South Asia’s Water Crisis: A Problem of Scarcity Amid Abundance
March 25, 2015
The latest United Nations World Water Development Report, released just ahead of World Water Day on March 22, warns that, by 2030, only 60 percent of the world’s demand for water will be met by existing resources at the current rate of use. That will leave 40 percent of the population without access to the water it needs. Signs of this impending crisis are already there for all of us to see.
In South Asia, home to nearly 1.6 billion people, cities are increasingly feeling the pressure of population growth and urbanization. It is estimated that 22 of 32 Indian cities face daily water shortages. In Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, many local residents have grown accustomed to waiting in queues for hours to obtain drinking water from the city’s ancient, stone waterspouts. In Karachi, Pakistan, electricity and water shortages have led to protests and citywide unrest.
“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink” aptly describes the problem of water in South Asia – a problem of scarcity amid abundance. Transboundary rivers such as the Ganges, Indus, and Brahmaputra have defined the geography, history, and culture of South Asia for centuries and are critical to economic growth, food and energy security, and sustainable development within the region. But over the last few decades, these rivers have come under considerable pressure from industrial development, urbanization, population growth, and environmental pollution. This situation has been compounded by poor domestic management of water resources and increasing variability in rainfall and climate patterns that have made South Asia highly susceptible to floods, droughts, and natural disasters.
While in areas such as trade and energy South Asian governments have made significant progress in opening up and allowing for the movement of goods and people, regional cooperation on water lags behind. Geopolitics and a history of cross-border disputes have meant that transboundary water issues are perceived largely from a perspective of national security. This highly securitized approach has severely limited access to water and climate data in the region. South Asian governments, in particular India and Pakistan, treat hydrological data secret and classified. While some existing bilateral treaties and agreements, such as the Indus Treaty of 1960 or the Ganges Treaty of 1996, do contain provisions for bilateral data sharing, actual data-sharing practices are ad hoc, and the range of information shared is quite limited. It is also worth noting that none of the existing treaties provide for the public disclosure of data or information exchange between governments.
The closed data environment for water and climate information in the region has compromised governments’ ability to make informed decisions on the planning, management, and development of what are essentially shared river basins. The lack of information sharing has also affected governments’ ability to deal effectively with natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, and landslides.
On World Water Day, The Asia Foundation released a major new report: “Strengthening Transparency and Access to Information on Transboundary Rivers in South Asia.” The report examines the availability and accessibility of hydrological data and information related to three transboundary rivers in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal and tests the efficacy of right-to-information or freedom-of-information laws in accessing this data. The study – conducted with the World Resources Institute and civil society organizations in these countries with support from Skoll Global Threats Fund – highlights some of the key barriers to information access on water and climate issues in the region. The report illustrates that while governments in these countries have enacted laws and policies that seek to open up environmental data and information, in practice, the securitization of information remains a major constraint. Moreover, limited human resources, training, and capacity have undermined the capability of these governments to effectively implement existing transparency laws and policies. Across all three countries, hydrological data and information are not being collected, maintained, or published in a systematic manner. Where data is available, it is often of poor quality, difficult to verify, and provided in a format that is not user-friendly. Taken together, the highly fragmented availability of data makes it difficult to get a complete hydrological picture of the rivers. To discuss some of the broader implications of this study, The Asia Foundation convened civil society organizations, think tanks, international agencies, and donors for a regional forum, “Access to Water and Climate Data in South Asia,” on March 23-24 in Kathmandu. Participants debated the issues and challenges in making climate and water data more accessible throughout South Asia, and brainstormed ways to leverage existing information-sharing experiences and practices.
While acknowledging the many constraints to regional data sharing, the forum also highlighted some of the innovative ways in which participating groups are enhancing data access and exchange on water and climate issues. For instance, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, the environmental NGO Aaranyak and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) have piloted an innovative community-based flood warning system that uses mobile phones to transmit critical flood related data and information to communities upstream and downstream of the eastern Brahmaputra basin. At a national level, multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and others are supporting governments to improve their data and information management systems while simultaneously building government capacity to better manage these systems. At a regional level, ICIMOD has been working with the governments of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan to develop a Regional Flood Information System in the Hindu-Kush Himalayas that seeks to facilitate sharing of flood data and information between countries to reduce the vulnerability of affected communities. There are also ongoing efforts to provide the media and private sector with data and information on water related issues. For example, the Third Pole recently launched a new, open source geospatial database – Data.TheThirdPole – to provide the media and other stakeholders with access to a searchable catalog of water-related datasets sourced from different organizations in Asia. Such initiatives testify to the growing demand for more accurate and comprehensive data and information on transboundary water issues on the subcontinent.
The democratization of data, technology, and access has been one of the defining developments of the 21st century. Riding on the wave of this global movement, governments in South Asia have opened up in nearly every sphere, whether enacting transparency laws, disclosing budget and public expenditure information to citizens, or taking the lead in e-governance and other ICT initiatives. Given these developments, and the proliferation of new information and communication technologies, the paradigm of security that has prevented governments from effectively sharing data and information on shared resources is out of date. Water scarcity for many South Asians is already a daily reality, and if we are to go by the UN’s latest report, the current situation is only going to get worse unless steps are taken to mitigate the crisis. The sharing of data and information between governments, and between governments and civil society, will be critical to planning for this new and uncertain water future.
Mandakini Devasher Surie is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in India. She can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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