After months of bitter acrimony, over terror attacks and clashes in Kashmir, the recent Indus water talks between India and Pakistan may not catalyse a radical shift in a moribund bilateral relation immediately, but it does offer a ray of hope for a beleaguered South Asia, struggling on many counts. This formal dialogue over the contentious issue of water-sharing does denote the warring sub-continental neighbours’ desire to search for middle-ground in order to try and resolve vexed disputes amicably. It is indeed a welcome move, because sharing water-resources equitably is not only sensible, but makes for good foreign policy in an environment where tensions are high and flash points low. Also, water is one of the critical drivers of peace and stability in South Asia, grappling with serious fresh-water crisis. The region, despite hosting some of the major systems of international watercourses, is heading towards acute water shortages — thanks to a burgeoning population, rapid industrialisation coupled with trust-deficit among regional governments. Alarmingly, South Asia — home to a quarter of global population — accounts for less than 5 per cent of the world’s annual renewable water resources, making it one of the most water-scarce areas on earth. Moreover, the region is expected to face 50 per cent water deficit by 2030, particularly because demand in India, the largest regional country, is expected to double and exceed 1.4 trillion cubic meters by 2050. Though, according to one survey, South Asia as a whole will have a surplus of 2,737 billion cubic meters of water by 2025, uneven distribution will make lower riparian countries, particularly Pakistan, extremely vulnerable.
Plagued by lopsided water-governance, South Asia’s water worries may become a source of future intra and inter-state conflict, unless an effective co-operative mechanism is evolved soon. “The short-term advantage of non-cooperation, especially as an upper riparian, is almost always negated by the long-term political and security instability” says Arjun Thapan, chair of Unesco’s International Hydrological Programme Advisory Board and chairman WaterLinks. In fact, there is an imperative need for the region to introduce alternative ideas on co-operative trans-boundary water management to deal with the looming challenges. However, Thapan feels, there would be a far lower stress level on trans-boundary water management if the countries involved are significantly more systematic in using the water resources they currently have access to. As Bhupatray Shashank, India’s former foreign secretary, told this writer, “Sharing of water resources should follow rather than precede cleaning and careful utilisation of national water reserves.” Indeed, there is a serious deficit in South Asia’s water governance because all the regional countries are guilty of injudicious use of water. India’s agriculture sector, for instance, draws up to 87 per cent of accessible fresh water but wastes more than half. Besides, groundwater overuse has led to the collapse of almost 50 per cent of aquifers. In urban areas, India loses up to four billion cubic meters of treated water yearly, which is approximately half the total production. Most importantly, India misses the opportunity of non-potable reuse of waste-water by not treating them properly, apart from incurring huge public-health expenditure from related diseases.
Unfortunately, the region’s industrial sector, despite technological advancement, is not only inefficient in reducing water footprints — resulting in consequential losses in productivity — but yet to assess the impact of water shortages on business continuity. Senior Pakistani diplomat, Aziz Ahmad Khan, who had served in India as his country’s envoy, also believes “there is an urgent need to improve the region’s water use practices, especially for agriculture”. Khan advocates intensive research on developing new crop varieties that would use lesser water, as well as pooling research resources for greater benefit of the region. Above all, a comprehensive regional approach is key to climate adaptation in the crucial Hindu Kush-Himalayan belt, which not only constitutes the headwaters of some of the world’s largest trans-boundary rivers, but also hosts earth’s tallest water-tower that feeds nearly 1.6 billion people. Khan rightly observes “climate change will affect the region seriously and there is need for South Asian countries to cooperate in mitigating climate change related challenges urgently.”
Since existing bilateral water treaties hardly encourage cooperative management of shared-resources for holistic address of water security issues, some experts want the regional inter-governmental body of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) to play a proactive role in liberating the common water resources from political bickering. Both Afghanistan and China’s association with Saarc, they say, will facilitate conclusion of productive technical arrangements for developing and harnessing regional water resources.
However, Thapan and Khan disagree. While Khan asserts categorically that there cannot be any over-arching Saarc water-sharing agreement, Thapan explains: “Saarc is not tuned to hydro-diplomacy.” He rather prefers the “Danube-model” of creating an international commission by way of neutral third party, given South Asia’s considerable trust-deficit. In fact, restrained water-rhetoric and ultra-nationalistic sensitivity, apart from understanding the complex socio-political dimensions of water and challenges faced by all riparian stakeholders are essential pre-requisites for evolving any workable, win-win formula to institutionalise a joint-management of shared water-resources.
Seema Sengupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist.