Spectre of water problems in South Asia

Kuber Chalise


International Watercourses law and Its Application in South Asia,’ - a book by Dr Trilochan Upreti, a senior government employee - has tried to present the spectre of water problems in South Asia and the possible way out, keeping in focus the international water laws.

The book is a must-read, particularly for the people of Nepal, which is blessed with huge gorges, where high dams can be built and large bodies of water can be stored for electricity generation and irrigation.

Despite such resources, it is a pity that large tracts of land in Nepal’s Terai cannot be harvested due to lack of enough water. Electricity still continues to be considered a luxury, as electricity tariff is still expensive in the region.

Nepal has everything that nature can give to a nation to be prosperous. But an abject dearth of innovation and technology has crippled these advantages.

Absence of funds and myopic regional and national politics have kept these potential sources of cheap electricity mired in controversies. “The significance of water resources of Nepal has immense potential for the prosperity of the country as well as its neighbours,” writes the author.

The author suggests the concept of equitable utilisation of shared natural resources between neighbours. He has quoted judgments from the International Court of Justice and many international treaties on water sharing like Colombia River Treaty - between the USA and Canada to support his thesis. “The equitable utilisation of resources for the rivers of Nepal that flows across India is important,” he writes. And the Koshi Agreement (1954) and Gandak Agreement (1959), which have haunted Nepali psyche till date, do not adhere to international law and justice.

Nepal’s failure in milking its huge water resources and a debilitating tendency of injecting politics into the issues has done no good so far. The integrated treaty on sharing of Mahakali River (1996) is much more controversial than Koshi and Gandak Agreement.

The author is cautious that past faults in water treaties should not be repeated. He quotes international laws of Norms of Equity, Articles 5 and 6 of UNCIW, to prove his points. However, he writes, “The best way to resolve water conflicts is by negotiation rather than judicial settlement, in line with a liberal approach of equity”.

The writer suggests regional and international co-operation to attain the maximum benefit of riparian states. “The cloud of distrust can be converted into prosperity,” he writes.

All it needs is more open discussion, as water politics in South Asia hold no more hidden agendas. “India has constructed a network of reservoirs and dams along the Indo-Nepal border without giving prior notice to Nepal that has inundated huge Nepali territories. It is a flagrant breach of International Water Law, Article 7 (No Harm Rule),” states the book.

The author has also given some insights on India’s ambitious river-linking project, which needs to be studied in detail. More in-depth study on the threat from such a river-linking project to Nepal is needed. As the project might hurt other countries also, their involvement in discussions is also important.

“Each basin state is entitled within its territory to get reasonable and equitable share of water on international drainage basin,” according to the Helsinki Rules. The book also peeps into the Mekong Basin and Southern African states concept of regional grids in the trade of hydroelectricity for investment of multinational agencies, which could be a lesson for Nepal.

Although the book is a giant step forward in understanding the significance of Nepal’s treaties and their application in line with international laws, it would have been better if the book had more practical suggestions on water sharing between India and Nepal.

International Watercourses Law and Its Application in South Asia, author: Dr Trilochan Upreti, published by: Padam Siwakoti for Pairavi Pakistan, pages: 367, prices: Rs 1,000 (Hard cover)/

Rs 600 (Soft cover)