Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Water row points to a troubled future

A recent row between two Indian States over rights to the water of a major river they share highlights a problem that will be affecting many more parts of the world as the century progresses.

The Cauvery River rises in Karnataka and flows across southern India, through Tamil Nadu, to empty into the Bay of Bengal. Disputes between the two States over its waters have been a regular occurrence since the colonial era, and flared again earlier this year after India’s Supreme Court ordered the Karnataka State Government to release additional flows to its neighbour.

Initially Karnataka, which controls the river flow mainly through the Kabini Dam, refused citing violent demonstrations in its major city of Bangalore against any additional release. It claimed it needed the water for drinking, while Tamil Nadu required it just for irrigation.

However, when monsoon rains proved better than expected, Karnataka relented and said it would release more water “to protect the interest of its farmers”; in fact much is expected to flow on to Tamil Nadu.   

While this may seem little more than a local spat, eventually resolved, the underlying issues have global implications. The journal Science Daily recently reported on a study by Aarhus University in Denmark that predicted there will not be enough water to meet world demand for drinking, irrigation and power generation by 2040.

The author of the report, Benjamin Sovacool said electricity was the biggest source of water consumption as power plants needed cooling cycles in order to function. Worse still, the research showed that most power systems did not even keep count of the amount of water they were using.

“It’s a huge problem if the electricity sector does not even know how much water they consume, and together with the fact that we don’t have unlimited water resources, it could lead to a serious crisis if nobody acts on it soon,” Professor Sovacool said.

But for many of the world’s population, the crisis is already here. More than a billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. Climate change means that once predictable monsoon rains are regularly failing. In the Middle East deserts are encroaching on previously fertile areas.

Announcing a major investment in desalination plants because its fresh water sources were drying up, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates said water was now more important than oil.

But in poor and landlocked countries, desalination is an impossible luxury. Here lack of clean water leads to inadequate sanitation, and diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever flourish. The worst casualties are among children, with more than a million dying from these diseases each year.

Most Governments continue to play down the threat of global water shortages, but with a resource which is absolutely vital to human survival, and with the world’s population still rising, the possibility will be ignored at our peril. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Are Saudis tiring of Israeli conflict?

There are signs — very much behind the scenes at the moment and denied by all concerned — that Saudi Arabia may be inching towards an historic accommodation with Israel.

The forces nudging the country’s rulers in this direction are economic. The plunge in oil prices has hit the kingdom hard. For the first time the word ‘austerity’ is being mentioned in official circles, ending a decade of profligate spending.

The country’s Public Service, long a repository for the idle sons of the middle class, has been told in no uncertain terms to get its act together; the Budget deficit for the year is approaching $100 million.

Then there is the war in Yemen— a massive drain on the country’s finances that seems to be producing nothing but condemnation from the international community — and Iran, which both Israel and Saudi Arabia see as a looming threat.

It is against this stark background that King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud may be turning his attention to the Middle-East’s long running problem of how to deal with the Jewish State.

This issue has been tentatively explored before. I remember an off-the-record interview with a retired Saudi general who said the billions of dollars that had been pumped into support for the Palestinian cause over decades had produced absolutely nothing.

“The Israeli State is stronger than ever. It’s not going away and we can’t shift it. That money would have been better spent raising the standard of living in the Arab world,” the military officer said.

As early as 2001, a Saudi initiative offered peace and recognition for Israel if it withdrew to its 1967 boundaries. Nothing happened then, but after 15 years of continued frustration it is possible that plan is being dusted off.

In a recent interview, Director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, Simon Henderson mentioned the activities of Prince Turki al-Faisal, a son of the late King Faisal and prominent in international diplomatic circles. 

“He was a guest and participated in a forum discussion with [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu’s former National Security Adviser, Yaakov Amidror,” Henderson said.

“Also earlier this year at the Munich Security Conference he was photographed shaking hands with Moshe Yaalon, who was then Israeli Defence Minister — so something is happening.” 

These developments have to be seen in context with the internal situation in Israel where there is a growing feeling that the Palestinians are not going to be dissuaded from their desire for a separate State.

The retired chief of the country’s Intelligence Agency, Mossad, Tamir Pardo, caused a sensation when he said there was no military threat to Israel — a comment in direct contrast to Netanyahu’s policy that the country is surrounded by dangerous enemies and deadly threats and Israel must continue to be on a state of high alert and spend billions on its defence forces as the price for its very existence.

So war weariness and simple economics may be pushing both sides in this long-running conflict into an accommodation. Without the Saudi bankroll the Palestinian campaign against Israel would be reduced to rock-throwing youths. The big question is how this would play out in other parts of the Middle East.

It would really be a question of whether the idea of peace could be sold as better for the Palestinians and better for the Arab world – and how much Israel would be prepared to contribute to that idea.   

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Why referendums are bad for democracy

The recent referendum in Colombia highlighted once again the inherent danger in putting single questions to an entire electorate.

What should have been the final chapter in a long and bloody conflict has now heralded a period of prolonged uncertainty and even, heaven forbid, a return to the battlefield.

The deal that was worked out between the Government and the rebels, the Marxist Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) was the best it could be. Of course it was a compromise, what else could be expected after half a century of turmoil?

Politics is, and always has been, to quote Otto von Bismarck “the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”.

Politicians and diplomats understand it, but it is a hard concept to convey to tens of millions of people who have little or no understanding on how politics and diplomacy work.

In the case of Columbia, there was a great deal of emotion involved. Families had lost members in the decades-long conflict; other had been internally displaced; people had been kidnapped and simply disappeared. The scars ran deep. 

What information the Government provided was fragmented and scarcely reached beyond the big cities and the elite who had easy access to television, radio and the internet. Yet it was often the remote, rural areas that had borne the brunt of the conflict.

This led to a widespread feeling that the electorate was being ignored, that their opinions did not matter, something that was emphasised by the hubris between the conclusion of negotiations with FARC and the actual referendum.

Champagne popped, there were military fly-overs, Heads of State witnessed the signing, and acclaim came from the international community. The referendum was relegated to a side issue, and the people punished the Government for taking them for granted.

All that was needed to give form to the simmering discontent with the negotiations was a populist hero — and that came in the form of former President Alvaro Uribe who is generally credited with turning the tide against FARC while he was in office.

His claims that the deal disrespected the victims and would hand the country to the rebels were simplistic and hugely exaggerated, but the grain of truth they carried was sufficient to mobilise a slim ‘no’ majority in the vote.

Here lies the problem with referendums in general, just at the time they are becoming increasingly popular with timid Governments that shrink at the very shadow of unpopularity: Handing complicated issues with far-reaching implications over to an entire electorate risks the raising of multiple grievances which have little to do with the question at large.

I well remember during the United Kingdom’s June referendum on European Union membership  hearing the single mother with six children saying she was voting for Leave because she had not been given public housing — an argument with her local council, but certainly not with Brussels.

In Australia the Government seems determined to put the issue of gay marriage to a plebiscite rather than a Parliamentary vote. While polls have suggested that 70 per cent of the population agree with the question and a national vote will surely pass, the campaign will provide a platform for a homophobic minority to give vent to their hatreds, quite possibly resulting in an upsurge of abuse and violence against everyone perceived to be ‘different’.

In a democracy we have the opportunity to elect men and women to represent us and govern in our name for a period — four in many countries, five in India and the UK and just three in Australia — at the end of that time we have the chance to re-elect them or throw them out. They stand and fall by what they have done in the intervening period.

The only referendum needed is that vote. To constantly run to the electorate on this or that issue is an abrogation of responsibility and a failure of leadership. Worse still it undermines the functioning of democracy and gives ammunition to those who believe in more authoritarian or totalitarian philosophies of government.   

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Kashmir – time for level heads to prevail

The question following India’s ‘surgical strike’ across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir — taking out what it describes as terrorist ‘launch-pads’ in Pakistani territory — is what happens next.

Despite all the rhetoric, the preferred answer from political centres in New Delhi and Islamabad is ‘not a great deal’. There has since been an attack by ‘militants’ on an Indian base in its part of Kashmir but on the scale of actions in this war-torn province, it was just another working day.     

The Indian strikes were in response to a far more serious militant attack on its Uri Army base that killed 18 Indian soldiers. That followed two months of street protests in the divided territory over the killing of militant Burhan Wani that left more than 85 people dead.

Tit for tat, tit for tat — the history of Indo-Pakistan relations over Kashmir that go back to partition.

Twice they have escalated into full-scale war, but the stakes are far higher now — and not just because both countries have nuclear arsenals.

To put it simply, China backs Pakistan and the United States supports India. Confrontation between the two sub-continent States could drag in the superpowers — and that is a situation no-one wants.

However, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, might be content with allowing matters to rest, there are other forces at play.

In Pakistan Sharif has to contend with an aggressive military which has a habit of seizing power for itself if it feels things are not going well for the country and a restive parliamentary opposition outraged over what it sees as India’s violation of its territorial integrity.

Army Chief Raheel Sharif is far more popular in the country than his political namesake and does not want to see that reputation tarnished by inaction. Finally, fundamentalist Islamic elements are generating pressure for more far-reaching reprisals.

Modi is not entirely immune from pressure either. His Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is delighted with the strikes across the LoC after what it sees as India’s failure to respond to constant provocations, and Pakistan’s failure to deal with militant elements on its soil.  

For the right wing of the party, the crisis is a godsend, silencing liberal voices who seek a political settlement of the Kashmir question and moving closer to what so many of them have demanded for decades – a military solution.

It is to be hoped that level heads will prevail. New Delhi needs to be reminded that the latest tensions boiled over mainly as a result of its own brutal crackdowns in Indian-administered Kashmir and it now needs to deal with the unrest there in a more measured way.

With the United States distracted in the midst of its four-yearly presidential election cycle and with the Middle East still firmly on its plate, early intervention to calm the dispute cannot be guaranteed.

This opens the ominous possibility that China might decide the time is ripe to stir the Kashmir pot, raising the stakes to a point that Washington could no longer ignore.

Modi can avoid this by using some of the political capital he has gained so far to deescalate the situation. The next moves should be at the negotiating table rather than the battlefield.