The global demand for fresh water resources has escalated dramatically over the last few years, especially in light of rapid population growth and widespread urbanization across the globe. Moreover, as the impacts of climate change and stresses of resource scarcity gain further traction, societies are increasingly hard pressed to find effective and sustainable solutions to their water woes. Water scarcity has particularly emerged as a highly critical and contentious issue within South Asia, one of the world’s most dynamic regions and home to nearly 1.9 billion people.
Specifically, transboundary water resources have become a distinctly politicized element within intraregional relations of South Asia, with countries treating this limited shared resource as a zero-sum issue of sovereignty and pursuing water governance policies that only best serve supposed national interests. This has resulted in an unfortunate “tragedy of the commons” scenario, with competition supplanting regional cooperation. The stakes are high, and incompetent and inequitable water sharing agreements will exacerbate an already dire situation, and further fuel distress in terms of economic shocks, as well as environmental and humanitarian costs.
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Water security encompasses a society’s ability to safeguard access to quality water to support livelihoods, health, power generation and industrial growth. Considering the unique geographic advantage of South Asia’s many major river basins, most notably the Indus, Ganges and Tsangpo-Brahmaputra to name a few, water scarcity and security would not appear at first glance to be a source of a such raging debate. Nevertheless, the main challenges arise from the perennial gap between scarce supply and the demands of a massive population along with the transboundary nature of the water resources. The international Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin and the Indus basin drain approximately half of the region, and hence any and every solution towards mitigating the cascading effects of water stress must arise via collaborative management.
Despite shared concerns over the inevitable threat of water scarcity, neighboring — and historically adversarial — countries have found it difficult to collectively curate effective agreements over efficient water resource management within international river basins. In the absence of guiding frameworks, controversy plagues hydro-political relationships. Downstream countries frequently accuse their upstream counterparts of exploiting shared resources without any regard to the interest of their neighbors, perhaps most notably as Bangladesh has towards India’s development of the Farrakah Barrage and the diversion of flows from the Ganges River. Conversely, upstream states dismiss such accusations on the grounds of exercising sovereign rights of usage. This has only exacerbated regional tensions and underlying security concerns.
The issue of water resource depletion and mismanagement is particularly acute in India and Pakistan. The region’s aquifers number among the world’s “most stressed,” and the impacts of worsening climate change have engendered water supply uncertainties. Moreover, the problem is further aggravated by tense bilateral relationships and lackluster institutional responses. While certain joint mechanisms exist, such as the India-Pakistan Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 and India-Bangladesh Ganges Water Sharing Treaty of 1996, long-standing and seemingly intractable regional disputes have put a strain on these agreements.
For instance, there has always been a concern over the potential revocation of the Indus Water Treaty and Pakistan has time and again accused India of utilizing the water from Indus, Chenab and Jhelum for industrial activity in violation of the treaty, which in its present form only permits water usage of electricity generation. On the other hand, India continues to question the neutrality of certain arbitrating bodies working in favor of Pakistan’s interests.
Water cooperation has also been a controversial issue between India and Nepal where a number of hydroelectric project agreements have been signed on major rivers, such as Kosi, Gandaki and Karnali yet there has been no execution.
The Way Forward
National governments and regional policy makers must address the incessant politicization of water resource management, and bring South Asia’s water challenges to the forefront of what needs to be a strategic vision in order to make a measurable impact. Decades of geopolitical conflict—most prominently among India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—have produced numerous obstacles which lie in the pursuit of this goal. A step-by-step approach in the necessary incremental process may be the most advisable solution. As such, the first step towards enabling effective hydro-political regimes to take root in South Asia would be for key regional players to ratify the United Nations Watercourses Convention (UNWC).
Upon gathering the requisite 35 ratifying signatures, the UNWC entered into force in 2014 and, as the first hydro-politically oriented United Nations treaty, codified numerous foundational legal principles regarding the utilization and allocation of transboundary water resources. In addition to functioning as a binding piece of international law for ratifying nations, the UNWC would also act as a depoliticized manual of legal best practices from which South Asia’s riparian countries may draw in drafting fair and equitable multilateral and bilateral water sharing agreements.
While the UNWC has seen limited traction in the more water scarce and hydro-politically contentious regions, including the Middle East and South Asia, the treaty has already established several salient principles to which ratifying nations are held. Chief among these are the obligations to not “cause significant harm” to other watercourse states as well as the “reasonable and equitable use” of increasingly scarce water resources.
Building on this first step will not only give life to a more proactive sharing of transboundary hydrological data and information, but also empower accurate and effective risk and water sharing mechanisms. One such example would be the Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM) process. Advocated by the World Bank and World Wildlife Fund, IRBM encourages knowledge sharing, community mobilization and active stakeholder participation for transparent and fact based decision making towards water cooperation.
In addition to third party solicitation, equally essential are joint, information-based dialogues to enable a cooperative environment and productive outcomes for the region’s collective interests. Frequent and targeted dialogues are necessary as way to help navigate and unpackage the range of complexities associated with water conservation and sharing, allowing decision makers to pool efforts, produce stronger consensus and determine synergies.
In sum and substance, addressing existing vulnerabilities and averting future water crises will require practical and clear strategies on all fronts. Such an undertaking will have positive spillover effects on overall regional welfare given the potential of hydro-political cooperation to serve as a mainstay of stability and trust-building between neighboring nations.
Farwa Aamer and Jace White work with the Asia-Pacific program of the EastWest Institute, which aims to bring together key stakeholders throughout the region to engage in constructive dialogue and conflict prevention.