South Asia is facing severe water scarcity. As the region’s population grows and its economies develop, a lack of sustainable water development strategy is leading to increasingly acute water shortages. Ashok Swain specially for the East Asia Forum.
The region is home to nearly 2 billion people, almost half of which depend on the large river systems shared among countries. There are two major international river systems in the region: the Indus and Ganges-Brahmaputra. While the Indus basin is shared by Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan, the Ganges-Brahmaputra is shared by Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal.
But no regional organisations manage these precious water resources. Instead, water is shared according to bilateral agreements. Notable are the 1960 Indus Treaty between India and Pakistan, the 1996 Ganges Treaty between India and Bangladesh and the 1996 Mahakali Treaty between India and Nepal. India and Bhutan also have a series of hydropower generation agreements.
None of these agreements are comprehensive in scope or nature. The Indus Treaty is primarily a river sharing agreement, while the Ganges Treaty is a water-sharing agreement. The Mahakali Treaty — which is yet to be implemented — is a benefit-sharing agreement.
The South Asian region is water-rich but with huge seasonal variations. In the absence of mutually beneficial, comprehensive agreements to store and develop water resources, there is always a fear that upper riparian countries will unilaterally exploit the rivers for their own benefit. This may have far-reaching effects on downstream countries.
Since 2016, in spite of the 1960 agreement, India has repeatedly threatened to divert water from the Indus away from Pakistan. In the Ganges basin, India has also been diverting water away from Bangladesh since 1975, though that diversion is presently regulated under the 1996 Agreement. India has also made proposals to divert water from the Brahmaputra inland, instead of allowing water to flow into Bangladesh.
After becoming the prime minister of India in 2014, Narendra Modi revived old plans to link 30 of the country’s major rivers and divert the Ganges-Brahmaputra. This grand plan intends to provide water to India’s arid provinces — but it is causing anxiety among the country’s smaller neighbours. Some rivers have already been connected, but the proposal requires the construction of large dams in India, Nepal and Bhutan in order to go ahead, as they share the Ganges-Brahmaputra. This will require India to enter into agreements with these countries.
Linking major rivers of the region could create more regional water disputes instead of resolving the existing ones. In South Asia, failure to find negotiated settlements over water in the past has contributed to the rise of tensions between states. Only in the case of the 1960 Indus Treaty did India and Pakistan accept mediation by the World Bank. In all other water disputes, India has strictly adhered to the practice of bilateral negotiation. Though this approach has strengthened India’s position as a regional power, it has kept the past disagreements alive and limited wider plans to develop the region’s water resources.
The growing threat of climate change and its impact on water demand and supply in the region means South Asian countries can no longer continue with the old bilateral approach — particularly given China’s growing interest in harnessing river resources. In the last decade, China has built two hydropower dams on the Indus and Brahmaputra, and two more dams are presently under construction. All these developments have further increased the dynamics of water conflict, as well as the need for India to cooperate over the region’s scarce shared water resources.
China’s water projects upstream have threatened India’s position as the dominant riparian in these two basins. This has prompted India to explore collaborating with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal in the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin, and to seek support for dam-building in the Afghan part of the Indus basin.
Riparian countries in South Asia should work towards establishing lower basin-based water management institutions — as the lower basin countries in the Mekong basin have been doing since the 1990s. Cooperation among lower riparian countries is needed not only to address increasing water scarcity in the dry-seasons and devastating floods in the monsoon periods, but also to effectively protect their water supply from China. Unilateral actions by South Asian countries, particularly India, to protect and acquire more water from the shared river systems have only exacerbated inter-country tensions.
But any approach to multilateral lower-basin management will be limited without political will. Political leaders need to work towards a collaborative approach — both to protect their waters from China and to develop scarce water resources efficiently and sustainably.
Ashok Swain is Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, UNESCO Chair of International Water Cooperation and Director of the Research School for International Water Cooperation at Uppsala University, Sweden.