My water, your waterGood laws need to be made to avert possible conflicts between the states over water
A recent conflict related to water rights between the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka is a good example of possible future tensions over this vital resource in a federal strcuture. Tamil Nadu asserted that it was not receiving enough water and accused Karnataka of holding it in its reservoirs. Meanwhile, Karnataka claimed that Tamil Nadu was demanding far more than what it was entitled to get.
Water insecurity is increasingly becoming one of the most critical threats in South Asia. Rising populations, unplanned rapid urbanisation, obsessive growth-oriented development, an increasing middle class population enjoying more luxury, water intensive agriculture and an unsatiated hunger for cornucopian growth have become the fundamental drivers of rising demands for water. Climate change has also affected water resources. Snow on the mountains, glacial melt and extreme precipitation have become more intense due to climate change.
Nepal has long been one of the most water-starved countries in South Asia. It is ironic that the capital of Nepal, a country known for its abundant water resources and through which 6,000 rivers and rivulets flow, is in a dire water crisis situation. The country lacks adequate water even for drinking and sanitation needs, let alone irrigation. The national focus has always been on political change; and issues like energy, agriculture and economic revolution have been kept aside to be dealt with in the future.
While financing mega water infrastructure projects and maintaining the water ecosystem are serious challenges in themselves, the federated states of Nepal are going to encounter conflicts concerning state and federal authority over water resources as recently observed in the two Indian states, indicating complex and serious implications for the country’s sustainable water security. Political interests, economic and institutional limitations and governance and constitutional complexities will certainly hinder efficient water decisions once the country goes totally federal.
Water resources are not only utilised for drinking, they are also used for hydroelectricity, sanitation, irrigation, water transport, water sports-based tourism, and industry. If water needs to be transferred from one province to another for meeting all these necessities, it will be difficult due to conflicting interests of the people living at the source, along river courses and at the destination. This kind of situation has already been experienced while attempting to bring water from the Melamchi River to Kathmandu although Nepal was a unitary state when this master plan was designed and the source and the destination lie in the same Province 3.
As Nepal is finalising the boundaries of the proposed federal states, we need to be thoughtful and smart to avoid the kind of water-related disputes that have been taking place in our neighbouring countries, India and Pakistan. For example, the proposal of Uttar Pradesh to build a hydropower project on the Ganga River in Kanpur has been confined to paper due to opposition by Bihar. Likewise, Punjab and Haryana are having a dispute over sharing the waters of the Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal. And the Narmada dispute has long been there among Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan. These examples provide previews of looming water-related conflicts between the states in federal Nepal.
According to the Indian constitution, provincial governments have jurisdiction over water resources. The federal government solves problems related to a river that flows through many provinces. However, these conflicts demonstrate that it has not been easy to resolve water conflicts. In Nepal, provincial and federal governments have jurisdiction over water resources. However, irrigation is a provincial subject over which the federal government has little say. Although interstate water bodies come under the concurrent powers of provincial and federal governments, most water problems in our neighbouring countries originate from irrigation and livelihood concerns.
What if an upstream provincial state diverts water for irrigation from a river reducing its natural flow and providing less water to a downstream state? How does the federal government address this problem as irrigation is a completely provincial subject? What could be the key mechanisms and water laws that we need to formulate in federal Nepal to enhance meaningful and inclusive participation of the people and ensure equitable access to water resources and equitable sharing of the benefits? These are million-dollar questions.
Two necessary actions
Water Resources Act 1992 stipulates that the ownership of the water resources available in Nepal shall be vested in Nepal. The act states that water will be used for drinking, irrigation, animal husbandry, hydroelectricity, cottage and mining industries, navigation and recreational and other uses, in that order. However, a review of water usage history demonstrates that this order of priority has often been ignored, particularly in terms of hydroelectricity getting higher priority than irrigation. The act is silent on issues of federalism as it was enacted long before the country decided to go for a federal system.
Therefore, it is necessary to consider seriously and reflect profoundly on questions such as how the states use water resources in terms of ownership. What kind of decisions regarding water-related issues can maximise the benefits for the provinces, the people and federal Nepal? Federal Nepal must seriously ponder upon potential natural resource conflicts including water resources to avoid water wars of the kind recently observed in various Indian and Pakistani provinces. Two actions are a must: One, the Water Resources Act of 1992 must be amended to incorporate features that can address federalism and federal water resource concerns. Two, the constitutional provision that gives provinces absolute power over water for irrigation must be reconsidered.
Pandey is a senior research fellow at the Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies and a faculty member at Tribhuvan University