean content). But Fan was blocked by his own system. In full view of the audience, he then set up a virtual private network to access the website, thereby demonstrating how to get around the official firewall. Derisive comment by Chinese netizens in response is now censored.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2016 as "Asia’s drought crisis may lead to water wars".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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