(This article has been written by Sarada Prasanna Das, Phd and Ira Sharma who are working with the Centre for Energy, Environment & Resources, New Delhi. Das is also affiliated with Institute for Governance, Policies & Politics)

Being home to world’s quarter population, South Asian region (SAR) faces an acute crisis of water availability despite of the resource abundance. This region, given its population density and poverty, on the one hand, and rapid urbanization and industrialization, on the other, seems to be facing an incipient water crisis not due to water shortage but as a consequence of intergovernmental conflicts.

SAR, covering about 3.3 per cent of terrestrial area and receiving 6.8 per cent of the annual replenishable amount of world’s water, faces the challenges in water systems management. These challenges are rooted in the common objectives of poverty alleviation and sustainable development of all the countries. However, while the challenge is clear, the region is not ready with appropriate responses. 

Most importantly it does not have the necessary intergovernmental arrangement to resolve and manage the transboundary water related issues. The worldwide paradigm shift in river basin management has not affected policymakers in South Asia. Hydro-diplomacy is still based on the reductionist engineering and looks at marginal economic benefits, without showing any concern for the long run implications. 

As far as per capita availability of water is concerned, it seems that there is a marked decline that has attained threatening dimensions in many regions in the renewable per capita fresh water availability. It is well evident from several studies that across the region water management is very poor, one of the major concern being the gap between policies and their implementation. The policy-makers have overlooked water losses due to theft, defective pipelines, unsustainable agricultural practices, irrational pricing and populist policies like free power to run tube-wells drawing underground water. Further, the adverse effect of climate change is posing a greater threat by impacting the hydrological cycle, and thus having an adverse effect on the quality, quantity and accessibility to water resources.

Hydro-politics in South Asia 

The attitude towards trans-boundary water resources plays a significant role in the present situation of scarcity and increased competition. Many of the region’s countries depend on the same rivers and, by extension, neighboring upper riparian for their water supply. For instance, India, Bangladesh and Nepal look to the Brahmaputra river, while both Pakistan and India share the rivers of the Indus basin. However the trans-boundary water conflicts are not new phenomena in South Asia. Issue of water sharing has assumed a prominent position in the politics and often transboundary water debates are set around the impact of the construction of infrastructure like dam on downstream population rather than future water security. 

South Asia is politically and socially unstable region. The conflict between India and Pakistan in sharing the water of Ravi, Sutlej, Beas, Indus, Jhelum and Chenab; controversy on water sharing of Koshi, Gandak, Tanakpur and Mahakali between India and Nepal and the disputes between India and Bangladesh for the Ganga and Teesta are some of the instances of trans-boundary water conflicts. 

Although there are existing treaties of water sharing and infrastructure development {Indus Water Treaty 1960 (IWT) between India and Pakistan; Kosi Agreement 1954; Gandak Agreement 1959, and Mahakali Treaty 1996 between India and Nepal; Ganges Water Sharing Treaty 1996 between India and Bangladesh} but there is lack of specificity in provisions- fueling the disputes in the region, which causes ambiguity in the interpretation and enforcement of the provisions of these water sharing agreements. Most importantly, these agreements also lack the necessary norms and mechanisms to deal with and adapt to variability in water flows and other environmental changes over time.

On contrary, problems in the eastern part of South Asian region are different. Controlling huge amount of water flow in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin provides unique opportunities for all the counties. There are opportunities for infrastructure, hydropower generation and flood control in the lower riparian which could benefit all the three counties i.e Nepal, India and Bangladesh. However, there are significant environmental, social and political concerns overshadowing these opportunities. Although the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) established in the 1980s provides a forum for discussion, but water resource negotiations were excluded from the beginning because counties like India repeatedly insisted on bilateralism on such issues.

Challenges and opportunities for cross-border cooperation

In the current situation there are several challenges on South Asian regional cooperation in general, and on trans-boundary water issues specifically. One of the greatest challenges South Asia faces is the increasing politicization when it comes to cross border water cooperation and political distrust between neighbouring countries. In addition, there are very limited opportunities for civil society, local communities, the media, and other stakeholders to participate in water related bilateral discussions. 

In South Asia most of the bilateral negotiations are reductionist in nature and mainly centered on technical formulas to divide available water flows between both countries. The trans-boundary negotiations in the region exclude economic, social, environmental and cultural issues, thereby preventing the development of a basin-wide, integrated approach to planning, management, and conservation of shared river systems. 

Apart from these issues, diplomatic clout has been always a challenge for cross border water cooperation. Studies found that highly bureaucratic mind set, lack of expertise and information and weak negotiation skills are some of the challenges in the water related cross border cooperation. The closed data environment related to water and climate information in the region is also a major obstacle for the cooperation. However, these challenges can be converted into opportunities keeping in view the socio-economic growth of the region. 

Cooperation is the most important objective and a regional public good that will support growth and peace. Studies reported that people in the South Asian region believe that there is need of more frequent dialogues between counties of the region to build trust. A multilateral forum gives members the invaluable opportunity to develop bilateral cooperation on protection of water sources from pollution, degradation and creating water infrastructures. The opportunities can be created to conduct joint research, to build a common shared vision and to create structured, multi-track dialogues. These research and data could help better management of the cross-border water resources. 

Regional cooperation could be used for irrigation and hydropower production. For instance, watershed management Nepal could generate hydro and irrigation benefits in Nepal and flood control in India. The same thing could be done in northeast India for the mutual benefit of the India and Bangladesh. 

In the present context, specifically looking at the current resource constrains and the impact of climate change there is stronger need for closer integration in water management and development. This could create opportunities for improving the prospects for growth and prosperity across the South Asia region.   

Further Reading:

  1. Bandyopadhyay J. (2007a) Water Systems Management in South Asia: Need for a Research Framework. Economic & Political Weekly, XLII 863-873. 
  2. Bandyopadhyay J and Ghosh N. (2009) Holistic Engineering and Hydro-Diplomacy in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin. Economic & Political Weekly, XLIV: 50-60.. 
  3. Crow B and Singh N. (2000) Impediments and Innovation in International Rivers: The Waters of South Asia. World Development 28: 1907-1925. 
  4. Hanasz P. (2014) Troubled Waters: India and the hydropolitics of South Asia. The Fearless Nadia Occasional Papers on India-Australia Relations. Melbourne: University of Melbourne, 1-20. 
  5. Khalid I, Mukhtar A and Ahmed Z. (2014) Water Scarcity in South Asia: A Potential Conflict of Future Decades. Journal of Political Studies 21: 259-280. 
  6. Price G. (2014) Attitudes to Water in South Asia. London, UK: Chatham House Report. 
  7. Surie MD and Prasai S. (2015) Strengthening Transparency and Access to Information on Transboundary Rivers in South Asia. New Delhi: The Asia Foundation. 
  8. Wirsing RG. (2008) Rivers in Contention: Is There a Water War in South Asia’s Future? In: Mitra SK (ed) Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics. Heidelberg: University of Heidelberg, 1-26.