Watering sharing and adversarial neighbours

River systems are under increased pressure due to climate change and other unrelenting human interventions


Syed Mohammed Ali November 26, 2021
The writer is an academic and researcher. He is also the author of Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

Water and climate change are inextricably linked. Global warming is changing weather patterns which have been evidently altering precipitation levels resulting in severer and frequent floods and droughts. Rising temperature is also causing glaciers, which sustain major river systems across different countries, to deplete at alarming rates. Yet, these two interlinked issues of water management and climate change have mostly been dealt with separately. Global water resource management is not only fragmented but also woefully inadequate. It was thus encouraging to see the spokesperson of the UN’s World Metrological Organization state during the recent COP26 that “water is the canary in the coal mine” for climate change. Nowhere is the need to focus on water management in relation to climate change more urgent than in our part of the world. Chinese controlled territory of Tibet is home to major river systems, shared by over a billion people across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Yet, these river systems are under increased pressure due to climate change and other unrelenting human interventions.

Climate change is threatening rainfall and snow patterns and the accompanying temperature rise is causing glacial ice to melt at alarming rates. Moreover, increased pressure is being placed on river systems by development efforts such as damning and irrigational projects to meet agricultural and energy demands of burgeoning regional populations. Despite the grave consequences that depletion of our regional river systems would imply, there is an absence of an effective transborder mechanism to manage water resources across South Asia. Water is instead shared amongst neighbouring countries according to bilateral agreements, such as the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan or the Ganges Treaty between India and Bangladesh. In some cases, no water sharing agreement exists, such as between Afghanistan and any of its bordering states.

Cooperation among upper and lower riparian countries is vital to address increasing pressure on shared river systems and to mitigate growing water scarcity. Information sharing and cooperation at the regional level can help better manage and conserve transboundary water resources, and to contend with related natural disasters such as devastating floods, which may become a bigger problem due to the ongoing glacial melt. In the absence of mutually beneficial cross-border agreements to store or develop water resources, upper riparian countries are suspected of unilaterally exploiting the rivers which traverse through their territory despite the potentially far-reaching adverse effects on downstream countries. Pakistan has often taken India to task for damning projects, fearing that developments such as the Baglihar dam would have an adverse impact on water availability in Pakistan.

Bangladesh has had similar concerns with regard to Indian effort to divert water from the Brahmaputra. In the last decade, China has also been building hydropower dams on the Indus and Brahmaputra, which have caused concern in India. Transborder management of the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers can increase fair and inclusive development and bolster climate change resilience throughout the region. For this to happen, however, riparian countries in the region need to work together. One step in the right direction would be to establish functional transborder river basin-based water management institutions. The World Bank supported the South Asia Water Initiative to provide funding and analyses to promote regional collaboration in managing transboundary rivers and groundwater. But this multi-donor trust fund closed in June 2021.

One hopes that the newfound recognition to work on climate change and water management simultaneously will not only help finance similar efforts in the future but result in the creation of robust and effective regional efforts which are vital to contend with the impending challenge of transborder water management. In the absence of such needed cooperation, growing water stress in the region will become another issue in the hands of incendiary politicians to generate more animosity towards already adversarial neighbouring states.

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