Blog Post


Water Conflicts Looming Between
South Asian Nuclear Powers Pose Global Threat;
UNU Book Charts Road to Cooperation

Great potential for Indus Basin development
if India, Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, work together

The current political rhetoric between India and Pakistan underlines the risk of failing to manage correctly and cooperatively vital water resources shared between nations.

India’s suspension of the Indus Water Commission meeting on 26 September 2016, and its convening of a meeting to review India’s options for modifying or walking away from the Indus Water Treaty, was immediately met with sharp retorts from political leaders in Pakistan, who suggested that any Indian attempt to renege from the Treaty would be deemed an act of war.

This potential global catastrophe looms in South Asia as rapidly rising water demand collides with a diminishing resource on which at least 300 million people depend directly, warns a new book from United Nations University’s Canada-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH).

The book, “Imagining Industan,” appeals to the three nuclear armed powers sharing the Indus River basin ― India, Pakistan and China — and Afghanistan to cease decades of conflict and self-serving policies and begin working together as never before to manage the precious resource.

Its editors describe the book as an effort “to kindle serious discussion of the trans-boundary cooperation needed to confront what more and more water experts believe is developing into one of the planet’s most gravely threatened river basins.”

All 14 of the book’s contributing experts acknowledge the immensity of the challenges in a region prone to political and military conflict. But they make “abundantly clear their collective belief that much greater collective planning is essential…if the Indus basin is to escape the likely disastrous consequences of continued failure to collaborate.”

Published by Springer, the 216-page work is the culmination of a project supported by UNU-INWEH and proposes a new course for the 1,120,000 km2 basin drained by the Indus River, six major tributaries and connected waterways covering over 65% of Pakistan, a significant part of India (14%) and smaller areas of Afghanistan (11%) and China (1%).

Zafar Adeel, Executive Director of the Pacific Water Research Centre at Simon Fraser University, Canada, co-edited the work with Robert G. Wirsing, recently retired Professor of Government at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar.

The book “takes a deliberately pragmatic and sober look at the way things are today,” examines the reasons for the meager level of cooperation among the basin’s four riparian neighbours, the costs of non-cooperation, and “some of the practical things that are being done now or can be done in the near future to move these states, however slowly and awkwardly, in the direction of cooperative, integrated management of the basin’s water resources.”

Resolution of simmering issues around water quality and quantity is crucial, the Editors state: The water resource is the “lifeblood” of the basin’s over 300 million inhabitants. Most of the Indus waters flow from glaciers and melting snow high in the Himalayan Mountains and the Tibetan Plateau. Pakistan and India have, until now, been by far its biggest consumers ― mainly for irrigation and generating hydroelectric energy ― through one of the most extensive system of dams and canals that originated with British engineers during the colonial period.

Mushrooming water demand has led to pollution, shortages and conflict in those countries, and rapid population and economic growth adds to these problems. Disputes over water have fueled conflicts within and between the riparian nations, and that history of conflict, in turn, increases the difficulty of achieving amicable and sustainable solutions.

The situation will only worsen as climate change threatens the resource and China and Afghanistan divert more of it for their own uses. Numerous new dams are planned or under construction in all four countries, a development that, according to Douglas Hill – one of the contributing authors, “will intensify the negative consequences that we have seen in the past, both in terms of sustainable development and human security.”

Success would mean “the capacity for enhancing water security for all the basin’s occupants would grow at a pace at least matching that of the mounting threat of water scarcity.”

The book’s use of term “Industan” reflects the basin as a whole – it is meant to be a play on words and not to imply that changes to the existing political boundaries are either required or even desirable. Rather the emphasis is on need to think of the basin as a single, integrated resource. This “clearly cannot be realized without fundamental changes of some sort being made in the Indus basin’s political dynamics, specifically in the way the riparian states and sub-state entities manage their water resource relationships with one another.”

The basin “lies in a part of the world where intense distrust, chronic conflict, and bitterly contentious water policies have a long history,” the editors say. India and Pakistan have been beset by political and religious conflict, between each other and within their borders, since independence and partition in 1947. The region has also become a pawn in the Cold War strategies of the major world powers and destabilized further by the rise of terrorist groups and military interventions against them.

In the face of these issues, Robert Wirsing admits that “the subject of this book might seem imprudently optimistic, especially since it is about a region of the globe that fares dismally in virtually every assessment of the world’s danger spots.”

He further adds: “Skepticism about the prospects of even limited achievement of regionally integrated, basin-wide management of the Indus basin … is found in practically every chapter in this book. At least in the short term, a radical and swift transformation in the way water issues are dealt with in South Asia seems highly unlikely to all of its authors.”

“It was not really optimism that drove the project to completion but a combination of the available opportunities and what might happen if they are not availed,” the editors add. “There was a significant consensus among all the book’s contributors that further delay in tackling collectively the region’s widely shared and massive problem of water insecurity probably risked intensifying already considerable tensions among the four states sharing the basin. Delay most certainly also posed a huge risk to the economic potential and well-being of the many millions who now inhabit the basin as well as of those who come after.”

The political and economic significance of the four nations means turmoil among them could spread far beyond their borders.

China and India rank first and second in total national population. They and Pakistan are major military powers, armed with nuclear weapons. There are many sources of tension among them and a history of armed conflict, the editors warn.

Water shortages could lead to economic distress and internal political instability, particularly in Pakistan, whose freshwater withdrawal at 183 billion m3 per year is the world’s fourth highest rate of water use behind India, China, and the United States.

Making matters worse, the Indus basin is widely expected to be among the world’s worst-affected from climate change, leading to drought, desertification, less predictable monsoon rains, weather turbulence, flooding, sea level rise, and glacial retreat ― all with “potentially harmful collective economic and political consequences.”

The region’s importance means any effects of water shortages and rivalry will spill over on to the rest of the world, the editors say.

“The basin’s occupants are just too large, too important, and too integral a part of world affairs for their water woes to be simply swept aside as a matter of little consequence. The water insecurity of the Indus basin is a world, not just a local, problem.”

The book proposes cautious steps to move from policies focused on clashing national self interest toward those that treat the basin as a single resource to be managed and shared. Conclusive answers, the book’s contributors say, might not be readily available.

The process could start with sharing data about the resource, which would not only increase understanding of it, but also raise the level of trust among the four nations.

Cooperation might be possible on specific areas of concern, such as dealing with the impacts of climate change, the sharing of hydropower energy, and collective responses to water-related natural disasters.

The only legal instrument for international management was the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan. While the treaty has withstood a number of wars and armed conflicts between the two countries, the editors admit, the treaty’s explicit admonition to engage in cooperative water development activities has been steadfastly ignored for over half a century. Even so, it has been employed to resolve a few disputes and could be revived, perhaps by breathing some life into its “entirely neglected Article VII that urges the signatories to recognize their common interest.” It could also be expanded to include China and Afghanistan.

The authors also cite a list of potential instruments to encourage cooperation, based mainly on international agreements and understandings such as the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and the United Nations’ Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Development banks, bilateral donor agencies, United Nations organization and agencies, internationally driven nongovernmental organizations and research organizations could also play a role in fostering co-operation.

In the end, solutions must come from among and within the four Indus Basin nations, Adeel and Wirsing say. So far, there is little evidence of a will to cooperate. Nevertheless, the authors remain cautiously optimistic and hope the “arguments, data, and information presented in “Imagining Industan” adds to the overall evidence base for the political decision making and normative changes.”

Says UNU-INWEH Director Vladimir Smakhtin: “The Book is an important contribution to creating the awareness of the existing and emerging water-related conflicts in the world, and a loud call for immediate strengthening of transboundary cooperation – to increase both water security and overall regional security. Indus river basin, may be seen as a water time bomb, which may go off any time with increasing water resources scarcity, variability and progressively changing climate. There are similar water-related accumulating tensions and issues in other major river basins and UNU-INWEH has embarked on the scrupulous analysis of those, to ensure peaceful and sustainable trajectory of river basin developments.”

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Summary of key messages, Imagining Industan:

1. Integrated and basin-wide cooperative management of the Indus basin is essential for contemporary water planners, who could draw lessons from the history of cohesive water management and planning before the partition of India and Pakistan.
2. Water cooperation among the riparian nations must work uphill against a myriad of diverse, complex, and frustrating handicaps such as the basin’s geography, geo-political interests, and securitization of water.
3. Implementation of many cooperative instruments is quite feasible, working within the existing legal and regional cooperation frameworks; these include international conventions, bilateral treaties, regional cooperation organizations, and research and development organizations with a regional mandate.
4. The Indus Water Treaty must go beyond its current state-centric, zero-sum approach, and aim towards a more resilient future of the basin; re-imagining IWT could include amending the Treaty to reflect contemporary issues (e.g., climate change, water quality, energy sharing, etc.) and ground realities in the four riparian nations, or breathing more life into its mostly-neglected Article VII on cooperation.
5. New and emerging threats as a result of climate change and new satellite-based technologies offer the possibility to collaborate on data sharing and developing jointly-managed disaster response systems.
6. The international community, particularly development partners, should play a constructive role in mobilizing financial assistance and resources to build basin-wide hydro-diplomacy initiatives; new international development frameworks offered through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change offer excellent entry points.
7. The price of non-cooperation and persistent mistrust is very steep, with adverse impacts potentially harming people and economies in all riparian states.