Insights and Analysis

From the World Water Forum: A Look at South Asia’s Regional Cooperation on Water

April 15, 2015

By Sagar Prasai and Mandakini Devasher Surie

South Asia has witnessed rapid social and economic transformation over the last two decades. Undeterred by a global slowdown, the region’s economic growth rate is expected to remain at a respectable 6 and 6.4 percent for 2015 and 2016. Coupled with sustained economic growth and a burgeoning population of 1.67 billion, South Asia is experiencing immense pressures from rapid demographic transition and urbanization, intensifying agriculture, and escalating energy demand. Water remains at the core of all three processes: urbanization, food production, and energy generation.

Kosi River near Barahkshetra, Nepal. Photo/Deepak Adhikari

Kosi River near Barahkshetra, Nepal. Photo/Deepak Adhikari

Nearly 75 percent of countries in the Asia Pacific face an imminent water crisis, and South Asia has emerged as a global hotspot where poor water security is beginning to have a serious impact on populations and economies. The region supports more than 21 percent of the world’s population, but has access to just over eight percent of global water resources. Meanwhile, available resources are dwindling. Water availability per capita in South Asia has declined by nearly 70 percent since 1950, and it is estimated that nearly 20 percent of South Asia’s population lacks access to safe drinking water.

Rivers in South Asia bear the brunt of this new demand for fresh water. The three major transboundary river systems – the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra – are under considerable stress from population growth, industrial development, urbanization, and ecological degradation. Exacerbating the problem, excessive extraction of ground and surface water for agriculture, industry, and energy production, poor domestic management of water resources, and increasing variability in rainfall and climate patterns have made countries in the region highly susceptible to floods, droughts, and natural disasters. The problem is likely to get worse. Climate change studies of South Asia increasingly suggest that the effects of glacial melt, temperature variations, and erratic monsoon patterns will significantly reduce the availability of water in the region’s river basins, leading to a greater frequency of floods and droughts. Whether linked to the broader pattern of climate change or not, the damage and devastation caused by recent floods in the region, including the 2008 Kosi floods in Nepal, the 2010 Indus floods in Pakistan, the 2011 Uttarakhand floods in India, and more recently the 2014 floods in parts of Indian- and Pakistan-administered Kashmir are difficult to ignore.

Despite the frequency and transboundary impacts of these extreme events, cooperation between countries remains limited and piecemeal. Given the subcontinent’s deep, complex, and contentious geopolitics, all things that flow from one side of the border to the other are inextricably tied to national security. Securitization of South Asia’s waters has meant that even basic information about transboundary rivers, including stream and sediment flow, water withdrawal, and usage, is notoriously difficult to access within countries – let alone across borders.

Political boundaries complicate the management of transboundary rivers everywhere, but the subcontinent’s complex and contentious geopolitics run deeper than in most other regions. The Indus, Brahmaputra, and Ganges rivers have sustained and supported civilizations in the region for centuries. Originating in the Tibetan plateau, these rivers are vital lifelines to a number of countries in the region, in particular Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. As these rivers crisscross boundaries, there are a number of upstream-downstream linkages, interdependencies, and water-sharing arrangements that are mediated through international agreements. The countries of South Asia so far have managed to sign only five such agreements: the Indus River Treaty between India and Pakistan (1960), the treaties between India and Nepal on the Kosi (1954), Gandaki (1959), and Mahakali (1996), and the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty (1996) between India and Bangladesh. In addition, the scope of these agreements is limited to managing a negotiated water-sharing arrangement between two countries at a fixed hydrological structure (a dam or a barrage): they are incapable of managing new and emerging challenges associated with flow variability, ecological degradation, dynamics of river morphology, and climate change.

Water remains an evocative and politically charged issue in South Asia. The political incentives for collaboration are often too meager for the region’s leaders. Close to 70 percent of the region’s population remains rural, with livelihoods intrinsically linked to small farm agriculture. This voting block is easily swayed by nationalistic rhetoric on water. It is not uncommon for countries to be suspicious of each other over proposed developments upstream, or to accuse each other of using dams and barrages subversively to cause floods or droughts downstream. India’s construction of upstream dams on tributaries of the Indus has been a cause for concern in Pakistan. Similarly, for downstream Bangladesh, the availability of water from the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, particularly in the lean season, continues to sour bilateral relations. Between Nepal and India, frequent flooding of rivers such as the Kosi and Mahakali has been a source of sorrow and the destruction of human life and property.

Small plots of farm land in the Sarai Kale Khan flood plain. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Small plots of farm land in the Sarai Kale Khan flood plain. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Beyond the political context, several features of the existing approaches to water cooperation in the region also need to change. First, the framework for cooperation is exclusively controlled by national governments, limiting the opportunities for subnational stakeholders and citizen groups to seek alternative, common ground on deeply contested issues. The content of negotiations on transboundary rivers is exclusively controlled by technocrats in water resources ministries, and the determination of what constitutes “national interest” on transboundary waters is often a function of the knowledge held by a couple of key bureaucrats in foreign ministries. This approach also keeps the scope of engagement narrow and negotiating postures entrenched in an intractable, zero-sum game. Second, the discourse around water is highly nationalistic and securitized. This makes it difficult for negotiators to accept even common-sense compromises, or to seek reasonable common ground on contested issues. Third, bilateral negotiations have remained uniquely reductionist in content, focusing largely on the quantum of water to be allocated to each country around a specific diversion structure. With each party wanting more of the water, even when the respective claims on shares of water are eventually agreed upon, other problems related to upstream-downstream rights, ecological management, and local livelihood concerns tend to crop up and delay implementation of the agreement. Lastly, much of the discourse on water takes place in an environment of secrecy, with governments retaining monopoly control over data as well as the agenda. Governments in the region, in particular India and Pakistan, consider hydrological data and information to be state secrets, which leaves civil society, academia, the media, and other legitimate stakeholders no means of producing informed counter-narratives that can often help to soften rigid negotiating positions and find reasonable common ground for agreements in informal settings.

The unbundling of South Asian nationalism on water issues is another important entry point into a more gainful, sustainable, and equitable management of shared waters in the region. Governments in South Asia have so far been unable to make progress on this front largely because the political benefits of maintaining a highly nationalistic posture on water have outweighed the political costs of reasonable compromises. This unbundling endeavor, however, remains easier said than done. In order to open up the water discourse to include multiple voices and interests, a gradual democratization of policy processes and water-related state institutions is required. Dialogue designed to understand and appreciate the position taken by the “other” is required at all levels. This approach will take time and persistence. Elevating the discourse on regional water cooperation in South Asia from one of long-standing mistrust and misinformation to openness and cooperation is crucial, urgent, and necessary to the future of the region.

Sagar Prasai is the country representative and Mandakini D. Surie is a senior program officer with the Asia Foundation in New Delhi, India. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation. This article originally appeared in Words into Action, published for the 7th World Water Forum by Faircount Media Group. It is reprinted by permission.


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