Insights and Analysis

Climate Change and Water Sharing in South Asia: Conflict or Cooperation?

December 1, 2010

By Srabani Roy

International climate negotiations began this week in Cancun, Mexico, with little fanfare or expectation of reaching a binding agreement on reducing rising global temperatures. The Cancun Summit builds on last year’s disappointing but massive Copenhagen climate talks in Denmark. Since then, governments have done little to follow through on their pledges to reduce greenhouse gases inscribed in the inherently weak, non-binding “Copenhagen Accord” document. Despite good intentions, recent studies by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) show that even if countries fully followed through on their promises, we would still only reach 60 percent of the emissions reductions needed to keep global average temperatures within two degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels (the temperature above which dangerous and irreversible changes can occur to Earth’s life support systems). The planet’s temperature is now firmly on a path of rising by three degrees Celsius by the end of the century. As the planet warms, countries will have to quickly find ways to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but increasingly, they will also need to invest in innovative and cost-effective ways to adapt to a changing climate. Nowhere will this need for adaptation be more acute than in South Asia, particularly with regard to its water resources.

All of the countries in South Asia – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – currently face a water shortage and water security crisis. Average water availability per capita across the region has decreased by 70 percent since the 1950s, and continues to decline. Population growth, estimated to increase by 800 million by 2050 (UN); intensified agricultural practices and irrigation; increasing energy demand from greater industrial activity and economic growth; urbanization and rising incomes; and deteriorating water quality in the regions’ surface and groundwater resources all threaten to increase pressure on already scarce water resources. Climate change places a further, unprecedented threat on these water resources.

South Asian countries already face extreme climate-induced disasters, such as annual floods, cyclones, and droughts. Coastal flooding and sea-level rises also threaten some of the region’s “megacities,” such as Dhaka, Mumbai, and Karachi. However, it is South Asia’s river systems – highly dependant on cyclical rainfall from monsoons and glacial melt from the high Himalayas – that are especially vulnerable to climate change. Home to the glacier-laced Hindu Kush-Himalayas, the region is perceived to be one with plenty of water and is the source of 10 major river systems in Asia, which support close to 20 percent of the world’s population. Yet, there are major imbalances in precipitation across the region, and – averaged out – the region is relatively dry. Climate studies indicate a likely shift in monsoon patterns, to shorter, more intense rainy seasons, and the likelihood that most river basins in the region will become drier leading to persistent water shortages. Although warmer temperatures will initially lead to increased glacial melt, within 50 years as the glaciers continue to retreat, supplies of melt water will eventually decline.

The major rivers in contiguous South Asia – the Indus and Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basins – run through two or more countries, making the sharing of increasingly scarce, transboundary water resources one of the most contentious issues in the region. Distribution of rivers is largely determined by hydropolitics, not water availability. The Indus River Treaty, signed in 1960, divides the Indus River Basin along the India/Pakistan border and gives control of the rivers to the east to India and those in the west to Pakistan. The treaty has withstood the test of time and has been upheld even when the two countries were at war. However, both countries have raised issues over how the waters in the basin were divided to begin with, and as the lower riparian country, Pakistan has voiced concerns about India’s potential to disrupt flows into Pakistan by damming the upper reaches of the Indus.

Photo copyright: International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)

Similarly, India and Bangladesh have had historic disputes over sharing the 54 rivers that run across their border. In the early 1950s, India started building the Farakka Barrage that diverted waters of the Ganges in West Bengal to flush out silt in the port of Calcutta. The diversion subsequently reduced water flow into Bangladesh, so much so that Dhaka raised the issue at the United Nations General Assembly in 1976. Bangladesh is also opposed to India’s plan for a multi-billion dollar Inter-Linking Rivers Project, which would divert Ganges waters from the wetter east and north to the drier west and south of India. Though a Joint Rivers Commission was established in 1972, and a historic Ganges Water-Sharing Treaty signed in 1996, tensions and disputes between the two countries continue.

Nepal and Bhutan are uniquely positioned in that they are both upper riparian countries with large hydropower potential. Large numbers of rivers flow from these countries into India and eventually join the Ganges river system. The two countries share numerous agreements with India specifically related to flood control and hydropower generation, and in 1996, Nepal and India signed the Mahakali Treaty for integrated, multi-purpose development of the river. However, despite these relatively congenial relationships, there is a growing perception by both countries that India’s growing energy demand from hydropower is unequal and monopolistic.

While these bilateral treaties and agreements have weathered tensions between countries and no country has declared war – as of yet – over water, the increasing scarcity of water resources and the severe impact of climate change threaten to unravel these agreements and aggravate bilateral tensions. Increased flooding will lead to mass migration of environmental refugees across the India-Bangladesh boarder. Melting glaciers have already caused glacial-lake outburst floods, displacing thousands of people downstream and reducing water supply for hydropower for countries like Nepal and India. In addition, rising temperatures and reduced melt waters in the Indus River Basin, the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world, could potentially be the trigger that leads to another war between India and Pakistan.

When faced with such formidable threats, countries may have a tendency to take an isolationist approach to protect and hoard precious resources, perhaps even with military force. Tackling and adapting to climate change will require countries to think in unprecedented ways to share the benefits and costs associated with adaptation. It will require a multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder approach in which countries in the region collaborate and come together to mitigate the risks and vulnerabilities to their precious water resources. All of South Asia’s countries share common water resources, usage patterns, and water management challenges, and all face a worsening water security crisis. It is imperative that South Asian leaders, policymakers, academic institutions, and civil society members come together to find mutually beneficial solutions.

Srabani Roy is director of The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs. She can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka
Related programs: Environment and Climate Action
Related topics: Maldives



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