Regional distrust fuelling water conflicts in South Asia


The Third Pole, South Asia

Lack of a domestic vision for water in South Asia reinforces the zero-sum nature of international water disputes, argues Chatham House’s Gareth Price


Discussion around water are still stymied by regional distrust (Image by Gary Denham)

Disputes over water threaten to aggravate tensions between countries in South Asia. Large parts of India and Pakistan already suffer from water stress and these pressures are likely to increase in the future.

A new report from Chatham House based on interviews of over 500 policymakers and senior representatives from the media, academia and the private sector across South Asia provides a snapshot of elite attitudes towards both domestic water management and international rivers. Chatham House worked with local research institutes in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan to establish how debates about water are framed in each country, and attitudes towards other countries sharing the same rivers.

Most of the people we interviewed were downbeat about the current state of water management, and many were fearful for the future. Some of the challenges – such as pollution – are worsening because of industrialisation; others – declining per capita water availability, for instance – stem from population growth. Neither trend is easily reversible. With seasonal water availability already more variable, the human impact of climate change in the region could be momentous.

Water management is poor for a number of reasons: the lack of coordination between ministries, under-investment and poor data collection. Many interviewees felt that decision-making powers were overly centralised, and local communities were rarely involved in decision-making around river development. In India, falling groundwater levels – partly caused by the provision of free or highly subsidised electricity to farmers – was seen as a major challenge, but few had solutions given the nature of India’s democracy.

Domestic disputes spill over

Both India and Pakistan have internal disputes between states and provinces over water management. In India, Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan all dispute the sharing of water from the Sutlej and Yamuna rivers and the associated link canal. Madhya Pradesh and Bihar dispute rights to the Son river, while Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh argue over the construction of the Rajghat dam on the Betwa river.

In Pakistan the proposed Kalabagh dam has divided opinions between Punjab, which is perceived to be the beneficiary of the project, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh. These inhibit a more constructive attitude towards international rivers; if India and Pakistan cannot solve their own internal disputes, how can they be expected to resolve disputes with their neighbours?

Discussion around water is stymied by regional distrust. Blame of Indian actions iswidespread in Bangladesh. Interviewees in upstream Afghanistan and Nepal blamed more powerful downstream countries for preventing the construction of water storage infrastructure. Many Afghans felt that their country was already suffering from “water wars”, citing examples where dam construction workers had been deliberately targeted and killed (although which militia were involved and exact motives cannot be verified).

There are stark differences between attitudes to water in neighbouring countries. Many Pakistanis felt that they should engage with Afghanistan on water issues. This feeling was certainly not reciprocated in Afghanistan. In most countries water experts were keen to give their views of upstream or downstream neighbours. Indian water experts, however focused on domestic issues, and did not have any particular views about their neighbours or India’s approach towards them.

Resolving the conflicts

While the problems were clear, our findings gave some cause for optimism. The majority of respondents were enthusiastic about new approaches towards water issues. Many Indians are working on exactly the type of innovative demand management and storage projects that could help create new approaches to international water issues: rainwater harvesting, basin management and community participation in decision-making.  But shifting the over-arching approach to water management – both domestically and internationally – will require greater political will.

The first challenge is to stop blaming water shortages on upstream actions rather than local mismanagement. While water shortages in Delhi are blamed on actions taken by upstream Haryana state, around half of Delhi’s water supplies are wasted, mostly through leaky pipes.

Second is the problem of implementation and scaling-up successful approaches.  For instance, many projects across the region have demonstrated the potential of less water-intensive irrigation. With agriculture consuming around 90% of water across the region, this could significantly reduce pressure on water resources. Evidence shows that urban and rural consumers are willing to pay, or pay more, for water provided that the service was reliable. Attempts to ration water to urban consumers by limiting supply to certain hours each day actually encouraged over-consumption. Others noted that the poor frequently pay more for water than the rich. In many locations, water management is likely to require off-grid water solutions – expanding rainwater harvesting, for instance – although to be sustainable these require local community support.

However, our project revealed that successful cases of water management – such as Malkapur in Maharashtra, the first town in India to provide a continuous supply of water – are unpublicised or unknown. Sharing success stories and encouraging competition between towns or districts providing water services, could help change the approach to water.

When it comes to  international rivers, downstream countries feel threatened by the construction of infrastructure upstream.  Many of our interviewees suggested that the countries of the region lacked a domestic “vision” for water, reinforcing the zero-sum nature of transboundary negotiations.

Shared benefits

Shifting from a zero-sum approach to a benefit-sharing approach requires dialogue at different levels. Dialogue need to focus on specific factors pertaining to water, from health to environment, livelihoods and fisheries. What are the energy service, food production, health, livelihood and development expectations in each country? What changes are desired or anticipated in the future that could impact on water? This thinking at the domestic level could help transform  insurmountable conflicts of interest into regional dialogue and cooperation around shared challenges.

This is already taking place, but, again, successes need to be publicised. For instance, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute, India (CIFRI) have  encouraged  West Bengal and Bangladesh to cooperate to tackle declining stocks of hilsa fish, an important source of food and income. West Bengal subsequently introduced a fishing ban broadly in line with that of Bangladesh.

Another shared challenge is urbanisation. India’s urban population is expected to increase by 500 million people over the next 40 years. South Asia’s other megacities – Karachi and Dhaka – will also expand dramatically and current municipal water management systems will be ill-placed to cope.

India’s neighbours held overwhelmingly negative views of India. But India’s size and influence means that its leaders have the capacity to change inter-regional water relations. The recent election provides a window of opportunity. The election of the first single-party government for 30 years gives an opportunity both for more coherent policy towards water and to explore opportunities for mutually-beneficial approaches to water with its smaller neighbours.