Water resource Emerging tensions in South Asia

Vijaya Chalise

Water is an emerging source of conflict between and among countries in the world. South Asia has no shortage of water-related disputes. The unilateral construction of big dams as well as linking and diverting of border and common rivers has already triggered some debates

in the region. Obviously, the constant depletion of water sources might be the cause of bilateral and even regional conflicts. It is because less than 0.08 per cent of the Earth’s water is available to humans and many countries want to keep as much water under their control as they can. Yet over the next two decades, our use is estimated to increase by 40 per cent. Even at present, one-third of the global population face water shortages and the average water supply per person worldwide will be 33 per cent less by 2020 than it is now. Recently, the Switzerland-based World Wide Fund for Nature warned that the shrinking of the Himalayan glaciers could cause widespread flooding in Nepal, India and China, before creating water shortages for hundreds of millions of people across the region.

Though Nepal is claimed to be the world’s second richest country in water resources, most Nepalis live without access to pure drinking water, and whatever little water is supplied is contaminated and many people die of waterborne diseases. There is an acute shortage of clean drinking water even in the urban areas. The recent Nepali Living Standard Survey of the Central Bureau of Statistics says, only 37 per cent households have access to piped water, whereas the recently concluded International Conference on the Second Alternative Water Forum in Geneva said that each person should get at least 50 litres of water per day, recognising the right to water as a basic human right. The Rand Corporation’s recent study on the top 10 international security-related developments has warned of a high-stakes Indo-Pakistani dispute over water. As Ronojoy Sen writes in The Times of India, the report’s main focus is: the Indus waters will be the centrality in the future conflicts between India and Pakistan. The Rand survey says, aquifers are being depleted, water tables are falling, waterways are severely polluted, and soils are acutely degraded from the overuse of underground water supplies. This is the problem of the entire South Asia, affecting bilateral ties.

Countries with large populations are getting worried to maintain the water supply not only for drinking and irrigation but also for the exploitation of the hydroelectric potentials of the river system that runs through the borderlands. Thus analysts see water as the most contested natural resource in South Asia. Unless the countries in the region, namely Nepal, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who share common river systems, sort out the issues with bilateral as well as multilateral consensus, the problems are likely to haunt all of them in the future.

It is felt that many of the treaties, including those relating to water resources, have been carried out at times when Nepal was embroiled in instability, which reduced its bargaining power and deprived it of a due share of the benefits. India has not been able to convince its neighbours fully so far that its vast market and strong economy are big opportunities for them rather than threats. Therefore, it should demonstrate greater sensitivity towards its neighbours regarding vital concerns like water resources.

India’s colossal River Linking Project also is not without its due share of pitfalls for neighbouring countries. About 80 per cent of the Ganges water during dry season comes from Nepal and any project that joins the Ganges with other rivers in India will have a direct impact on the use of water here in Nepal. Nepali experts say the Indian project could create problems as Nepal may be obliged to consult with India whenever the former wants to develop water resources within its territory. Not only the neighbours but also Indians themselves are against the $112 billion plan of interlinking six major and 27 moderate rivers. Sudhirendra Sharma, an expert from the Ecological Foundation of India, opined at a recent seminar in Kathmandu of experts from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan, that the water issue is a local and state subject, so the very idea of interlinking rivers across states is itself unconstitutional.

The Indian government intends to link the rivers flowing into Bangladesh, through 30 interlinking canal systems to divert waters from the North to the drought-prone southern and eastern states to mitigate the growing menace of flood and drought in India. India has initiated the project without consultations, threatening the environment of three countries — Nepal, India and Bangladesh — and the lives of millions of people living there. With the completion of the project, India expects to irrigate an additional 35 million hectares of land and generate 34,000 MW of electricity. The erecting of the Mahalisagar dam by India in areas bordering Dang district in August 2002 resulted in displacement of a number of families. Nepal should try to address its legitimate concerns on the basis of the international treaties and conventions, which forbid construction of embankments without heeding the concerns of the upstream country. Working to mutual benefit through negotiations would go a long way in increasing bilateral and regional cooperation in harnessing the vast water resources of the region.

Chalise is executive editor, Gorkhapatra daily