South Asia taps into water cooperation


    SaarcThe countries of South Asia are facing increased challenges regarding the availability and quality of water supplies, exacerbated by a lack of cooperation between countries that fuels tensions instead of seeing their shared water resources as an opportunity for joint development and management. Recent developments are more auspicious in this regard with the formation of two sub-regional alliances that may herald greater regional cooperation, though Pakistan is conspicuous by its absence from these new relationships.

    Water is of pressing concern for the countries of South Asia. Population growth, rapid urbanization, and the prospect of climate change are placing huge strains on both water accessibility and quality, with household water security classified as “hazardous” by the “Asian Water Development Outlook 2013”, a report from the Asian Development Bank.

    Exacerbating these challenges and the inadequacies of existing domestic water policies is South Asia’s trans-boundary hydrological legacy, which fuels tensions between countries and, in turn, has thwarted the potential for joint water management when precisely such is required to judiciously exploit hydropower, better control risks such as flooding, and allay downstream concerns over water availability and contamination.

    Epitomizing the state of affairs is that of the friction between India and Pakistan over the Indus, one of the region’s main rivers: the former’s upper riparian position is seen as a threat by Pakistan to the free flow of water, while India feels constrained by Pakistan, as a downstream user, in developing hydropower.

    Although bilateral treaties have been signed between countries – most notably, the 1960 India-Pakistan Indus River Treaty and the 1996 India-Bangladesh Ganges River Treaty – this has not prevented the emergence of disputes: Pakistan took India to the International Court of Arbitration (ICA) in 2010 over the Kishanganga hydropower project in Jammu & Kashmir (the ICA ruled in favor of India in December 2013); while Bangladesh has similarly objected to an Indian hydropower project in Meghalaya, arguing that the dams could affect its water flow.

    Relations between countries in South Asia have traditionally been beset by mistrust and rivalry, with water no exception in this regard, coming under their respective national security strategies rather than viewed as a resource for joint management and development. Failure to cooperate thus not only contributes to inter-state tensions, but also decrease the prospects for growth and prosperity in the region.

    In spite of this, recent events may signal a much needed shift in focus toward greater regional cooperation. In April 2013, two sub-regional alliances were formed with the aim of cooperating over water resource management and hydropower. One alliance is composed of Nepal, India, and Bangladesh for collaboration over the Ganges. The other alliance, of Bangladesh, India, and Bhutan, is joining forces for electricity production from the trans-boundary waters of the Brahmaputra.

    Despite the conspicuous absence of an “alliance” containing both Pakistan and India, these alliances may nonetheless herald a change in thinking on how their shared water resources are managed – with a shift from national policies or bilateral agreements to a more integrated regional policy on water resource sharing.

    The countries of South Asia stand to benefit from common development strategies in regard to trans-boundary waters, rather than seeing them only as a security challenge. Such a “win-win” development-focused approach would not only lead to enhanced cooperation and improve trust-building, but also contribute to greater economic and human development.

    While it is not yet clear to what extent the recently formed alliances are symptomatic of a change in how water resources are viewed, most significantly in India, evidence from the latest studies on global water resources and the Asian Water Development Outlooks shows that South Asia has few policy options for the future of its water resources.

    The countries of the region bear many similarities in terms of environment, social conditions, and development needs. Cooperation and sharing of data could lead to early flood warnings and improved drought resilience; hydropower for electricity can be utilized by all states which would have a positive impact on economic growth and improving people’s livelihoods; and monitoring water quality and availability will improve sanitation and better meet downstream demands.

    Trans-boundary waters are often considered in terms of conflict, but such waters also necessitate cooperation and harbor potential for mutual development. Indeed, reframing the issue of water in a more development-focused context would have the positive effect of easing cooperation between South Asian states – so lowering the risk of becoming gridlocked by highly sensitive security issues – and help them focus on their shared priorities.

    The newly formed alliance between India, Bangladesh and Nepal could be a sign that South Asia is moving in the right direction, with the initial sub-regional steps that go beyond the usual bilateral agreements.

    Although Pakistan’s absence from such agreements makes it impossible to talk of a real regional development, such alliances are nevertheless to be welcomed. Indeed if these alliances will be at least partially successful, they will raise hopes for the involvement of Pakistan in more effective regional cooperation over water resources in the future.

    Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online’s regular contributors. 

    Ebba Mortensson is South Asia Project Manager and Silvia Pastorelli is a former intern at the Institute for Security and Development Policy, a think tank based in Stockholm specializing on security and development issues (

    (Copyright 2014 Institute for Security and Development Policy)

    Source : Asia Times