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Will Conflicts Over Water Scarcity Shape South Asia’s Future?

March 21, 2012

Climate change combined with rapid population growth and urbanization is placing intense pressure on South Asia’s most precious resource: water. Per capita water availability in the region has decreased by 70 percent since 1950, according to the Asian Development Bank. Compounding the problem, rainfall intensity and variability make South Asia highly susceptible to floods, droughts, and disasters. Over the last decade, devastating floods have displaced millions of people in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Changing rainfall patterns and retreating glaciers are expected to further exacerbate the situation in the years ahead.

River in India

South Asia is home to three of the most densely populated river basins in the world – the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra – which support an estimated 700 million people.

South Asia is home to three of the most densely populated river basins in the world – the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra – which support an estimated 700 million people. The basins straddle national borders, making them a natural source of contention between neighboring countries. As water scarcity intensifies, effective management of these river basins is increasingly critical to long-term peace, stability, and economic development in the region, which houses a third of the world’s poor. Tragically, nationalism and narrow technical approaches to water management hinder this objective.

Although numerous bilateral treaties and agreements that govern water sharing and infrastructure development in the region do exist, deep historical mistrust and chronic political tensions surround their implementation. Nations accuse each other of controlling and damming rivers without regard for international impact, or of monopolizing water flows, often without verifiable data or analyses. Usually it is India – both an upper and lower riparian with a stake in all major river basins in the region – that neighboring countries paint as the villain, although nationalism and self-interest cut both ways.

In 2010, Pakistan filed a case in the International Court of Arbitration accusing India’s Kishanganga hydropower project on the Neelum River in Kashmir of violating the Indus Water Treaty of 1960. The court issued an interim order allowing India to continue work at the site, but the dispute continues, adding to tensions between the two countries. In September 2011, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s state visit to Bangladesh was undermined by his failure to sign a new accord governing the Teesta River and its tributaries, which millions of farmers in West Bengal and Bangladesh depend upon for irrigation. India’s Farakka Barrage across the Ganges River has been a sore point in Indo-Bangladesh relations ever since its completion in 1975.

Similarly, the Kosi River is a major source of friction between Nepal and India, with leaders and politicians on both sides of the border locked in an unconstructive blame game. Highly prone to seasonal variations in river flow and sediment charge, the Kosi is notorious for devastating downstream floods. In 2008, Nepal and India suffered one of the worst river disasters in their histories when the Kosi River breached its embankment, flooding vast areas of both countries. An estimated 50,000 Nepalis and 3.5 million Indians were affected.

Ismail Serageldin, a former vice president of the World Bank, presciently noted that “many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil, but wars of the 21st century will be over water.” A U.S. Senate report issued last year, “Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia’s Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” echoes this view. Its authors argue that water scarcity is fueling “dangerous tensions” with negative implications for security and stability in the region. They stress the need for better sharing of data among countries and more holistic approaches to water management.

Both official and public discourse on water in South Asia tends to be highly political, driven more by national and local interests than shared regional concerns. Water management itself is overwhelmingly technical in its approach. Across the region, scientists and “hydrocrats” have dominated policy formulation and implementation for years. Information on water resources is closely guarded, with river flows sometimes considered state secrets. Social and ecological perspectives are underrepresented, and there are limited opportunities for the public to sufficiently understand issues or advocate on their own behalf.

During the 1990s, when multinational development banks supported large-scale dam construction for hydropower in South Asia, the debate on water management was enhanced through the involvement of civil society organizations that advocated for social and ecological considerations. One of the most famous cases was the World Bank-funded Arun III multipurpose hydropower project in Nepal. Following protests and an independent review by the Morse Commission, which concluded that the economic analysis of the project was flawed, benefits overstated, and the social and environmental costs understated, the World Bank pulled out of the project in 1995. The bank eventually revised its approach to large-scale dams, and collaborated with the World Conservation Union and other civil society organizations to create the World Commission on Dams in 1997.

Unfortunately, over the past decade civil society engagement on issues of transboundary water management in South Asia has declined. Governments have avoided headline-grabbing, high-cost mega-projects and settled instead for multi-faceted schemes that attract less scrutiny. Increasingly, they have privatized development rights on water and mobilized foreign investors to finance projects, circumventing the social and environmental review processes developed by the multinational banks. Local communities have few opportunities to express their voice at the policy level, leaving them to settle claims at the project level where compensation is attractive and longer-term ecological costs less understood.

Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), an approach the Global Water Partnership defines as “coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources,” can best maximize sustainable use of water resources in the region. The consideration of civil society perspectives is a vital part of this process. Input from civil society and stakeholder groups can help to address the social and ecological dimensions of water use, curb environmental degradation, and mitigate the potential for conflicts stemming from resource depletion. It can also help to reduce uncertainty in investment decisions and increase legitimacy for large-scale projects among affected communities by ensuring “buy-in” early in the decision-making process.

While research studies and data exist on the ecological and social dimensions of transboundary water management and its implications in South Asia, the information is often incomplete or inaccessible to lay audiences. Media coverage of water issues tends to be sporadic and nationalistic or locally oriented, perpetuating myths and fueling antagonism. Better public access to information can provide the basis for broader, evidence-based debate. With better training, the media can disseminate more accurate information in less provocative ways.

Effective implementation of existing governmental checks and balances can also help to ease the technocratic grip on water resource policies. Some civil society organizations have successfully used legal tools such as public interest litigation and right-to-information laws to access information. Active and frequent use of litigation to draw technical information into the public domain can gradually pressure governments to become more proactive in disclosing information.

Less nationalistic and more holistic approaches to water management are needed to achieve more gainful, sustainable, and equitable use of water resources in South Asia. Governments have made poor progress on this front, in part because the political benefits of maintaining nationalistic postures have outweighed the benefits of equitable use of shared resources. It is up to civil society groups across South Asia to challenge this dominant paradigm. Otherwise, water scarcity and related conflict will increasingly shape the region’s future.

This article is published in cooperation with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Nick Langton is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in India. Sagar Prasai is the Foundation’s deputy country representative in Nepal and team leader for the Foundation’s upcoming political-economy analysis of the Teesta River Basin. They can be reached at nlangton@asiafound.org and sprasai@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. Punam Pandey (Ph. d):

    First of all, congratulations for insightful description of South Asian water scenario and measures for plausible solutions.
    I put the suggestion of integrated water management of South Asia as the best case scenario and ideal model. The riverine structure of South Asian rivers also demand this. Unfortunately, reality has been very different and if past has some hint for future, then ideal scenario gives little hope.
    I would like to draw your attention on some aspects of South Asian river situation:
    As India is upstream, midstream and downstream, depending upon from which country you are seeing India. Bangladesh receives almost more than 90 percent of water from or through India, in this situation, Bangladesh is very apprehensive of each and every move of India on river water. On the other hand, in India, water data is a classified issue, it does not give clear picture of availability of water, is flow of river water changing as a result of climate change, how many barrages and dams are planned etc. In this part of world, water issue is politicized to such an extent in both countries that any concession on water is considered betrayal of local interests and giving advantage to a foreign country.
    Most importantly, India has been going through a change in political system where predominance of centre is losing and provincial states are becoming assertive. Not only this, Indian states are fighting among themselves over division of river water.

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