Himalayan rivers: time for transboundary management

Author: Robert G. Wirsing, Georgetown

If one were on the lookout for the region with the most meagre potential for cooperative management of its transboundary river basins, South Asia would be a strong contender.

Merely to mention the larger co-riparian states sharing the region’s two biggest and most important Himalayan river basins — India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China sharing the Indus basin, and India, Bangladesh and China sharing the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin — is usually enough to dampen enthusiasm for basin-wide river management. Kept apart by distrust stemming from histories of rivalry, these five states seem especially poor candidates for basin-wide cooperation. Aroused by the uncertainties of climate change, worried hydrologists may argue that there just isn’t enough time left for business-as-usual unilateralist attitudes to prevail. Nevertheless, South Asia seems to many observers a far better candidate for water war than for water peace.

Apart from distrust, the impediments to basin-wide management include some potent structural features of South Asia’s political geography. One is India’s towering size and strength relative to its smaller neighbours and the advantage that gives India in exploiting its upper riparian position on the rivers shared with Pakistan and Bangladesh. Enclosing within its borders less than 10 per cent of the GBM basin, Bangladesh suffers one of the least favourable river dependency ratios (91.3 per cent) on the planet — and thus has little geographic leverage to deploy in its dealings with India. Pakistan is better off, but its own river dependency ratio (about 75 per cent) still leaves it highly vulnerable to neighbouring India’s dam-building plans on the upper waters of the Indus system.

A second structural impediment emerges from the political challenges facing South Asian governments, including the delicate coalition arrangement of the Indian central government. This problem was evident in September 2011 when the chief minister of the Indian state of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, withdrew her support at the eleventh hour from a water-sharing agreement between India and Bangladesh over the Teesta River. Her exit dealt a death blow to the hard-won agreement, which would have been the first formal India–Bangladesh agreement over Teesta’s waters since 1996. The failed agreement was up against demographic and economic circumstances in West Bengal — with 91.3  million people, one of India’s poorest and largest states, and every bit as dependent on the GBM basin as Bangladesh — that appear to have left little room for compromise.

Perhaps the most readily visible reason for change is demographic. Four countries sharing the Indus and GBM basins — China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — alone have populations totalling over 2.84 billion, about 41.3 per cent of the global total. This is expected by 2050 to reach a combined total of 3.47 billion, or about 40 per cent of an expected world total of 9.316 billion. Keeping pace with these numbers, and the threatened drop in per capita water availability they entail, will require massive increases in fresh water extractions from the region’s surface and ground water. These increases will be needed to ensure the basic food security of these populations and meet the demand for adequate water supplies arising from the unprecedented scale of the region’s industrialising and urbanising trends.

Adding immeasurably to the bleak outlook for the region’s water resources is the extraordinarily heavy dependence of its agricultural lands on irrigation. By far the greatest concentration of the world’s irrigated land — close to 65 per cent — is in Asia, about 35 per cent in South Asia. China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh together account for just over half of the world’s irrigated lands. The highest irrigation density of all is found in Northern India and Pakistan, in the Ganges and Indus basins. The mounting threat of water scarcity to Pakistan’s agriculture helps to explain its classification as one of the most severely water-insecure countries on the planet.

Moreover, tens of millions of farmers in these countries are turning to ground water supplies of fresh water to escape the uncertainties of antiquated supply-driven irrigation systems. Over the past 10 years, scientific data warning of the long-term high risk this poses to the region’s aquifers has been accumulating, adding substantially to the urgency of the water resource crisis.

Yet another sign of the need for a shift from competition to collaboration in river basin management is in South Asia’s chronic shortage of power supplies, casting doubt over the region’s capacity to ensure future energy security. India is already the world’s sixth-largest energy consumer. With its primary energy demand expected to grow overall by about 127 per cent in the period 2008–2035, accounting for 18 per cent of the total global rise in energy consumption, India will be second only to China in contributing to the increase in global demand.

The imperative to increase energy supplies has turned New Delhi’s attention to indigenous hydropower resources, although only about 19.9 per cent of India’s hydropower potential has so far been developed.

India’s greatest share of as yet untapped hydropower potential is found in the country’s north and northeast, where it has launched a dam-building spree that inescapably runs up against the fresh water needs of India’s lower riparian neighbours, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Of the hydropower schemes underway, those in the northeastern and northern Indian states in the Indus, Ganges or Brahmaputra basins account for a stunning 79 per cent of planned installed capacity.

India’s swelling energy imperative is magnifying the importance of these rivers to its future energy security, and this importance quickly turns into political tensions between India and Pakistan and Bangladesh. Significantly, the massive dependence of these co-riparian neighbours on the river systems’ shared waters for their agricultural irrigation requirements is fueling increasingly bitter rivalries and complicating India’s plans to exploit the hydropower potential of those same rivers.

Looking to South Asia’s water future, the elephant in the room is, of course, China — the upper riparian of the Brahmaputra River. China already is building a cascade of major hydropower dams on the Brahmaputra, but these are located well upstream from the Indian border. It also has an eye on the Great Bend in the Brahmaputra, just across the border from the Indian state of Assam, for hydropower generation. These are worrisome developments for the lower riparians, India and Bangladesh, but it is China’s increased interest in a massive river diversion scheme on the Brahmaputra — one that would divert as much as 20 per cent of the river’s flow to China’s parched northern plains — that has aroused the greatest anxiety.

Unfortunately, opacity has generally characterised China’s water planning, especially when it has had transboundary implications. Official denials of any Chinese plans to divert the Brahmaputra’s waters have been plentiful, and the Indian government’s public response to Beijing’s soothing words has been cautiously optimistic. But some Indian strategic thinkers have been sounding the alarm about China’s aggressive water strategy. Leading Indian strategist Brahma Chellaney, for example, warns that China, with its hand firmly in place on Asia’s Tibetan water tap, is ‘acquiring tremendous leverage over its neighbours’ behavior’, making water the newest weapon in its political armoury. If China goes ahead with the proposed diversion of Brahmaputra waters, ‘it would constitute’, he declares flatly, ‘the declaration of a water war on lower-riparian India and Bangladesh’.

The time has clearly arrived to move South Asia’s transboundary Himalayan rivers towards basin-wide management. While the obstacles in the path of any such effort are clearly immense, the costs of failure to do so — which include but are by no means restricted to the threat of violent interstate conflict — are virtually certain to be even greater.

Dr Robert G. Wirsing is Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Qatar.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Energy, Resources and Food’.

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