Flowing Across Borders

Water is indispensable to us for drinking, sanitation and irrigation; the latter being especially important given that agriculture is the mainstay of South Asia and particularly the poor. Indeed, the world and every living thing inside it are both made up of 70% water. It is worrying, therefore, the average person within South Asia has 70% less access to water than they did in the 1950’s. Furthermore, some predict a cut of 20% in total fresh water over the next 20 years. Hence it should not come as a surprise that an estimated half a billion South Asians will be affected by water stress and scarcity by 2050. A significant irritant in attempts to resolve this problem, however, are the ownership disputes between and within countries over the rivers of South Asia, which often cross borders. Indeed, 20 major rivers are shared by the countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

image courtesy voiceofindia.com

image courtesy voiceofindia.com

The 6th South Asia Economic Summit next month will bring together experts from across the region to consider this topic. On Day 2 of the summit, the Parallel Session 2B “Flowing Across Borders: Political Economy of Water Sharing” will discuss the ways in which water shortage problems manifest themselves in different countries, as well as what helps and hampers efforts to resolve disputes over water.

Contention over rivers often arises between countries of the Indus River Basin as well as the Ganges Brahmaputra-Meghna River Basin. Notably, the ‘Radcliffe line’ which was used to partition India in 1947 has split rivers from the land they irrigate, and split rivers themselves into two. Whilst bilateral treaties such as the ‘Indus Treaty’ have gone some way in settling cross-border disputes, tensions still run high. The restrictions on India’s use of the western rivers, for example, mean that Jammu and Kashmir is unable to utilize their waters for hydroelectric power and irrigation, on which its economy depends. Meanwhile, new developments such as the Baglihar dam in India reignite disputes about the provisions of previous treaties. Analysts note with concern that disagreements continue down at regional level, typically between rich farmers and shareholders; higher castes do not permit lower classes to touch the water before them, and many indigenous minorities, such as the Kihals in Pakistan, have been deprived of access to water due to influxes of immigrants.

Greater trust, cooperation, and clarity have all been cited as ways of mediating between different interests, but the problem of global warming being thrown into the mix is adding a new dimension to the challenges we face. Accelerating climate change not only exacerbates water shortages, but also leads to soil erosion, pollution, and groundwater degradation. South Asia’s ability to respond to these changes have, and will continue to depend, on access to technology, information and institutions.

Written by Pravina Rudra, IPS