The biggest problem confronting South Asia: Water 12 November 2013

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A water scene in Jammu, Indian Jammu and Kashmir

The biggest problem confronting South Asia: Water      12 November 2013

I am sometimes asked what I consider to be the biggest problem confronting South Asians. Invariably, I reply water. There are (too) many serious water issues in this region, some of which have serious security implications.

India and Pakistan have existing internal and inter-state water issues. Two Indian states, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, have disputed sharing the Kaveri (Cauvery) River’s water for a long time. Indeed, this issue predates both states’ creation. It also involves Kerala and the territory of Puducherry. In 2012, India’s prime minister ordered Karnataka to release water for Tamil Nadu, which Karnataka ignored. In Pakistan, downstream Sind Province has wanted more water, particularly from irrigation-rich Punjab, partly because the Indus River was a series of large puddles before Pakistan’s serious floods in 2010. Floods also ravaged northern India last year.

The downstream nation of Bangladesh regularly experiences floods. It is located at the confluence of two major river systems: the Ganga (Ganges) and Brahmaputra/Jamuna. Bangladesh confronts a further problem to do with water: rising sea levels. If, as some predict, sea levels rise by one metre worldwide, this could force some 40 million Bangladeshis to move. Rising sea levels also will confront low-lying parts of India. The Maldives could be obliterated, as a result of which the Maldives government has contemplated buying land in southern India or north-west Australia to relocate Maldivians.

Being the downstream riparian entity is a problem in South Asia. This confronts Bangladesh and Pakistan particularly, while India is downstream from Nepal, Bhutan and, significantly, China. For Bangladesh, the Farakka Barrage built by upstream India on the Hooghly/Ganga system causes the lower riparian nation to have insufficient water during dry times and too much during wet times. For India, China’s damming of the Brahmaputra River (Yarlang Tsangpo in Tibet) is of concern. Similarly, China controls the upper reaches of the Sutlej River, Karnali River (a major Ganga tributary), and the Indus River, although impeding these rivers’ flows at their upper reaches may not cause significant hardship to areas downstream.

In terms of the India-Pakistan relationship, Pakistan is the downstream riparian on all major eastern rivers that flow into the Indus River system: Beas, Sutlej, Ravi, Chenab, and Jhelum. Significantly for Pakistan, the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus rivers flow through disputed Jammu and Kashmir via areas that India controls. Both nations, with World Bank assistance, agreed the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960. This treaty has generally worked well. Nevertheless, there are still issues involving water. These include Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Scheme, which Pakistan believes will reduce flows on the Jhelum River, and agreeing the international border’s location in the Sir Creek waterway near the Arabian Sea. There also are issues that Pakistan has asked the World Bank to mediate: Baglihar Dam, built by India on the Chenab River in Jammu; Kishanganga Hydroelectric Plant Scheme to move water from the Kishanganga River (which Pakistanis and Azad Kashmiris call Neelum) in Indian Kashmir to the Jhelum River via a long tunnel that would generate hydel (hydro-electricity). Pakistan has a similar scheme involving both rivers. It would be seriously impaired if upstream India can implement its plan.

Other problems in South Asia to do with water include seriously receding aquifers (which is a worldwide problem). These are being depleted by farmers and others who pay little or nothing for this water and who benefit from cheap or free electricity to power extraction pumps. Water quality is an issue throughout South Asia, particularly due to the disposal of raw sewage, industrial waste and animal waste directly into rivers. So too is the building or maintenance of water infrastructure, particularly as South Asia increasingly urbanises. Residents in some large South Asian cities can only obtain water at certain times of each day.

Another infrastructure issue is the building of large-scale dams, and the associated generation of hydel. This has been problematic. Many Indians don’t want more of these ‘temples of modern India’, as Nehru called them. Particularly controversial was the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River in Gujarat, which has provided significant amounts of water for irrigation and industry but also displaced millions of Indians. Pakistan needs more dams, but this is an enormous political issue. Some Pakistanis don’t want a dam in their own ‘backyard’ that would submerge valuable, fertile agricultural land. Downstream provinces also object. This has prevented the Pakistan Government from constructing the large Kalabagh Dam in Punjab. Partly to mollify this situation, Pakistan intends to build Diamer-Bhasha Dam. The dam wall and hydel facilities will be located in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa Province; the dam’s water will be in Gilgit-Baltistan. Theoretically, Pakistan could eventually lose this water as India still claims that Gilgit-Baltistan is an integral part of India. Silting is another problem for Pakistan (and other nations, as is deforestation). The wall of the Mangla Dam in Azad Kashmir, which region India also claims, had to be raised in recent years in order to retain sufficient storage capacity. For a second time since 1947, such construction has impacted on Mirpur City and displaced many Mirpuris.

A further issue relates to the payment of revenues generated by hydel. Some people in J&K, chiefly Azad Kashmiris and (Indian) Kashmiris feel aggrieved by their regions respectively providing hydel to Pakistan or India for which they are not adequately recompensed. This issue makes Nepal and Bhutan, poor nations upstream from India, wary of developing potentially lucrative hydel schemes financed by, and mostly beneficial for, India.

Perhaps the most interesting, and controversial, water scheme is an Indian plan to divert water from north-eastern India to India’s south via a series of canals and some thirty rivers. India’s seven north-eastern states include Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, two of the wettest areas in world. Bangladesh is totally displeased with India’s river-linking plan.

Most seriously, as things currently stand in South Asia, there is insufficient water to satisfy this region’s growing population and its needs. In the next decades, India’s population is expected to plateau at about 1.5 billion people. Relatively speaking (when compared with Pakistan, anyway), India has significant water resources on which to draw. But downstream Pakistan, which is almost totally reliant on the Indus Waters system and aquifers for its irrigation and water needs, has a population that will burgeon from about 190 million now to some 350 million in 2050. In the short term, Pakistan may benefit from melting Himalayan glaciers (which is another problem) that ‘hold’ water in the form of snow and ice. Improved irrigation and water-handling techniques may generate ‘savings’. However, already per capita water availability for Pakistanis is reaching critical levels. By 2050, this problem will be immense.

Christopher Snedden
12 November 2013


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