Water Security in South Asia: Running Dry and Running Out of Options

Via The Cipher Brief, commentary on water security in South Asia:

In the latest dispute between India and Pakistan, Islamabad has taken New Delhi to the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague over a longstanding water treaty. The move does not bode well for bilateral mediation between the two adversarial neighbors, and it underscores the greater difficulty of solving water disputes throughout the entire region. India, Pakistan, China, and Bangladesh rely on the same rivers for the wellbeing of their people, economies, and ecosystems. While every party agrees the stakes are incredibly high, there has been inadequate agreement on the multilateral frameworks and information sharing that could reduce rather than inflame regional tensions.

India and Pakistan

The argument over water between India and Pakistan dates back nearly as far as the partitioning of the two countries. In 1948, India, holding the headworks of the Indus river, cut off all canals under its control to prevent the flow of water into Pakistan. Early international arbitration sought to install a control-sharing agreement, but the reluctance of either side to reach a deal forced a different solution. Control of the Indus river’s tributaries was split in half and formalized in the 1960 Indus Water Treaty (IWT). The bilateral commission that oversees water disputes has operated to the present day. However, its influence may be waning as water scarcity becomes more frequent and pronounced while each country places greater demands on the water supply in the form of hydroelectric dams and increased agricultural production.

To make matters worse, each side has been cagey about releasing water data related to their respective hydroelectric projects. Such behavior increases mistrust and hampers efforts to provide stewardship over a shared resource. Sana Ali, a South Asia fellow at the Stimson Center told The Cipher Brief that withholding data “…reduces governments’ ability to effectively plan and manage existing resources, prepare for natural disasters, and mitigate some of the effects of climate change.” Additionally, Geoffrey Dabelko, a Senior Advisor at the Woodrow Wilson center, told the Cipher Brief that there is a strong precedent for effective information sharing: “…data sharing regimes have proven to be resilient mechanisms for continuing to cooperate on the ground while incendiary headlines dominate.” Data democratization and partnerships between governments and civil society organizations could reverse the trend of growing tensions over water supply.

China, India, and Bangladesh

The dispute among China, India, and Bangladesh stems from their shared use of another great river, most commonly referred to by its Indian name: the Bramaputra. In this relationship, China controls most of the river’s headworks, which then flows to India and finally Bangladesh. The unresolved border conflict between China and India (the two countries fought a border war in 1962) has created a situation where, again, mistrust has stymied multilateral cooperation and water data sharing.

In this relationship, China’s actions are potentially the most disruptive. Two types of construction projects could threaten the water security of all downstream stakeholders. China has undertaken the construction of 20 hydroelectric dams, and it has additional plans to divert water away from its natural course down the Bramaputra in order to supply more water to western China. This project is the more disruptive and contentious of the two, and is currently stuck in development limbo. Any signs of the project moving forward would likely inflame tensions between Asia’s two largest countries. Currently the two nations do not have a water treaty, only memoranda of understanding, and so the agreement on water rights is more loosely bound than the India-Pakistan case.

As the poorest country, both in economic terms and its downstream geographic position, Bangladesh has the weakest bargaining position. As a country that is the most susceptible to extreme climate conditions and internal strife, it has the most to lose from improper water management. In such an eventuality, India would then have a potential refugee crisis. Water scarcity-related migration is already occurring.


The issue of water scarcity can increase tensions within a region full of adversaries, but as a transnational issue, it is a good candidate for confidence building measures. In the disputes over the Indus and Bramaputra rivers, there is a long history of successful negotiations and conflict resolution. However, it is clear that the current treaty frameworks are not up to the task of protecting these rivers from the modern demands placed upon them or of supplying each stakeholder with the data, and therefore the trust, it needs to hedge against escalation. The alternative is a scenario where countries manage a dwindling resource without fully understanding the repercussions downstream.

This entry was posted on Friday, July 22nd, 2016 at 8:37 am and is filed under Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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