Of the earth’s total water availability, 97.5 per cent is saltwater, which leaves 2.5 per cent as freshwater available for consumption. But of this portion, 70 per cent is frozen in ice caps while 29 per cent lies underground as soil moisture. That leaves us with a miniscule one per cent freshwater available for human consumption.
A water crisis is looming as potentially 75 per cent of the world’s population could face freshwater shortage by 2050, with global water shortages already threatening economic growth and geopolitical stability. The water crisis in South Asia in particular is gaining increasing attention, with major implications for stability in the region. It is inevitable that water is to become a likely source of conflict. The region’s three major rivers, the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, sustain water supplies for China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, all of which fall into a region classified as water-stressed, as the population here increases at the rate of 25 million people a year.
India, as both an upper and lower riparian country, finds itself in dispute with downstream neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which accuse it of attempting to dominate water flows. India fears the same of upstream China, which plans extensive dam-building projects over the Tsangpo River that flows into eastern India. The construction of Baglihar Dam by India in the disputed Kashmir region has triggered fierce opposition from Pakistan, which sees it as an effort to threaten, withhold and divert its rightful share of water. The view is that the Baglihar Dam creates a reservoir on a river coming into Pakistan and enables Indian control over the headwaters of the Indus, making Pakistan water dependent. The cumulative effect of the Baglihar Dam and other similar projects could give India the ability to store enough water to limit the supply to Pakistan at crucial times during the monsoon season. Therefore, these dams remain a source of significant tension.
India dismisses these allegations, stating that such projects merely delay river flows and considers itself to abide by the Indus Water treaty of 1960. Adding to the tension, more dams are being planned as India grows more power hungry, given its economic growth. The Indian Rajya Sabha reports 33 hydro projects in the border area with over 60 dam projects planned. Pakistan being downstream, is vulnerable as it is situated around a single great river, the Indus, which waters over 80 per cent of Pakistan’s irrigated land that serves 180 million people.
More political row is certain in the future as both nations become water scarce and desperate for water access. India may keep dismissing Pakistan’s concerns given that it is geographically situated upstream, however, it faces its own downstream concerns given its border with China.
Water shortage will become harder to manage as the region’s population grows by 1.7 per cent yearly, creating more demand for food and causing further climate change. The effects of this can be seen already as weak river flows in several South Asian rivers are unable to subside waste. These river waters are becoming increasingly unsafe for drinking, cleaning and cropping, while encouraging parasitic diseases like Naegleria and deadly viruses such as dengue. Water tables are dropping and this is evident as the areas around the Ganges and the delta of the Indus in Pakistan are becoming semi-deserts. This results in more pumping of groundwater, which increases cases of arsenic poisoning.
The growing water shortage can be dealt with by governments collaborating to improve water management systems rather than sprinting to build dams and divert waters. As South Asia becomes increasingly water scarce, the potential for conflict will loom unless urgency and willingness is shown by governments to create multilateral arrangements and practices on inter-basin water sharing. Organisations such as the United Nations Water Agency and Saarc have a major role in promoting this agenda. Diplomatic dialogue and political cooperation is the only way forward in the hope of finding solutions.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 22nd, 2014.
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