July 22, 2010

Water Security And Regional Disputes In South Asia

The Himalayan River Basins (Ganges, Bramhaputra, Indus, Yangtze) in China, Nepal, India and Bangladesh are inhabited by around 1.3 billion people. Yes, we are talking about almost 20% of the world’s population and almost 50% of the total population of these countries. These rivers were the lifelines of the ancient civilizations formed in this region. And these civilizations of present day are under threat.

In a recent report by Strategic Foresight Group, a Mumbai-based think tank, titled "The Himalayan Challenge - Water Security in Emerging Asia" some alarming statistics were presented. In the next two decades, the four countries in the Himalayan sub-region will face the depletion of almost 275 billion cubic meters (BCM) of annual renewable water, more than the total amount of water available in Nepal in present day.

Water availability is estimated to decline in 2030 comparing to present level by 13.50% in case of China, by 28% in case of India, by 22% in case of Bangladesh and by 35% in case of Nepal. The factors contributing to this decline are:
  1. About 10% to 20% of the Himalayan Rivers are fed by Himalayan Glaciers and studies say 70% of these glaciers will be melted by the next century as a result of accelerating global climate change.
  2. Glacial melting will eventually reduce river flow in the low season and increase in temperature in some areas leading to deforestation.
  3. Disappearance of thousands of lakes.
  4. Depletion of water resources due to pollution and natural reasons
  5. The reduced riverflow induces more deposit of silt in river bed narrows the depth of river thus causing flooding.

(Narrowing of depth of river caused by silt deposit, is the reason for floods in Bangladesh. Image taken by the author last month from an airplane)

The implications of depletion of water resources are:

  1. The agricultural sector is the major consumer of fresh water. However this sector will be using less water due to non-availability of water leading to less productivity.
  2. The cumulative effect of water scarcity, glacial melting, disruptive precipitation patterns, flooding, desertification, pollution, and soil erosion will be a massive reduction in the production of rice, wheat, maize and fish.
The consequences of the scarcity of water has prompted many countries to train rivers and manage water flow by building dams. But dams effect the river basins downstream. So it has become an issue for regional disputes. China alone has developed plans to build over 200 dams which will effect the downstream flows of the river in several countries.

India vs. China:

The 2,900 km long Brahmaputra River flows through China, India, and Bangladesh, and its watershed includes Nepal, Bhutan, and Burma as well. In 2000, India accused China of not sharing flood data of the flows of Brahmaputra River through the Chinese territory. This resulted in widespread devastation and floods in India killing many people. In 2002 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the countries to coordinate water related data sharing.

In early 2003, China conducted a feasibility study for a major hydropower project along the China section of the Brahmaputra River. This project was supposed to divert 200 billion cubic meters of water annually to the Yellow River. This would result in 60% reduction of water flow downstream in India and Bangladesh. In 2006, the Chinese government denied the existence of the plan however this remained a reason for the strained relationship between the two countries. However it was found later that China was building a dam on Brahmaputra.

In April 2010, China assured that the dam on river Brahmaputra will have no impact on the downstream flow of the river into India Bangladesh.

India vs. Bangladesh:

The Indian government has plans to get India’s 37 major river interlinked by 2016 implementing its interlinking of rivers (ILR) project. 25 new dams are planned for the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. According to experts the impacts of the ILR on Bangladesh will be the function of many variables, including the alteration of hydrology, river dynamics, ecosystem changes, agricultural productivity, intrusion of salinity and public health. The reason for dispute between both the countries is that Bangladesh have not been officially notified of plans for the ILR project.

India vs. Pakistan:

Pakistan is worried about six rivers (Indus, Chenab, Jhelum, Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi) that flow into Pakistan through northern India, including the disputed state of Jammu & Kashmir and the state of Punjab. Their disagreements lead to the 1960 Indus Water Treaty, which has come under an increasing strain in recent days. India completed a hydroelectric power project on the Chenab River in the Doda district of Jammu & Kashmir by building a dam on 2008. Pakistan is wary of facts that the shortage of flow of water in rivers could cause rapid desertification.

Water issues are not only raising the political temperature between countries but also between states within a country like the river Kaveri is the reason for serious contention between Tamil Nadu and neighbouring Karnataka states.

The Solution:

One thing is for sure if India and China race for building dams to control flow of river within their boundaries without consulting their downstream neighbors then the situation will be volatile leading to unnecessary confrontation and war. The threats cannot be addressed by the unilateral efforts of nations, only regional cooperation can mitigate such tensions.

The Dhaka Declaration on Water Security has proposed an expert committee to prepare a road map for data-sharing and scientific exchange and to prepare guidelines for introducing transparency regarding relevant data.The declaration urges "greater political commitment and data exchange among Himalaya basin countries for collective approaches to the region's water challenges".

Dialogues between the citizens of the countries concerned are needed so that unnecessary escalations can be avoided.The region has to commit to agreements like the Dhaka declaration so that a Regional Information Sharing Network on water resources can be achieved.

(Also published in Future Challenges)


  1. If freshwater outflow at the delta is reduced, presumably there will be increased risk of salinisation as well.