This article is an add-on to my previous article and emphasises on the need of South Asian regional integration for international transboundary water sharing.

With no recognized political boundaries for international rivers, South Asia is trying hard to cope with the growing tension over trans-boundary water claims and frequently arising water conflicts (transboundary as well as domestic). History has it that political divisions created between riparian States have been the cause of contention of rights over river systems. Several country claims (on the right to use the ratio of surface water) are long pending to get resolved and many old claims have resurfaced. This demands immediate action as a matter of national security. Looking at the trends, due to economic and geo-strategic interests, international transboundary water sharing has done more damage to South Asia, specifically India.

A trust deficit, coupled with the strict classification of water as a “sovereign” issue as per the political and bureaucratic setup of different countries, has always paralysed South Asia in framing a regional water governance framework. To date, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has not been successful in forming a regional water commission for the efficient sharing and management of international waters.

The three mighty river basins of South Asia—the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra— support the river systems, lakes and aquifers between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Millions of people in the region depend on the river basins for access to water to support agriculture and other socio-economic practices. Agriculture is the largest consumer of water resources in the region. But energy is another sector that has demanded a sudden surge in water usage, with many hydropower projects mushrooming in international rivers to meet the energy requirement of rapidly growing regional economies.

Considering the dependence of many South Asian countries on common water sources, the pertinence of emphasizing stronger regional cooperation in the water domain is becoming more necessary. However, whether this desire for a regional water governance framework will materialise in the near future is a question that has long been anticipated by water experts. 

The current state of water management in this region is overpowered by complex fragmented institutional structures that are poorly governed and have inefficiently adopted the model of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM). Moreover, only Bangladesh, India and Nepal have made a national commitment to IWRM. In most of these countries, various ministries and departments are responsible for different uses of water (viz. irrigation, environment, hydropower energy, sanitation, health, water supply, etc) and in some cases, the tasks of individual ministries and departments overlap.

In addition, existing water policies are not comprehensive and most of these countries lack an all-encompassing policy. Furthermore, the extent to which the element of transboundary water cooperation is addressed in the national policies is elusive and not in-depth. In the case of India, the National Water Policy 2012 has made a recommendation on the formation of adequate institutional arrangements at the central level for implementing international agreements. But the task seems overwhelming as water is a State subject and States’ interests often conflict with that of the central government. The conundrum on the signing of the Teesta water sharing treaty between Bangladesh and India is an example of the never-ending drift between the interest of the States and the central government in India.

In Bangladesh, the National Water Policy (1999), National Water Management Plan: Development Strategy (2011) and Bangladesh Water Act 2013 starkly highlights the need for trans-boundary cooperation on water sharing and management for it is a downstream riparian entirely reliant on water flowing through India. Similarly, Nepal’s National Water Plan (2002-2027) does mention international cooperation on water management, but looking at the history of Indo-Nepalese water sharing agreements and the ambiguities in the interpretation of the Mahakali treaty, more coherent national policy is needed to manage and implement cooperation in the international water systems.

Signed in 2003, Bhutan’s Water Policy has satisfactorily addressed the issue of transboundary water sharing and management. A point on trans-boundary water sharing states the need for sharing of information on flood warning and disaster management, and appropriate technology in water resources development. Since Bhutan has a congenial political relation with India, this is one of the successful models of bilateral cooperation and coordination in water sharing. 

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the Draft National Water Policy has been in the process of approval since 2005 and the draft strongly stresses the need for transboundary cooperation. However, the challenge lies in resolving internal water conflicts, mainly between the provinces of Punjab and Sindh, and devising policies in tandem with the national water agenda.

Despite the clear mention of trans-boundary cooperation on water sharing and management in the National Water Policies of many South Asian countries, the issue has not been the top most priority in the national and regional policy agenda. But with the rising concerns over the multifaceted nature of water and its intimate nexus with the other two most important means of sustenance—food and energy, time has come to devise coherent water policies and back them up with strong and effective regional collaborations with strong enforcement capacity.

Kofi Annan has rightly quoted on World Water Day 2002, “Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict...If the entire world‟s peoples work together, a secure and sustainable water future can be ours.”

Trust is the key to achieving regional cooperation in the water domain. Given the complexities of the working culture of the region, combined with shrewd hydro-diplomacy, South Asia should understand the importance of shared benefits as well as shared costs for achieving trans-boundary water cooperation. This can be done by bringing together the relevant stakeholders into the mainstream discussion on water and making them aware of their pay-offs if trans-boundary cooperation on water is achieved.

Institutional determinants play a pivotal role in influencing co-riparian water relations. Hence, South Asia needs to formulate and effectively manage joint bodies (such as river, lakes and aquifers commission) with a strong enforcement capacity for ensuring good cooperation between the government and various ministries working under them. Importantly, the region needs to look beyond SAARC for resolving water issues as the role of China is imperative in influencing policy decisions within SAARC. A South Asia regional institution on water governance will only become a reality if all the stakeholders come together and frame a commission/framework that covers all the aspects of water governance with a robust, binding resolution mechanism. The Mekong River Commission and the Nile Basin Initiative can be looked into as successful models in this regard.

(This article has been contributed by Akshat Mishra who is the Founding Editor of Pathways to Development- Journalism about the environment, sustainability, and policy from researchers on the ground. Akshat is also working as a Senior Research Associate with CUTS International)