Water woesWater storage projects are necessary to tackle the approaching water crisis in South Asia
Located in the lap of the great Himalayas, also referred to as ‘Water Towers’ by some experts, and blessed with monsoon rain, South Asia seems to be a water sufficient region in the world. But the reality has to be closely examined.
Tibet, an autonomous region of China, is called ‘water merchant’, as it has plenty of water but little arable land and a sparse population to consume water. Nepal, with 225 cubic kilolitres of water flowing annually through its territory, is also rich in water resources. Bhutan and Bangladesh also have adequate water to meet their needs. India has big rivers and good monsoon rainfalls, but faces water crisis in large areas scattered over different parts of the country. The case is different for Pakistan, a country which fully depends on the flow of the Sindh river with most of the water emanating from other countries. All these regions, except Tibet, face floods and inundation problems regularly.
The situation in South Asian countries makes water availability analysis complex as well as interesting. Different studies show different views on water availability, consumption, rights and disputes. It is interesting that although water science is a well-defined, advanced and well-studied discipline, different experts have drawn conflicting conclusions.
Differences of opinion
Referring to a hydropower project in Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet) at a place where it enters India, geo-strategist Brahma Chellaney writes, ‘A Sino-Indian conflict over the sharing of the Brahmaputra waters would begin no sooner than China began to build the world’s largest hydropower plant on the river’s Great Bend.’
In response to the Indian take on the full utilisation of its share of water in the river Sindh, an article by F Zaman and S Abubaker in Dawn, a Pakistani daily, says that the Indus rivers are a lifeline for the people of Pakistan, a nation dependent upon agriculture for its survival.
After construction of the Farakka barrage in India, Bangladesh has complained of reduced flow in the river, especially in dry seasons. More consumption in upstream countries will reduce water availability in Bangladesh. The proposed river-linking project of India is also being viewed critically by Bangladesh, with some Bangladeshi experts even warning that ‘it will spell disaster for the country’.
Nepal and India, too, have a difference of opinion in water sharing. Nepalis feel that Nepal could not get its fair share of benefits from the Koshi and Gandak agreements. The Integrated Mahakali Treaty is also stuck due to differences of opinion in water-sharing. Scared of past experiences, and with more matured Nepali politicians and technocrats, it will be hard to negotiate a ‘good’ and ‘workable’ water-sharing mechanism between India and Nepal.
The issue of trans-boundary water-sharing is delicate, and a small change in flow can trigger a big conflict between two countries. As time passes and demand for water increases, the conflict among countries in the region or among competing users inside any country will increase. A mutually acceptable solution requires better cooperation among the countries in the region.
India is predicted to be water-stressed by 2025 and water-scarce by 2050. Studies have shown that Pakistan touched the “water stress line” in 1990, and crossed the “water scarcity line” in 2005. As per the World Resource Institute (WRI), Pakistan is predicted to be the most water-stressed country in the region by the year 2040. The country, which is battling insurgency, is also predicted to face violent conflicts due to water scarcity. Although Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh will have sufficient water in gross amount, they will need proper storage to meet demand in time and space.
Nepal and Bhutan are basically upstream users of water, Pakistan and Bangladesh are completely downstream users while India is both an upstream and downstream user. Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet are the upstream sources for India. It is noted that the perspective of upstream and downstream riparian countries generally differ. It puts India in a dilemma while negotiating with its neighbours. This may be the reason why India is more interested in bilateral dialogue and treaties rather than a regional approach.
With the entry of China in water negotiation, India may have to reconsider its approach. Negotiation with China on the use of Brahmaputra water may also be taken as a framework agreement by other countries in the region. As water stresses grow, such issues will surface and take a new dimension.
Generous heart and liberal mindset
Though the region seems water abundant in rainy seasons, it suffers from water stress in dry seasons. All countries, without exception, have a water deficit in time and space. Even in Nepal and Bhutan, where rivers may flow in the valleys, have severe water scarcity at the ridges.
Four months of abundance and eight months of dry period make water storage a necessity. Storage sites are located in the valleys surrounded by mountains in upstream locations. The valleys are heavily populated, and a reservoir site cannot be built in another country without proper negotiations and a workable agreement on compensation for property and land. In the present mode of negotiation, this appears almost impossible, so the construction of big reservoirs seems to be extremely difficult.
Let us take the case of the Karnali Chisapani dam in Nepal. The dam is designed to generate almost 11,000MW of hydroelectricity by inundating a huge and highly populated river valley in Nepal. There will be tremendous downstream benefit, not only to India but also to Bangladesh. But a huge amount of resources and good understanding will be needed for resettlement, rehabilitation and compensation for the affected people. Who will provide them? Nepal may carry a small share of the monetary burden, but other burdens have to be shared as well. The issue of sovereignty may also arise. Looking at the present mindset of the countries in the region, it seems there is little chance that the issues will be addressed. Such obstacles may arise in all storage projects, be they in Nepal, Bhutan, India or elsewhere.
But water storage projects are necessary to address the approaching water crisis, and a minimum level of understanding has to be reached. For this, a generous heart and a liberal mindset are a must—from all countries but particularly from the resourceful ones.
Regmee is a former Energy Secretary with the Government of Nepal