Economy, India, International Relations, Pakistan, politics, South Asia, water
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Water Security in South Asia


Critical importance of Water to Human Life, or Life in general, cannot be overstated. Human body is 70 % water. Of all the known natural resources to man till date, water undisputedly continues to stand out as the most important of all. It is critical to human survival. All civilizations have been built around water resources. The history of humans is history of water resources.

Water ensures human health, environmental stability, social welfare, economic development and security. However, only one percent of all the water on the earth is available for human consumption. Hence, as the result of ever increasing world population, pollution, over-exploitation of water resources combined with inertia and mismanagement on part of international governments, the world today stands at the precipice of a global water crisis.

Consequently, water resources have become crucial to economic growth and political supremacy in both national and international arena. At the same time, concerns for future availability of water are mounting as water resources dry out. Therefore, all countries strive to maintain control over the available water resources. Such efforts have created potential flash points for serious conflict between countries. Water has emerged as possibly the most significant security issue around the world. Some have even argued that the 21st century wars will be ‘water wars’.

A talk on the issue of “Water security in South Asia” was arranged by ‘Lahore University of Management Sciences’, Lahore on Thursday December, 10, 2009. Dr. John Briscoe from Harvard University was invited to share his expertise on this matter. Known also as, ‘Water Guy’, Dr. Briscoe has both lived and worked in India and Bangladesh and written extensively on environment and economic issues concerning Pakistan, India and South Asia.

Dr. Briscoe delivered a comprehensive thought provoking lecture on the consequences of water crisis for the security of South Asian Region. The nations in South Asia share a long history of mistrust, wars, and in-cooperation. According to Dr. Briscoe this is evident from the fact that South Asia is the least integrated region in Asia with only 2% trade within the region. To make matters worse, it is one of the worst effected regions from water scarcity and the most densely populated. Sharing the limited water resources of the region among these countries is a complex matter with grave security risks.

The region, Dr. Briscoe explained, has three major river basins shared by the countries with complex political histories. These include Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) river basin (which spans Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal), Indus river basin (in Afghanistan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan), and Helmand river basin (which covers Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan). With nearly half of the world population living in the region, the potential for conflict is significant and serious.

He also touched on briefly, how the global warming and rising temperatures are melting the glaciers in Himalayas and affecting the Indus water flows. According to him the increase in melting of glaciers will determine largely, how and when the water will be available in the Indus, and also the nature of disasters such as floods, droughts, decreased yields etc. This, according to him will certainly aggravate the security of the region further, leading to conflicts within and between countries that share these water resources.

Dr. Briscoe then related the historical relationship among different water sharing nations. There had been some good developments in the water sector over the years. He presented the example of “Indus Water Treaty”, signed by India and Pakistan with the help of World Bank mediation in year 1961. It is not only one of the most well respected international water Treaties but has also been executed well over the years. However, he also added that the treaty required modernization, which was not possible without co-operation and development of trust between India and Pakistan. The development projects pursued by India over the Himalayas have also threatened the survival of treaty. Pakistan has recently taken its complaints to International Institutions for mediation.

According to Dr Briscoe, lack of co-operation among the South Asian Countries is the major factor that impedes any development in the water sector of the region. In this regard he shared the example of Bangladesh. The country seemingly has a policy of declining every proposal in water sector proposed by India. Interestingly, he observed, that most of these projects actually favour Bangladesh more than India.

Dr Briscoe was of the opinion that the situation was grave and required immediate action. He shared various success stories from South America. The need of the hour was to foster an atmosphere of amity, peace, trust and mutual co-operation. He added that all the countries in the region needed to be more ‘giving’ when it came to the issue of sharing water.

We at vision 21 attended the seminar. In response to our question regarding climate change as a security concern in Pakistan and the need for change in US policy towards the country, Dr Briscoe replied that policy change was required in both, US and Pakistan. He further added that both, terrorism and climate change were equally important security concerns in the region.

From our perspective, Pakistan has long been declared an arid country. Water resources are unevenly distributed across the country’s landscape which exacerbates the dynamics of water crisis. The present water situation in Pakistan is the result of number of inter-related factors. Experts view that the current water crisis is not only an issue of scarcity but also of mismanagement. According to Dr. Briscoe, Pakistan lacks an adequate water infrastructure and utilises only 12 percent of its hydrological potential.  

A steadily increasing population, with the hope and need for higher standards of living, poses a serious challenge to the already dwindling water resources in the country. In the light of failed “Indus Water  Accord of 1991” and increasing verbose quarrels between the provinces, Pakistan faces an enormous challenge in allocation, utility, and protection of its limited water resources. Therefore, as a country that faces immense challenges within its borders, it is imperative that cross border relations with Pakistan’s neighbouring countries be amicable and peaceful. These goals can only be achieved through good governance with long term vision and comprehensive strategy to formulate and implement the sustainable development projects with well defined objectives for conservation and sharing of water resources in the country and with its neighbours.

Are we up to this task?

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