Attention: water security in South Asia

Water plays a fundamental role in food security, energy security, economic growth, in maintaining health and reducing poverty. Access to enough safe water is a human right. It's a gift of nature, but there is a limit to what nature can provide. Asia is facing a huge water crisis situation. The South Asian countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) are home to about one-fourth of the world's population, but only contain about 4.5 % (1,945 billion m3) of the world's annual renewable water resources (43,659 billion m3).

The Hindu Kush-Himalayan region (HKH) is amongst the largest storehouses of fresh water in the world and constitutes the primary source of water for about 600 million people in South Asia. Yet, availability of clean water remains one of the key issues for the region. The three major trans-boundary river basins include the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) river basin, the Indus river basin and the Helmand river basin (Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan). The GBM river system, which flows through the north, eastern and north-eastern parts of India, covers a huge area of about 1.63 million km2 stretching across Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Bhutan and China. The Indus River system flows mainly through Pakistan and India, but a small part of China and Afghanistan are also touched by the system.

Except for Bhutan and Nepal, the per capita water availability in the region is less than the world average. In Nepal, many parts of the country including the capital city of Kathmandu have serious water problems. In India, the amount of fresh water resources crisis is gradually increasing and the difference between the national availability of water and the volume of water used is decreasing day by day. Managing the supply-demand gap in the future is a major emerging challenge for India. Water demand in India is expected to grow to reach about 1,500 billion cubic meters by 2030, almost double the current level. However, this level is much higher than the total usable quantity of fresh water estimated at only about 1,089 billion cubic meters. In Pakistan, the situation is expected to be even worse.

The Indus River system is the largest, contiguous irrigation system in the world with a command area of 20 million hectares and an annual irrigation capacity of over 12 million hectares. The water utilization ratio measuring the percentage of total usable water is also extremely high, measuring 90 in the Indus basin.

It is now well recognized that proper management of water resources requires a basin-wide approach. Hydro power generation facilities have to be developed, keeping in view the conjunctive use of navigational and non-navigational uses, like fisheries and in agriculture, industry and urban uses as well as the necessary maintenance of the eco-system. Obviously, balancing such multiple uses is not an easy task, becoming even more difficult when a river basin is shared by four or five countries. The success in this regard in the South Asian region is very limited.

International efforts were made by the United Nations to develop a framework to deal with challenges of managing trans-boundary river basins. However, despite long years of negotiations, no binding agreement could be reached. There are several instances of bilateral and regional cooperation around the globe, with varied degree of engagement and success.

In South Asia, though there is no regional cooperation framework in place, there have been various bilateral initiatives with varying degree of success. Seasonal variation in rainfall and hence flows in the rivers as well as pattern of utilization of water for non-navigational purposes are among important factors that determine success or lack of it in regional and bilateral engagement schemes. Sharing of water for non-navigational uses is particularly difficult and in several regions no agreement was reached.

India and Pakistan signed the Indus water treaty 1960 to share the waters of the Indus river basin which survived challenging bilateral relations including full-fledged wars. Similarly, Bangladesh and India have signed the Ganga Water Treaty in 1996 to resolve what was otherwise among the most nagging issues affecting the relationship between the two countries.

The link between surface and ground water is missing from the political discourse on water.

However, these agreements did not contribute to sustainable water resources management in the Indus or GBM basins. This could be due to the fact that these treaties were signed with a limited objective in mind and only looked at the issue of sharing the water available, rather than managing water resources in a holistic manner where different uses and objectives are given due importance.

South Asia is very different from other regions as more than 90% of usable water goes to agriculture compared to the global average of 70%. Combined with political pressure and food security concerns, this has led to over-exploitation of surface as well as underground water. The very linkage between surface and ground water is missing from the political discourse on water. Often, the entirety of the surface water of a river has been diverted into canals, destroying the ecological balance. A stretch of Yamuna and the lower stretch of Indus are good examples.

While it will be useful to work out an over-arching regional arrangement in South Asia in managing water resources sustainably, in absence of this, individual countries must adopt certain principles and practices. They should maintain the minimum (ecological) flow in all rivers and this also must not be undermined through excessive exploitation of ground water. Given the importance of agriculture, efficiency in water use as well shifting to relatively less water intensive crops and thereby reducing the dependence on irrigation would go a long way. Along with economic development, water use needs to be more efficient in the rapidly growing industrial and residential sectors.