Best of our wild blogs: 24 Jul 12

from The annotated budak and Cow in a box

Bird-plant relationships at Singapore’s Punggol Park
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Bivalves Unleashed: Bivalve Workshop Day 1
from wild shores of singapore

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Malaysia: Reefs at risk

The world’s coral epicentre is in danger.
The Star 24 Jul 12;

REEFS all around the world are in trouble – but more so those in the region known as the Coral Triangle, which encompasses reefs in South-East Asia and the Pacific and is considered the centre of coral diversity in the world.

A report shows that over 85% of reefs in the six countries that make up the Coral Triangle – Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, and Timor Leste – are directly threatened by local human activities, substantially more than the global average of 60%.

The document Reefs At Risk Revisited In The Coral Triangle, released recently at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns, Australia, points to these threats: over-fishing, destructive fishing methods, pollution from the land, and coastal development. The impact of these threats is worsened by coral bleaching, which is triggered by rising ocean temperatures.

The Coral Triangle contains nearly 30% of the world’s coral reefs and hosts 76% of all known coral species and over 3,000 species of fish, which is twice the number found anywhere else in the world. More than 130 million people living in the region rely on reef ecosystems for food, employment, and revenue from tourism.

Despite its immense biodiversity and economic importance, only 16% of the region’s coral reefs are protected as marine reserves – which is considerably lower than the global average of 28% – and only 1% of this is effectively managed.

The scene is especially dismal in Malaysia. It might have 93 marine protected areas but these cover only 7% of its reefs. And only five of these reserves (encompassing just 1% of the country’s reefs) are rated as effective at reducing fishing pressure. Over 90% of the country’s reefs are found in the coasts of Sabah. About 540 species of hard corals have been identified in the country so far, as well as 925 species of fish.

The report states that nearly all reefs in Malaysia are threatened by local human activities, with more than 40% under high and very high threat. Over-fishing is the most widespread threat, affecting about 97% of reefs in Malaysia. Destructive fishing, such as blast and cyanide fishing, threatens 85% of Malaysia’s reefs, particularly those in Sabah and Sarawak.

Watershed-based pollution (such as runoffs from coastal development and sediment-laden outflows from rivers) affects 30% of the reefs, especially those off Peninsular Malaysia. Reefs are also suffering from marine pollution and coastal development.

The Philippines is the most vulnerable to reef degradation because of its highly threatened reefs, high economic dependence on reefs, and low capacity to adapt to the loss of goods and services provided by reefs.

Among the recommendations offered in the report for protecting reefs in the Coral Triangle, the most urgent is to reduce local pressures from over-fishing, destructive fishing, damaging coastal development, and polluting runoffs from land.

The report authors say healthy reefs will be more likely to survive the negative effects of climate change, such as coral bleaching or reduced coral growth rates due to increased ocean acidity. Tackling the local threats first will buy time for the reefs until the global community can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Across the Coral Triangle region, coastal communities depend on coral reefs for food, livelihood and protection from waves during storms, but the threats to reefs in this region are incredibly high,” says Lauretta Burke, senior associate at World Resources Institute (WRI) and a lead author of the report.

“Reefs are resilient. They can recover from coral bleaching and other impacts – particularly if other threats are low. The benefits reefs provide are at risk, which is why concerted action to mitigate threats to reefs across the Coral Triangle region is so important.”

The report was developed by the US-based WRI in collaboration with USAID Coral Triangle Support Partnership, a consortium of WWF, The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International, that is assisting the six Coral Triangle governments in implementing their regional and national Coral Triangle Initiative plans of action.

Founded by the six countries in 2009, the Coral Triangle Initiative intends to improve fisheries management in the region, build a network of marine protected areas, help the local people adapt to climate change, and protect endangered marine species. – Tan Cheng Li

Research reveals future of world's coral reefs bleak
Tan Cheng Li The Star 24 Jul 12;

Ocean acidification is another addition to the slew of problems battering coral reefs – pollution from the land, over-fishing, habitat destruction, sea level rise, warmer waters, destructive storms and coral bleaching.

THE difference in the two coral reefs could not have been more startling for marine scientist Dr Katharina Fabricius. At one site, she saw a resplendent reef with different types of corals vying for space in an interlocking mass of wondrous colours.

At another spot, the reef appeared to have bleached out. There were no colours, the corals were not as diverse, and dominating the reef were seagrasses and algae.

These reefs, located off D’Entrecastraux Islands in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, give an inkling of what is to come for coral reefs in a warmer world.

Fabricius, a researcher at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, had studied these sites in eastern PNG to see how ocean acidification is affecting marine life.

The oceans absorb up to a third of all the carbon dioxide spewed out by man, and that is changing sea water chemistry. Seas are turning acidic, and scientists foresee that triggering massive transformations in coral reef structures and communities.

In Milne Bay, there are areas where carbon dioxide naturally bubbles out from the seabed. This creates areas where the ph of the water is lower than the ambient condition, and offers Fabricius the perfect field setting for her research.

Presenting her findings at the recent International Coral Reef Symposium in Cairns, Australia, she shares that in areas where the sea water is more acidic, there is reduced coral diversity, especially in the types of corals with branches, lattices and plates, which are structurally complex reef builders.

There are also fewer soft corals, sea sponges and juvenile corals, but more algae and seagrass growths. At one site with the most intense CO2 vents and where the ph dropped to 7.7, practically nothing grew on the reef.

Fabricius says while some groups of organisms can live at high CO2 levels, at the same time, it is of great concern to see that coral reefs – home to many marine species – will lose their structural complexity.

“Our empirical data from this unique field setting confirm model predictions that ocean acidification, together with temperature stress, will probably lead to severely reduced diversity, structural complexity and resilience of Indo-Pacific coral reefs within this century.”

The work of another scientist, Shihori Inoue of University of Tokyo in Japan, also shows an ecosystem shift from a stony to soft coral population in the volcanically acidified water of Iwo-Tori-Shima Island off Okinawa.

He found stony corals only in areas with little or no influence of acidification, whereas areas with high CO2 was dominated by the soft coral Sarcophyton elegans. In areas with the highest CO2 levels, neither stony nor soft corals survived.

Many similar findings, showing how complex changes have already begun that can fundamentally change what reefs look like in the future, were shared at the symposium from July 9 to 13.

Many of the over 2,000 scientists attending the conference – held every four years to discuss advances in coral reef science – said that coral reefs, as we know them today, will disappear by the end of the century as the oceans turn more acidic due to global warming.

Double whammy

The scientists collectively warned of the dire state which the world’s coral reefs are in: a quarter of these habitats have been severely degraded by human activities such as land development, pollution and over-fishing.

They predicted that the current trajectory of human development will eliminate 90% of the world’s coral reefs by the end of the century.

There are sceptics who still deny the occurrence of climate change but Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, Australia, says such a debate is non-existent among marine scientists. “We’ve been measuring the impact of climate change on reefs since the 1980s. Many scientists have experiences where the reefs they had studied as PhD students have disappeared before their eyes.”

Jeremy Jackson, senior scientist at Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, the United States, says “the huge decline in live coral cover is real and has been documented”.

He, too, finds that the reefs he used to study (in the Caribbean) are no longer there. He says in the early 1970s, corals dominated over half of the reefs there. Today, they form only 10% of it. And all is not well even in the world’s best-protected reef ecosystem, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Jackson says the marine park has seen its coral cover drop by half in the last 50 years, from 40% to 20%.

The world’s coral reefs are facing a double whammy: already suffering from the impact of human activities such as over-fishing, pollution and habitat destruction, they now have to grapple with the problems triggered by climate change.

“Tropical coral reef waters are already significantly warmer than they were and the rate of warming is accelerating,” says Janice Lough, senior principal research scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. “With or without drastic curtailment of greenhouse gas emissions, we are facing, for the foreseeable future, changes in the physical environment of present-day coral reefs.”

She says over the past century, global temperatures have warmed by 0.7°C and those of the surface tropical oceans, by 0.5°C.

The warmer waters have led to widespread coral bleaching events and outbreaks of coral diseases. Reefs have also been battered by more frequent and intense tropical storms. The increased frequency means reefs have no time to recover.

Current projections indicate that the tropical oceans could be 1°C to 3°C warmer by the end of this century, and the ph drop from the present 8.1 to less than 7.9.

These changes threaten the formation of the reef structure, says Lough. She shares that at the Great Barrief Reef and in Thailand, scientists have found massive corals (the types which grow in mounds) growing slower than they used to.

Different corals respond differently to the changes, adds Lough. “The cold water reefs off Western Australia can keep up with warming so far but it is unlikely that this growth can be sustained given the setbacks in growth following coral bleaching.

Bleaching occurred for the first time in this cold water reef last year.” (In coral bleaching, the colourful algae that live within coral tissues and provide food for the host, die off due to warmer waters, leaving behind white coral skeletons.)

Robert Richmond, research professor at University of Hawaii in the US, says in 1998 which saw massive coral bleaching worldwide, a third of reefs in the Palau archipelago in the Pacific was lost. “Thousands of square kilometres were affected and recovery is not happening as algae have taken over the reef.”

He describes the situation as an “Irish potato famine of reefs”, where there will be massive losses of species and genetic diversity, such as those seen in the 1845-1849 potato crop failure.

Richmond says unhealthy reefs will suffer problems with reproduction and repopulation. “If the decline is not arrested, by 2070, reefs worldwide will be totally not functional as only 10% will be left.”

Fishy behaviour

Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide has raised the acidity in the world’s oceans by 25%, according to Stephen Palumbi, director of Hopkins Marine Station in Stanford University, California. “Acidity is important for calcium formation but that calcium dissolves in high acidity, affecting the corals’ ability to build skeletons. Corals can grow and keep up with sea level rise if they are developing at normal rates but they are not, and they will not be able to handle the increased acidity of oceans if the trend continues.”

The skeleton of hard corals is the backbone of tropical coral reefs – they are what builds the reef. Without these skeletons, reefs just cannot form. A change in the coral community can have wide-ranging impact, says James Cook University professor, Philip L. Munday.

He says without the reef, other marine species will not have a habitat. Fish, for instance, seek shelter in the nooks and crevices of the reef.

Munday’s research found that the growth and reproduction rates of fish drop when water temperature rises. He also discovered that elevated CO2 levels interfere with the sensory activities of fish and cause abnormal behaviours.

For instance, he found small fish moving further out to sea, making them vulnerable to predators. An impaired sense of smell made larval fish attracted to scents they normally avoid, such as those from predators and unfavourable habitats.

Meanwhile, research by Florida International University in the US found that warmer waters can thin the layer of protective mucus around hard corals. This mucus plays a key role in coral immunity, acting as a barrier against UV light, sediment deposition and bacteria.

In a laboratory study, scientist Zoe Pratte found three Caribbean coral species, when exposed to higher temperatures over seven weeks, to have a significant decrease in their mucus thickness.

“The steady increase in sea water temperature associated with global warming may have major implications for coral health and their ability to withstand biotic and abiotic stressors,” she says.

There will be variability in responses among species to temperature change and ocean acidification; some species might survive while others could go extinct.

More importantly, says John M. Pandolfi, director at the centre for marine science at University of Queensland, Australia, coral reefs that are already degraded from human pressures will be much less likely to handle the increase in temperature and ocean acidity.

“There will be winners and losers in climate change and ocean acidification, but reefs will demonstrably change and, for most people’s idea of what reefs are, not for the better,” he says.

In his research tracing the story of the world’s reefs over the past 50 million years, he found evidence that global warming and acidification had played a role in reef destruction and the reefs have bounced back. “Corals are remarkably resilient but while they have withstood hot climates and high CO2 in the past, we have so far been unable to identify any period in Earth’s history when CO2 levels rose as rapidly as today.”

To avert the decline in coral reefs, he points out three things requiring action: aggressively reduce CO2 emissions as slowing the rate of climate change will diminish the impact and maximise the chance of corals to recover; reduce local threats such as pollution, over-fishing and habitat destruction; and expand marine protected areas.

“What we want is to focus less on what is going to happen and when it will happen, and instead, focus on the triage. Studies have shown that corals have a great capacity to bounce back if you take these pressures off them. And this means we still have a window of opportunity to act. But we need to act immediately.”

Jackson, from the Smithsonian, agrees: “Local protection matters. In places where action is taken, where there are no runoffs from land, no over-fishing, corals are in better shape.”

Urgent call

With coral reefs around the world in rapid decline, it is imperative to make every effort to save what is left.

At the conference, the scientists released their Consensus Statement on Climate Change and Coral Reefs, urging governments to ensure the future of coral reefs by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and improving protection of these rich, underwater ecosystems.

Over 2,800 scientists worldwide have signed the document so far. The Statement calls for action to head off the escalating damage caused by rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification, over-fishing and pollution from the land.

The measures to help coral grow and remain strong include: rebuilding fish stocks to restore key ecosystem functions; reducing runoffs and pollutants from the land; reducing destruction of mangroves, seagrass and coral reef habitats; protecting key ecosystems by establishing marine protected areas; rebuilding populations of large animals such as dugongs and turtles; promoting reef tourism and sustainable fishing rather than destructive industries; and using aquaculture, without increasing pollution and runoff, to reduce pressure on wild fish stocks.

Stanford University’s Palumbi says that while governments must make a stronger commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is crucial at the same time to reduce the local threats posed by pollution, over-fishing and habitat destruction as healthy reefs would be more resilient to the effects of climate change and recover faster from bleaching events.

“Local action buys us time to deal with the bigger issue of climate change,” he asserts.

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Flood crisis: Beijing residents slam govt

They blame poor planning, ageing sewer system for recurrent disasters
Peh Shing Huei Straits Times 24 Jul 12;

BEIJING - It was a Saturday and a record rainstorm thrashed the Chinese capital, flooding the modern city of glass and steel built on an ancient foundation, and leaving many injured. The year was 2004.

Last Saturday, eight years later, history repeated itself - on a far more tragic scale.

Heavy rain not seen in 60 years lashed the usually arid northern city, killing at least 37 with seven missing as Beijing once again succumbed to the deluge.

The capital's now-familiar flood crisis has provoked the ire of its residents, even as the authorities tried to put a positive spin on the crisis by playing up good Samaritans who rescued others.

The target of attack is Beijing's sewer system, which is widely known to be ill-equipped for heavy rain and had been strongly criticised after the 2004 debacle.

While it has been improved since, the city still quickly gets ankle-deep in rainwater after a regular shower.

'Beijing is our country's capital. Why can't our government officials ever learn their lessons?' asked netizen Yang Jia on his Sina Weibo account.

The city's sewer system is largely old, even ancient, with some key drains dating as far back as the Ming Dynasty, which ended in the mid-17th century.

When the rain is too heavy, as was the case last Saturday, the city government has to open up manhole covers to speed up drainage.

In June last year, a heavy downpour here led to the drowning of two men in their 20s, after they fell into a manhole with the cover removed. A month later, in what was called the heaviest rain in 13 years, four were killed.

Such recurrent tragedies have infuriated the locals, who have decried them as an embarrassment to Beijing, proud host of the Olympics in 2008.

Parts of the Beijing-Guangdong highway, a major route to the south, remained inundated yesterday, with netizens likening the expressway to a river.

They blamed the casualties on the government's poor planning instead of an act of god.

'Is this just a natural disaster or is it caused by men?' asked netizen Yang Qingxiang on Sino Weibo.

Hydro expert Yang Jun told The Straits Times that Beijing's drainage design has not caught up with the fast-developing city.

'The government is improving it, but we wish they can do a faster job,' said the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics professor.

Criticisms were also levelled at the Beijing government for lavishing money on so-called 'vanity projects' like the Bird's Nest stadium instead of nuts-and-bolts infrastructure.

'Since the reform and opening up, leaders at all levels have been interested only in political achievements when developing cities, paying attention only to 'face-giving projects',' wrote commentator Jiang Chengbo in the influential Southern Metropolitan newspaper's website. 'That has led to most cities lacking macro planning and long-term design.'

But the authorities appear to be diverting the public's attention to more uplifting stories of heroic acts during the flood.

The official Xinhua news agency highlighted the story of police officer Li Fanghong, who was electrocuted by a fallen power line while trying to evacuate villagers.

There were also reports of residents near the airport who drove stranded travellers home, according to state broadcaster China Central Television.

But, unfortunately, according to local reports, drivers were still being stopped on the airport expressway and charged toll fees.

Six million people affected

BEIJING - Besides the capital Beijing, other parts of China were also hit by torrential rain over the weekend. More than six million people across the country were affected.

Officials reported more than 90 deaths in 17 provinces including Hebei, Sichuan, Yunnan, Shanxi and Shaanxi, and municipalities.

The southern island of Hainan and nearby Hong Kong were lashed by heavy rain and strong winds yesterday as typhoon Vicente approached.

Hong Kong raised the No. 8 tropical cyclone warning signal, closing financial markets, schools, businesses and government services.


Deadly Beijing flood raises questions about whether infrastructure ignored amid modernization

Alexa Olesen The Associated Press Yahoo News 23 Jul 12;

BEIJING, China - As China's flood-ravaged capital dealt with the aftermath of the heaviest rain in six decades Monday, including the deaths of 37 people, questions were being raised about whether the city's push for modernization came at the expense of basic infrastructure such as drainage networks.

Rescuers were still searching buildings that collapsed during Saturday night's torrential downpour and some roads that were covered in waist-deep water remained closed. The city government said as of Sunday night, 25 people had drowned, six were killed when houses collapsed, one was hit by lightning and five were electrocuted by fallen power lines.

Beijing residents shared photos online of submerged cars stranded on flooded streets, city buses with water up to commuters' knees and cascades of water rushing down the steps of overpasses.

The official China Daily newspaper reported that 60,000 people had been evacuated from their homes and damages from the storm had reached at least 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion).

Although the worst-hit areas were in rural hilly outskirts of the city, the scale of the disaster was a major embarrassment for Beijing, the showcase capital of China where things like this are not supposed to happen.

The city has seen tens of billions of dollars poured into its modernization, adding iconic venues for the 2008 Olympics, the world's second-largest airport, new subway lines and dazzling skyscrapers — all while basics like water drainage were apparently neglected.

Many were left wondering how badly prepared other less-prosperous parts of China must be.

"If so much chaos can be triggered in Beijing, the capital of the nation, problems in urban infrastructure of many other places can only be worse," said a commentary in Monday's state-run Global Times newspaper. "In terms of drainage technology, China is decades behind developed societies."

There was similar criticism on the popular microblog service, Sina Weibo.

"This is China's capital of Beijing. Look what happens when it's hit by a rainstorm," wrote Weibo user Wen Hui. "The drainage systems of Rome that were built 2,500 years ago are still in use and you can drive a car through them. Can a dog get through Beijing's drainage tunnels?"

The criticism mirrors some of that seen after a high-speed train crash in Wenzhou in southeastern China a year ago Monday. That turned into a public-relations nightmare for the government and led many to question the quality of infrastructure in the country and the government's transparency on disasters.

Some pointed out that Saturday's deluge was historic in nature, with the Global Times noting it was the heaviest rainstorm in the capital in 61 years.

"In just in one day, it rained as much as it normally rains in six months in Beijing," said Zhang Junfeng, a senior engineer from the Ministry of Transport who runs weekend tours of Beijing reservoirs and gives lectures on water conservancy. "No drainage system can withstand rains this big."

The capital's skies were clear Monday, with traffic largely back to normal and the city's main airport operating normally after hundreds of flights were cancelled or delayed over the weekend. But hard hit areas were still feeling the effects.

In Qinglonghu, a village about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from downtown Beijing where many migrant workers from surrounding provinces have settled, at least two dozen single-story brick homes were flooded. Local residents said Monday they were terrified to go back into their homes for fear they would collapse. They said they had no drinking water or food and had yet to get any assistance from local officials.

At least three people from the village were believed killed, locals said, including a man crushed by a falling power line and a woman and her baby daughter who were washed away.

"We couldn't save them," said 50-year-old Wang Lianfeng, a villager who had taken shelter on a roof when she saw the woman and her 8-month-old girl swept away. Wang sobbed as she described being unable to reach them. She said the body of the girl was found but the mother is still missing.

Other areas around Qinglonghu appeared minimally affected. Piles of dirt from a large construction site appeared to have formed a dam that kept the downpour from draining into a nearby river.

The village is in Fangshan district, the worst hit area of the city, which received 460 millimeters (18.4 inches) of rain on Saturday.

Heavy rain also proved deadly elsewhere in the country. Six people were killed by landslides in Sichuan province in the west, Xinhua said, citing disaster officials. Four people died in Shanxi province in the north when their truck was swept away by a rain-swollen river. At least eight people died and 17 were missing after heavy rains hit in neighbouring Shaanxi province.

China suffers flooding and dozens of storm-related deaths every summer during its rainy season, but such a heavy downpour in relatively dry Beijing is unusual.

Associated Press video journalist Isolda Morillo and researcher Zhao Liang contributed to this report.

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Thirsty South Asia's river rifts threaten "water wars"

Nita Bhalla PlanetArk 24 Jul 12;

KANZALWAN, India-Pakistan Line of Control, July 23 (AlertNet) - As the silver waters of the Kishanganga rush through this north Kashmir valley, Indian laborers are hard at work on a hydropower project that will dam the river just before it flows across one of the world's most heavily militarized borders into Pakistan.

The hum of excavators echoes through the pine-covered valley, clearing masses of soil and boulders, while army trucks crawl through the steep Himalayan mountain passes.

The 330-MW dam is a symbol of India's growing focus on hydropower but also highlights how water is a growing source of tension with downstream Pakistan, which depends on the snow-fed Himalayan rivers for everything from drinking water to agriculture.

Islamabad has complained to an international court that the dam in the Gurez valley, one of dozens planned by India, will affect river flows and is illegal. The court has halted any permanent work on the river for the moment, although India can still continue tunneling and other associated projects.

In the years since their partition from British India in 1947, land disputes have led the two nuclear-armed neighbors to two of their three wars. Water could well be the next flashpoint.

"There is definitely potential for conflict based on water, particularly if we are looking to the year 2050, when there could be considerable water scarcity in India and Pakistan," says Michael Kugelman, South Asia Associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

"Populations will continue to grow. There will be more pressure on supply. Factor in climate change and faster glacial melt ... That means much more will be at stake. So you could have a perfect storm which conceivably could be some sort of trigger."

It's not just South Asia -- water disputes are a global phenomenon, sparked by growing populations, rapid urbanization, increased irrigation and a rising demand for alternative power such as hydroelectricity.

Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq quarrel over the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. The Jordan river divides Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank. Ten African countries begrudgingly share the Nile.

In Southeast Asia, China and Laos are building dams over the mighty Mekong, raising tensions with downstream nations.

A U.S. intelligence report in February warned fresh water supplies are unlikely to keep up with global demand by 2040, increasing political instability, hobbling economic growth and endangering world food markets.

A "water war" is unlikely in the next decade, it said, but beyond that rising demand and scarcities due to climate change and poor management will increase the risk of conflict.


That threat is possibly nowhere more apparent than in South Asia, home to a fifth of humanity and rife with historical tensions, mistrust and regional rivalries.

The region's three major river systems - the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra - sustain India and Pakistan's breadbasket states and many of their major cities including New Delhi and Islamabad, as well as Bangladesh.

"South Asia is symbolic of what we are seeing in terms of water stress and tensions across the world," says B.G. Verghese, author and analyst at New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research.

The region is one of the world's most water-stressed, yet the population is adding an extra 25 million people a year - South Asia's per capita water availability has dropped by 70 percent since 1950, says the Asian Development Bank.

The effect of climate change on glaciers and rainfall patterns may be crucial.

"Most of the water that is used in Pakistan comes from glacial melt or the monsoon," says Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and coordinator of the water program at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

The dry months of June-July offer a snapshot of the extreme water crisis in the region.

Hospitals in New Delhi this year cancelled surgeries because they had no water to sterilize instruments, clean operating theatres or even wash hands. Swanky malls selling luxury brands were forced to switch off air conditioners and shut toilets.

In Pakistan, the port town of Gwadar ran out of water entirely, forcing the government to send two naval water tankers. Some government flats in the garrison city of Rawalpindi have not had water for weeks, said the local press.

India, as both an upper and lower riparian nation, finds itself at the centre of water disputes with its eastern and western downstream neighbors -- Bangladesh and Pakistan -- which accuse New Delhi of monopolizing water flows.

To the north and northeast, India fears the same of upstream China, with which it fought a brief border war in 1962. Beijing plans a series of dams over the Tsangpo river, called the Brahmaputra as it flows into eastern India.


For India, damming its Himalayan rivers is key to generating electricity, as well as managing irrigation and flood control. Hydropower is a critical part of India's energy security strategy and New Delhi plans to use part of it to reach about 40 percent of people who are currently off the grid.

A severe power shortage is hitting factory output and rolling outages are routine, further stifling an economy which is growing at its slowest in years.

India's plans have riled Bangladesh, which it helped gain freedom from Pakistan in 1971. Relations cooled partly over the construction of the Farakka Barrage (dam) on the Ganges River which Dhaka complained to the United Nations about in 1976. The issue remains a sore point even now.

More recently, Bangladesh has opposed India's plans to dam the Teesta and Barak rivers in its remote northeast.

But India's hydropower plans are most worrying for Pakistan.

Water has long been a source of stress between the two countries. The line that divided them in 1947 also cleaved the province of Punjab, literally the land of five rivers - the Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab and Jhelum, all tributaries of the Indus - breaking up millenniums-old irrigation systems.

India's latest hydro plans have fanned new tensions.

"Pakistan is extremely worried that India is planning to build a whole sequence of projects on both the Chenab and Jhelum rivers ... and the extent to which India then becomes capable of controlling water flows," says Feisal Naqvi, a lawyer who works on water issues.

In recent years, political rhetoric over water has been on the rise in Islamabad, and militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba have sought to use the issue to whip up anti-India sentiments - accusing New Delhi of "stealing water".

India brushes off such fears as paranoia and argues the dams won't consume or store water but just delay flows, in line with a 1960 treaty that governs the sharing of Indus waters between the two countries.


South Asia's water woes may have little to do with cross-border disputes, however. Shortages appear to be rooted in wasteful and inefficient water management practices, with India and Pakistan the worst culprits, experts say.

"All these countries are badly managing their water resources, yet they are experts in blaming other countries outside," says Sundeep Waslekar, president of Strategic Foresight Group, a Mumbai-based think-tank.

"It would be more constructive if they looked at what they are doing at home, than across their borders."

Their water infrastructure systems, such as canals and pipes used to irrigate farm lands, are falling apart from neglect. Millions of gallons of water are lost to leakages every day.

The strain on groundwater is the most disturbing. In India, more than 60 percent of irrigated agriculture and 85 percent of drinking water depend on it, says the World Bank. Yet in 20 years, most of its aquifers will be in a critical condition.

Countries must improve water management, say experts, and share information such as river flows as well as joint ventures on dam projects such as those India is doing with Bhutan.

"Populations are growing, demand is increasing, climate change is taking its toll and we are getting into deeper and deeper waters," says Verghese, author of 'Waters of Hope: Himalayan-Ganga cooperation for a billion people'.

"You can't wait and watch. You have to get savvy and do something about it. Why get locked into rhetoric? We need to cooperate. Unless you learn to swim, you are dead."

(This story is part of a special multimedia report on water produced by AlertNet, a global humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit

(Additional reporting by Rebecca Conway and Qasim Nauman in Islamabad and Sheikh Mustaq in Srinagar; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Sonya Hepinstall)

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