Is Water a Source of Conflict or Cooperation in South Asia?


By Muhammad Nawaz Khan :-

Water-sharing is a complex problem which needs a logical solution for its equitable distribution. However, it is often difficult for the most amiable border nations to reach a unanimously agreed water-sharing formula for regulating their transboundary water reserves. The South Asian countries have signed various water treaties to resolve their water disputes; however, in most cases under these treaties, the dispute resolution mechanisms are either not fully evolved, e.g. Ganges Water Treaty, or demand full implementation of all the clauses of the treaties in true letter and spirit, e.g. the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). The water in South Asia is a source of both conflict and cooperation.

One of the examples of cooperation in the region is the IWT 1960 signed between Pakistan and India that shows riparian cooperation facilitated through third party mediation, in this case, the World Bank. The treaty has survived two major wars. If high levels of conflict and cooperation exist, there can be strong commitment to achieve a goal by the participants, but there may be equally strong disagreement over the precise definition of that goal and particularly over the means of achieving it. Since water is a politically charged, emotive issue it is subject to various interpretations and disputes. In this regard, there is also a conflict over the shared water resources between Pakistan and India such as the former claims that the latter manipulated the treaty in its favour. Islamabad has shown its concern that Delhi has moved far away from its obligation and has been twisting the clauses and violating the IWT, which hampers its implementation.

Besides, India’s large-scale diversions by constructing dams in violation of the IWT, has far reaching consequences for socio-economic growth and national politics regarding water distribution within the provinces in Pakistan. Pakistan‘s water scarcity can be analysed in the context of per capita annual water availability which is 3,500 cubic metres in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basin (GBM), and 1,330 cubic metres in the Indus Basin. This shows that the GBM Basin is not water stressed, whereas the Indus Basin is in serious decline.

Pakistan is largely dependent on this system, whereas India is largely dependent on the GBM and Indus Basins. The water supply in Pakistan fell from 5,000 cubic metres per capita to 1,000 cubic metres per capita in 2010. If this situation continues, the per capita water availability will be 711 cubic metres by 2037. The Asian Development (ADB) has also labelled Pakistan one of the most water stressed countries in the world. As compared to Pakistan, per capita water availability in India was 25, 00 cubic metres during 1997 which reduced to 1,869 cubic metres. India has adequate average water availability as compared to Pakistan and the latter‘s water outlook is grim.

Another case from South Asia is the co-operative water agreement between Bangladesh and India, in which the former has been in constant strife with the latter to receive its agreed share. Although, the Ganges Water Treaty, signed in 1996, was initially considered major progress by the political regimes of both countries, yet the treaty failed to address or resolve all bilateral disputes of the Ganges’ waters. The treaty is considered to be ‘imperfect’ by the political realists in Bangladesh. Dhaka has been protesting against the violation of GWT by India. Various allegations and suspicions continue to fuel criticism of the treaty by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and have created tensions in their bilateral relationship. The nature of water conflict between Bangladesh and India is a high conflict and low cooperation dynamic because unlike the IWT, there is no dispute resolution mechanism.

The annual per capita water availability in Bangladesh is 8,051 cubic metres — which is high — but with large temporal variation. Closer scrutiny shows that despite having high per capita annual water availability, the country still has water security issues due to the upper riparian‘s limited cooperation to address equity issues that cause suffering from monsoon floods followed by severe dry season water shortage. Hence, Bangladesh‘s water outlook is not optimistic because of its dependency on transboundary rivers. Its internal annual renewable per capita water is 666 cubic metres, in total. Its total renewable water dependency is 91.3 per cent. Evidently, this inadequacy is a consequence of its unequal share of the GBM catchment area. This makes Bangladesh vulnerable vis-à-vis external developments and freshwater policy decisions.

Unlike Bangladesh, the nature of water conflict between India and Nepal is of high conflict and high cooperation — given exploitation and interference by India for obtaining Nepal‘s water resources — which has led to strong disagreement over the precise definition of the clauses of their co-operative water treaty. For instance, the age-old disagreement still persists in India and Nepal over the interpretation of the Sugauli Treaty signed in 1816 between Nepal and British East India Company, which delineated the frontier along the River Maha Kali in Nepal. In 1997, when Nepal planned to work out a treaty on hydroelectric development of the river, the Indo-Nepal rift deepened when both failed to decide which stream constituted the source of the river. Nepal considers the Limpiyadhura as the source stream, while India claims Lipu Lekh to be the source stream. Nepal wants to utilise its water resources for generating electricity, which is not only necessary to meet its energy demand, but also to generate revenue while exporting energy to other South Asian countries. However, its wish to export electricity and develop hydro projects is also tied to India‘s will, due to its border blockade by India.

On the contrary, the water dynamic between India and Bhutan is one of low conflict and low cooperation owing to the hegemonic behaviour of India towards the Himalayan states. Resultantly, both countries have little interaction between them over shared water resources. Although Bhutan and Nepal have highest per capita annual water availability in South Asia — such as Nepal has 8,900 cubic meters and Bhutan 109,000 cubic metres — both countries also grapple with water security challenges due to lack of capacity-building and insufficient resources to overcome these problems and Indian hegemonic behaviour towards them. In case of Bhutan, the internal challenge is water accessibility. Households across the country face drinking water issues. Bhutan also needs water storage capacity, which is subject to its lower riparian, i.e. India‘s will.

In this context, despite having water agreements with India, the Himalayan states of Nepal and Bhutan, unfortunately, receive unequal share of their mountainous water resources. India, a low riparian state, uses upper riparian privileges while influencing and dictating the water projects of these two landlocked mountainous states. Thus, the water issues between the co-riparian countries of the region remain ‘a potential casus belli.’

In a nutshell, hypothetically, can these water conflicts escalate into wars in South Asia? The existing channels of dialogue, bilateral agreements and dispute resolution mechanisms, require that India display firm commitment in fulfilling the requirements of existing water agreements; cooperate with its riparian states on water; maintain ecological and biodiversity balance; discard unilateral actions on run-of-the-rivers and restrict itself in constructing massive hydro projects/dams, especially on western rivers (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab). Only then, the possibility of water conflict turning into a full-fledge war can be avoided. If India does not act accordingly and continuously violates the sensitivity of South Asian water cooperative regimes then water could likely become a threat for regional security.