September 27, 2010


[The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses – IDSA - a New Delhi based organization has published a task force report  on  water issues of South Asia. The report, however, has fairly older data, raises fundamental question of 'water management' amongst the concerned countries in the subcontinent. Below is an executive summary of the report.  - The Blogger]

India is facing a serious water resource problem and as trends suggest, it is expected to become 'water stressed' by 2025 and 'water scarce' by 2050. Premised on this, the IDSA Report raises fundamental questions about the forces driving water demand and the political dynamics of riparian relations, both in terms of hindrances and opportunities, amongst states in the subcontinent.


Water security implies affordable access to clean water for agricultural, industrial and household usage and is thus an important part of human security. Water along with food and energy forms a critical part of the 'new security agenda' and redefines the understanding of security as a basis for policy-response and long term planning.

Water security for India implies effective responses to changing water conditions in terms of quality, quantity and uneven distribution. Unheeded it can affect relationships at the inter-state level and equally contribute to tensions at the intra-provincial level.

The Union Ministry of Water Resources has estimated the countries water requirements to be around 1093 BCM for the year 2025 and 1447 BCM for the year 2050. With projected population growth of 1.4 billion by 2050, the total available water resources would barely match the total water requirement of the country. In 1951, the annual per capita availability of water was 5177 m3, which reduced to 1342 m3 by 2000. The facts indicate that India is expected to become 'water stressed' by 2025 and 'water scarce' by 2050. The National Commission for Integrated water Resource Development (NCIWRD) has estimated that against a total annual availability of 1953 BCM (inclusive of 432 BCM of ground water and 1521 BCM of surface water) only 1123 BCM (433 BCM ground water and 690 BCM surface water) can be put to use, i.e., only 55.6 per cent. The high-level of pollution further restricts the utilizable water thus posing a serious threat to its availability and use.

The subcontinent has large river systems. Prominent are the Indus basin in the west and the Ganga- Brahamaputra-Meghna basin in the east. A number of bilateral treaties exist but are often hostage to the prevailing political animosity. Resource nationalism will increasingly dominate the hydrological contours of South Asia and will largely define regional politics. The treatment of rivers as a good in the subcontinent will primarily be interpreted within the regional asymmetry/symmetry power configuration. The upstream-downstream supply disputes will commonly feature in the riparian politics.

The hydrological contours of India, both as an upper riparian and a lower riparian, will be at the epicenter of new riparian politics and diplomacy over transboundary rivers. The friction in bilateral relations will increase if mutually acceptable bilateral or multilateral framework for cooperation to deal with integrated development of water resources is not effectively reworked. In such situations, many of the existing treaties will have to be evaluated afresh and many treaties need to be framed based on new hydrological knowledge. India's riparian relation with its neighbours will become progressively fragile with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal continuously raising concerns over regulating and sharing of river waters.

China's aggressive south-to-north water diversion projects on the rivers that originate from the Tibet region, particularly on the Yarlung-Tsangpo, is opening up a new front of uncertainty in Sino-Indian relations as well as the overall hydrological dynamics in South Asia.

China's proposed dams on the Yarlung-Tsangpo are a matter of concern. The proposed dams on the Yarlung, almost 28 in number, some of which are already underway, has the full support of the state-run hydro-power industry. It would have a capacity of 38 gigawatt of power, almost twice the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam.

It is important for India to create global awareness about the water resources in Tibet and build regional pressure. Tibet's water is for humanity, not for China alone. Almost 2 billion people in South and Southeast Asia dependent on the water resources of Tibet. Tibetans need to be also sensitized to the water resources and the extensive ecological damage that China's water diversion plans can cause.

Rivers without political boundaries
International laws on allocating water within river-basin are difficult to implement and often contradictory. The UN Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses approved in 1997 by a vote of 104-3 (but not yet ratified) requires watercourse nations (Article 5) to participate in the use, development, and protection of an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner. In spite of the UN Convention, riparian nations pitch their respective claims and counterclaims based on their interest and interpretation. This raises fundamental questions on whether formal arrangements on long lasting peaceful sharing of river waters can be achieved particularly in regions where the political climate is hostile to cooperative endeavours.

With Pakistan and China water issues will be far more political and strategic. Water as an instrument and tool of bargain and trade-off will assume predominance because the political stakes are high. Water issues between Pakistan and China have the potential to become catalysts for conflict. Though the importance of politics cannot be discounted in India's water relations with Nepal and Bangladesh, there is however far more scope to overcome and break political deadlocks through sensible water sharing arrangements and resource development. With Bhutan hydro-relations has been extremely beneficial. Sharing the benefits of river cooperation has given substance to the relationship. The growing confidence has led to a recent agreement between the two countries to develop 10 more hydropower projects with a total capacity of 11,576 MW by 2020 in Bhutan.

With Pakistan, given some stringent provisions in the Indus Water Treaty that thwart India's plans of developing projects on the western rivers, a 'modification' of the provisions of the treaty should be called for. Whether it is done through renegotiations or through establishing an Indus II Treaty, modifications of the provisions are crucial in case of the western rivers.

Under the draft provisions of the International Law Commission 'Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, 2001', India can consider the abrogation of the treaty so long as it is proportionate to infringement by the other side. It is well established that Pakistan aids and abets terrorist actions from its soil. India should quantify the damage it has sustained over the decades because of Pakistani support to terrorism and seek as a first step suitable compensation. If Pakistan does not comply, India can possibly threaten to walk out of various bilateral agreements including the IWT.

With Nepal, India needs to bring about a turnaround in the overall dysfunctional relationship and invest in long-term political linkages. Considering the sensitivity of water relationship and the benefits that can come about, India should invest in Nepal's water infrastructure particularly irrigation and flood control. Identification and feasibility studies on small and medium projects should be undertaken. Small run-of river projects should be started to build in political confidence.

With Bangladesh, India's approach should be to deal with water issues in the overall political and security context. While the Ganges Treaty is well established, concerns over the sharing of the Teesta and India's construction of the Tipaimukh dam is opening up new fronts in water relations between the two countries. While it is important to continue dialogue with Bangladesh on joint river basins, India needs to look after its own interest as well. Bangladesh also needs to be sensitized on China's long distance transfer of waters of the Brahmaputra.