WATER security has emerged as a sub-set of human security, raising serious concerns about peace, stability and moral and legal responsibility for coping with non-traditional security challenges that pose a threat to all humanity. The implication of climate change on the availability of water resources — spatial distributions, temporal dynamics and water security in general are extremely significant.
The United Nations estimates that by 2050 up to five billion people may suffer from water shortages. This downward trend is apparent, as more than a third of all countries are already water-stressed. The threat to livelihoods, food and energy security from water crises at local and national scales is leading to high levels of uncertainty, creating new zones of conflict within and between states. A tracking of water conflicts maintained by the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security reports 466 conflicts since 2010.
Water is a key prerequisite for attaining many of the Sustainable Development Goals. In the face of the current challenges (fresh) water should be conceptualised as a global common good and global water governance should contribute to its protection. Within South Asia the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH) is not just a vast complex of mountains, it is also one of the most vibrant, distinct and intricate mountain systems in the world that produces one of the world’s largest freshwater supplies and holds the biggest reserves of water in the form of ice and snow outside the polar region.
As the ‘Water Towers of Asia’, the HKH plays an important role in ensuring the food, water, energy and environmental security for the South Asian region. The HKH region extends to about 3,500 kilometres over eight countries — Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. It is the source of 10 major river systems, including the Indus, Ganges and the Brahmaputra.
Transboundary water-sharing needs regional cooperation.
These 10 river basins cover an area of nine million square kilometres of which 2.8m sq km falls in the HKH region. An estimated 210m people live within these mountain systems and approximately 1.3bn downstream communities rely on the waters of these rivers for domestic use, agriculture, hydropower and industry. The rivers are fed by rainfall, meltwater from snow and ice, and groundwater.
Changes in the hydrological regime as a result of climate change, seasonal extremes, increased evapotranspiration and changes in glacier volume coupled with high population growth is creating stresses on groundwater reservoirs. These changes vary across the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra river basins with large disparities between river basins based on glaciated areas and the contribution of snow and glacial melt to run-off. However, studies forecast that in all three river basins there would be decrease in snow and a rise in glacial melt by the middle of the century with increased availability of meltwater and an abrupt decline as the glacier storage is reduced.
Countries throughout the HKH region face similar challenges of water availability due to increase in demand but access and availability vary throughout the region due to seasonal precipitation patterns, geographic distribution of water and lack of adequate governance. These challenges and opportunities vary at the micro (watershed and spring shed), meso (river basin) and macro (regional) level.
Transboundary water-sharing in South Asia has always been fraught with contentious relationships with bilateral water treaties focusing on national interest, characterised by lack of trust leading to fragmented management of transboundary resources keeping water availability, use and governance in the HKH region in a constant state of flux.
However, the increasing gap between demand and supply, impacts of climate change and scientific consensus on the need for limiting warming to within 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 makes it imperative to elevate climate diplomacy in South Asia to a higher level of engagement, taking it beyond the pale of other political disputes to redirect water management from conflict between riparian states towards productive cooperation for building trust, sharing knowledge and devising mechanisms for achieving mutually beneficial goals.
Leveraging cooperation at all levels between science, society and policy for a climate security nexus in South Asia is very important to adapt to uncertain global changes for a regional climate of peace and political stability.
Taking a regional approach to water security is a big ask but not an impossible one. There is a need for redefining the contours of regional water security in ways that are politically acceptable, technically viable and legally correct to counter the formidable and immediate threats posed by climate change.
The writer is chief executive of the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change.
Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2021