The Parched Tiger: Whither Flows India’s Water? The Geopolitics of India’s Water Woes

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India, if it was to by some show of strength decides to withdraw from this treaty, it will lose a lot of standing in the international community. It’s not just about water anymore, it’s about politics, it’s about our foreign policy, and then everything else that comes along with that.
Welcome to the Stratfor Podcast. I’m Faisel Pervaiz. On today’s podcast, we’re going to discuss the geopolitics of water, using one specific case. That of India, and to an extent Pakistan. It’s no secret that a major city in South India recently experienced a drought of such significance, that it was even visible from space. Meanwhile in Northeastern India, floods are wreaking havoc on local communities, displacing millions. Cycles of drought and flood are as old as India itself. But as the monsoons arrive later
and floods become more severe, the impacts become greater. To discuss these topics, we recently spoke with Ambika Vishwanath, founder of the Kubermein Initiative, and a geopolitical consultant and water security expert, based in Mumbai, India. Ambika, thank you so much again for joining me for today’s conversation, I really appreciate it.
Hi Faisel, good to be here again.
Given today’s topic of water security, it’s not only small talk for me to begin by asking you this question. How’s the weather?
It’s wet and raining, but good, because it brings the temperature in Mumbai down a degree, which is very welcome.
That got me thinking about something. It got me thinking about a lot of things actually. The monsoon is one, but it got me thinking about this other concept about droughts and floods. They’re opposites. One marks the absence of rain, the other its over-abundance. In India we’ve seen both happen in recent months. As you and I were discussing for example, in Chennai, in South India’s Tamil Nadu, we saw the effects of droughts in that city. And then just as we speak, floods have wreaked havoc
in Northeastern India, killing over 100 people and displacing millions. That brings me to an obvious question. What do you think explains the fact that a country like India experiences both droughts and floods, and could you comment a bit on each of these situations?
If you think about the size of India and the fact that we have very varied climate zones, it’s not unusual that we have both floods and droughts occurring in the country. It happens in many countries around the world including in America, but what is unusual is that we sometimes have floods in one area while experiencing a drought-like situation in another part of the country at the same time. That’s kind of a unique phenomenon that happens in India. Not every year, but in some years. See, the monsoon
in India is a very big and important phenomena. You have festivals that are around the monsoon, the first week of June is when the monsoon hits the Southwest of India. It comes to Kerala first and everybody knows Kerala, and it’s a very awaited event. The thing is, in India the monsoon accounts for 70% of our annual water, so that’s a lot of our water that comes in these three months–
Of the entire year. Traditionally, as an agrarian society we’re very dependent on the monsoon because we grow some of our biggest and largest number of crops during this period. But increasingly so because of development, industrialization, urban spaces increasing in a very haphazard fashion, we’re not creating well-planned cities, and all of that. You then have all of these natural phenomena like your floods, being completely exacerbated by your man-made encroachments and deficiencies,
which is I think the nicest way I can put it.
I’m really glad you raised that point because floods and droughts like you said, they’re natural, they happen, it’s the course of nature, but the idea is that different countries have created different sorts of solutions to deal with these sorts of problems. When I think about the floods, it seems like that whatever solutions are there at India so far they’re still deficient. Can you maybe give an example of one reason why these floods happen, because it’s a regular thing. It seems to happen every year,
where a lot of people die and millions are displaced.
The Brahmaputra which comes from China, and then flows through India and through Bangladesh out into the Bay of Bengal, it floods every year. This is not new. The problem is when you take a state like Assam in India, which is right now flooded, and its people are displaced like you said, over 100 people in Assam alone have died. It’s when you don’t allow nature to sort of take its course. Subconsciously everybody knows this and everybody realizes this. Marshlands for example are natural flood catchment areas,
and along the Brahmaputra there are large tracts of marshlands, there are large tracts of plains, flat areas, and then there are forested areas. Now when you encroach on these marshlands for development to create small cities, villages, the water that naturally floods out of the river has nowhere to go. Then you have the question of, the floods are causing havoc in human sediments. Because in some of these areas the human sediments should not have been there in the first place.
That’s a very real example of the activities of humans having, I guess a natural sort of a consequence in creating the floods. You mentioned rivers, and it got me thinking about the role of rivers. Of course, if anyone is looking at South Asia, one of the main rivers is the Indus. And that river, like a lot of rivers around the world crosses international boundaries, and interestingly, that river of course goes between India and Pakistan, as well as China. You recently wrote a piece on our site that was discussing
some recent developments around the river. You think of the Indus basin, and you think of the water sharing that is happening between both countries, and there’s a treaty that I have in mind. This treaty has demonstrated remarkable resilience, it has survived the most extreme episodes of hostility, and it is a treaty in which 2016, Modi alluded to it by saying that “Blood and water can’t flow together.” Of course I’m talking about the Indus Water Treaty. Can you tell us a little bit more about the background of that treaty,
and then maybe a little bit about some of the recent developments earlier this year in terms of India threatening to use more of the water it is allotted under that treaty?
To give a quick snapshot of the treaty, it was signed in 1960, where the World Bank facilitated the treaty between India and Pakistan. In this water basin is six rivers, and in some sense the treaty was a divorce settlement. Pakistan got three rivers, India got three rivers, they were somewhat happy, we were somewhat happy, and at that time it was probably the best the negotiators and the World Bank could put together to make it feasible for both the countries and the basin itself. Now, it is 2019
and we have had several wars with Pakistan as you said, we’ve had altercations across the border, and the treaty has withstood all of these tensions, which is remarkable. I think back then, if anybody were to tell the creators of the treaty that there’d be all these wars, I don’t think anyone would have realized that we could have kept the treaty aside and still had fights over other issues. So in that sense like you said, the treaty is extremely resilient. But every time there is an altercation or tension
with our neighbor, the treaty comes into question. When the Prime Minister makes statements or, previous water resource minister, he made a very strong statement last year. These things happen, it sort of creates a little more tension, it raises all the public sentiment and things like that, and the fact that India on its side always says that, “Oh, we will use up all the water that is allocated to us within the treaty.” It doesn’t make a lot of sense in some ways because we’ve already used 95%
of the water that’s allocated to us. Almost 95, which leaves us a little over 5% of the water. Now that might seem like very little, but 5% of water is 2.5 billion cubic meters of water, which is a lot of water–
To give it some context in an American sense, the Colorado River, the output of the Colorado River is 20 billion cubic meters, and that is the entire river which is one of America’s largest rivers. 5% of the Indus, that’s allocated to India, not the entire river basin, is 2.5 billion. It’s a lot of water. If we were to go ahead and use all of that water it would mean hundreds of thousands of billions of dollars to create dams, to create diversion, to create these pipelines and all,
and it’s a very long process, it’s not like by next year we can use up all of this water, it’s impossible.
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and Pakistan go through a period of tension, I shouldn’t say every time, but a lot of times the treaty…
A lot of times, yes…
Comes up, and it makes me think about the role the geography plays here, because in the case of Pakistan it is the lower riparian state. India’s the upper riparian state and there’s always been a concern in Pakistan since the independence of both countries in August of 1947 over the fact that India has tremendous leverage over Pakistan by being the upper riparian state. Given the resilience of this treaty, and given the fact that India and Pakistan, of course the rivalry is structural, it is enduring, and there are very likely
to be more periods of tension in the years ahead, do you see that there are still enough reasons as to why the treaty will endure?
Yes, because at the very basis of the treaty is that you can’t, and this goes for many treaties that we have with other countries and that countries have around the world, is you can’t just break it so easily. India, as either it wants to admit this or not, does enjoy a certain standing in the international community that it doesn’t want to lose. If it was to by some force, or by some show of strength decides to withdraw from this treaty, it will lose a lot of standing in the international community,
which is not going to be helpful for us. We’re not going to break it, Pakistan is not going to break it. There’s also then the question of China comes into play, because what are they going to say, because of their relationship with Pakistan. It’s not just about water any more. It’s about politics, it’s about our foreign policy, and then everything else that comes along with that.
That’s a fascinating example of how a treaty that covers a natural resource has these diplomatic reverberations and constraints. We’ve talked about droughts, and floods, and geopolitical tensions involving water sharing. If we turn to the future, setting the political context for a moment in India, in May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party or the BJP, secured a landslide re-election. Just like any government that’s early in their term there are a host of problems sitting on your desk.
One of those problems of course covers the water issues we’ve talked about. Are there particular areas in India in which you can see that the Modi government could achieve some success? At the same time, maybe we can take a quick report card and you could mention what are some of the areas where the government actually has achieved success as well as areas where there clearly is lackluster progress?
Well, when they came back into power in May, I think the one advantage that they have is that it’s a continuation of the government in many ways. That’s a positive thing. The Prime Minister has promised now, piped water to every household in the country. It’s his new slogan, the which is water from the tap, basically to eradicate women going and spending hours to get water from community areas, and things like that. It’s a good tagline, he’s very good with that. But the positive move he’s made in that direction
is to setup a new ministry, the ministry which translates to water power ministry, not power as in electricity but power as in strength. The fact that he’s brought a number of different departments under one ministry, which is something that we’ve not had before. Bringing together these departments then, ensures that you have a certain amount of coordination which is a huge first step into then solving your water crisis. The new ministry is planning a mapping exercise, they are talking about coordination
between the center and the states, all of these are very, very good steps that they didn’t do when they were previously in power, so a huge thumb’s up for that, I think 100% marks on that. They’ve started discussion with the relevant states across the country on different ways in which we could harness the present monsoon itself. You know, since…
The elections happened just before the monsoon, and this monsoon, it’s been a weak monsoon so to speak. How can we harness this monsoon to the best of our abilities? I mean they’re talking about citizen-friendly measures, just like rainwater harvesting, what every single person can do. When you have 1.3 billion people doing a little bit of rainwater harvesting, that’s actually quite big if everybody does listen to some of their measures. But they’re all small steps, right?
And not to say that these small steps are not good, but because we’re in the situation that we’re in now, these small steps have to be done in parallel with some of the bigger steps. And I think that’s where either the government hasn’t thought about some of the big stuff that they could be doing, or they’re still sort of trying to get their act together a little bit, I’m not sure. That’s a little bit hard to tell, but it doesn’t seem like they’re thinking long-term. They’re thinking short-term, how do we solve the crisis right now?
And that’s not helpful when it comes to water because water is not thinking short-term. It’s just there all the time, it’s continued.
Well, this is clearly a dynamic topic, and all this of course is taking place in the context of India, which is home to a rapidly expanding economy, an enormous population of 1.3 billion people and under renewed administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. I do encourage our listeners to check out Ambika’s recent piece on our site on water sharing, and she’ll certainly be writing more pieces on the water topic. Ambika, again thank you so much for a wonderful conversation, I really appreciate it.
Thank you Faisel, I’m always happy to talk about the water, and especially some of the good stuff because we don’t always hear about some of the good stuff that people are doing, it’s always so dior.
Thanks for joining us for this conversation with Ambika Vishwanath, founder of the Kubermein Initiative and water security expert, based in Mumbai, India. We’ll have more reading suggestions from in our show notes. If you would like to know more about how Stratfor can help you with analytical tools, to visualize and anticipate areas in the world where your interest and operations are at greatest risk, be sure to visit We’d love to hear your thoughts on this podcast.

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