Need for hydro diplomacy

Published Sep 16, 2013 01:04pm

WATER shortages, exacerbated by climate change and population growth, could lead to increased conflicts in South Asia unless a regional mechanism is developed to make ‘transboundary water resource management an instrument for cooperation rather than conflict’.

A report — Water for Human Development: Human development in South Asia 2013 — launched by the Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre in Lahore last week, points out that South Asian countries could use their shared water resources for attacking poverty and achieving economic development by implementing a mechanism to monitor and assess shared water, and by collaborating closely with one another to resolve their water-sharing disputes.

“With rising water demand and declining availability, along with the pressures of increasing climatic variation and climate change, riparian countries in South Asia will need to work towards collaboration in their governance systems, beginning with joint monitoring and assessment of shared waters, and eventually moving towards implementation of some form of an integrated river basin management framework for optimising and sustaining the use of available water resource,” says the report.

It says transboundary water management in South Asia poses challenges, but also offers opportunities. “In some instances, cooperation for transboundary water management is a missed opportunity because of political mistrust (Pakistan-India, for instance), or lack of institutional arrangements between riparian countries (the India-Bangladesh dispute),” it argues.

“In other instances, countries (India-Bhutan, for example) have successfully tapped into the potential of shared river basins by choosing to cooperate through ‘hydro diplomacy’ rather than resorting to conflict.”

The authors of the report also underline the need for understanding the ‘human consequences of hydrological interdependence’ that binds countries in the region. “Transboundary water management has profound impact on human development.

The way one country uses water transmits effects to other countries; its use in any one place is affected by its use in other places, including in other countries. For instance, the retention of water upstream in India for energy generation restricts flows downstream for Pakistani farmers.”

The report adds that “apart from affecting the quantity of water that downstream countries receive, upstream countries can also affect its quality. Industrial and human pollution is transmitted through rivers to other countries, as seen in the case of the Ganges River, which flows from India to Bangladesh. Moreover, the timing of water flows is another transboundary issue for human development. Secure livelihoods depend on a predictable supply of water. The use of water in one country can affect the timing of delivery for downstream users even if the volume of water remains unchanged.”

On the nature of transboundary water issues in the region, the report says that for some countries, the lack of resilient institutions and effective water sharing arrangements is what gives rise to disputes. For others, the roots of transboundary water conflicts can be traced back to political divisions between them.

“Even territorial disputes between South Asian countries cannot be extricated from water issues. A quarrel over rivers in the region could serve as a focus for wider disputes about territory. In some cases, for instance Kashmir, the quest for the claimed territory is in large part a quest for its precious water resources.”

But the fact that riparian countries in the region have been able to engage in institutional cooperation over water issues in the past means that they can still move towards closer collaboration and cooperation and developing a mechanism for managing shared waters between them in future.

“The treaties over the Indus between India and Pakistan, over the Ganges between India and Bangladesh, and over Mahakali between India and Nepal, have stood the test of time despite fluctuating political relations between the countries. However, these treaties are far from holistic, and by no means establish an integrated system for the optimum development of shared water resources,” contends the report.

The development of an effective regional framework for holistic basin-wide management, it says, has been precluded largely by political economy factors, mistrust between countries, and power asymmetry issues.

“India’s position, both as an upper riparian and a lower riparian, will be at the centre of carving out a new regional institutional framework for transboundary water management and hydro diplomacy in South Asia. The friction in bilateral relations will only increase if a mutually acceptable framework for transboundary water management is not developed involving all stakeholders,” the report warns.

Yet the development of a regional framework for a holistic basin-wide management is not enough.

“A central factor in all regional and transboundary arrangements between countries is the degree to which the policies, legislation, resources and management practices of each country can be aligned and implemented in harmony with those of its neighbours. Successful implementation of such arrangements will be difficult to achieve where there is little or no alignment, or where one part is unable to deploy adequate human, economic and technical resources to meet its commitments.”

The report adds that “for the benefits of transboundary regional cooperation to accrue, it must go hand in hand with the overhauling of internal water management within each country. Even if increased cooperation results in a better allocation of water for a downstream riparian, the extra water could just go waste if internal water governance and infrastructure are faulty.”


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