Geopolitics | Water Crisis | Climate Change | Water Conflict

Himalayan Asia: Where water crisis meets geopolitics

Analysing Himalayan Asia's complex water dynamics as influenced by underlying geopolitical equations

- By Sourav Dahal |

Photo by: Bijay Chaurasia via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by: Bijay Chaurasia via Wikimedia Commons

Water, like every religion and ideology, has the power to move millions of people. Since the very birth of human civilization, people have moved to settle close to it. People move when there is too little of it. People move when there is too much of it. People journey down it. People dance, sing and write about it. People fight over it. All people, everywhere and everyday need it.
- Mikhail Gorbachev

HIMALAYAN ASIA – a region that relies on water flowing down from the high mountain ranges on the northern frontier of Nepal and Tibetan plateau – is now getting trapped in tensions arising from water politics. At the heart of the crisis is water scarcity induced by demand-side pressure and supply-side threat of climate change – the problem is exacerbated by transboundary water disputes along with pre-existing geo-political rivalries in the region. 

While geopolitics has complicated the water crisis, the crisis has intensified geopolitical tensions in return. States in the Himalayan Asia are not only prioritising the security of water, but are also competing for dominance. The motive is to gain an edge against the regional rivals. Akin to oil in Central Asia, water is now a strategic commodity, necessitating protection from rival encroachment and employed as leverage against others.

Imja Glacier in the 1950s | Source: Etter Studio, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

South Asia: the hotbed of water politics

Of all, the South Asian block remains the hotbed of ensuing water politics. China, an upstream superpower in the north with a hegemonic potential, can pull leverage against any South Asian country. India fears China could use that geographic advantage in scoring goals against it. Its major concern is that China could someday divert the Brahmaputra River and deprive India of water. 

Water politics appears even more intricate between India and Pakistan. They signed the Indus Water Treaty in 1960, which fixed and delimited the rights and obligations concerning the use of water of the Indus River system. Despite the treaty in place, the Indus River remains as contentious an issue as it ever was.

Back in 2016, Pakistan issued nuclear threats against India over the Indus River dispute. Pakistan’s extremists have adopted water-or-blood rhetoric and accused India of stealing Pakistan’s share of water. Indian extremists have also issued similar incendiary remarks. In 2019, after a suicide bomber killed 40 army troops in the disputed region of Kashmir, Delhi officially threatened to weaponise water and disrupt water supply through Indian rivers to arid Pakistan. 

Among scholars, it is of general consensus that a water war is unlikely in the region any time soon. So far, there is no record of an exclusive water war in human history. However, a spillover of water crisis to other arenas, thus, giving way to a conflict, as the spillover hypothesis suggests, can’t be assuredly ruled out.

Water crisis

Billions of people across Asia rely on rivers originating from the mountain ranges in the north for drinking water and hydro-energy. Hindu Kush Himalayas, Pamir, Karakoram and Tian Shian, together known as the water tower of Asia, are the mountain ranges through which the major Asian rivers – Mekong, Indus, Ama Durya, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Yellow, Yangtze and Salween – flow down south. These rivers serve as the primary water source to South Asian states, including China, some states of Central Asia and Southeast Asia. 

Lately, these rivers have succumbed to demand pressure and supply-side threat, which form the crux of the water crisis. 

Unprecedented demand pressure

Rivers flowing down the water tower have been facing unprecedented demand pressure. Exponential population growth, among several reasons, has led to commensurate demand for water. In the last two decades alone, the population in Asia increased by around a hundred million while Himalayan Asia too has seen a similar rise. China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – together account for 41% of the world population. 

These countries are also undergoing rapid urbanization and industrialization in the last few decades. Hundreds of new cities are emerging across these regions, and several thousands of new industries are being added each year. Urbanization and industrialization have fuelled increasing per capita water utilization and contributed to localized water scarcity. Part of the reason for water scarcity is poorly regulated industrial growth and unchecked residential growth that dumps 80 to 90 percent of untreated wastewater into rivers.

Agriculture, the largest water consumer of all, has burgeoned with the rise in population and better irrigation facilities. With new irrigation projects in operation, the Indo-Gangetic Plain, which runs across Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh, is now one of the most intensely irrigated regions of the world

As a consequence, rivers in Himalayan Asia are facing unprecedented human-induced stress. A 2012 study in the Journal of Applied Geography concluded that all ten major rivers under study, which originated from the water tower, face intense demand-side challenges. Estimates suggest Asia’s water demand will increase by 250% by 2050.

Climate change and the supply-side threat

The most intricate of all factors adding stress to water sources of Himalayan Asia is climate change, which is solely responsible for inducing the supply-side threat. The impacts are far-reaching.

More than 54,000 glaciers, sources of these rivers water, are melting due to global warming. A study published in the journal Nature in 2021 says that the glaciers are melting at an exceptional rate – their ice sheets have shrunk ten times faster in the past four decades than in the past seven centuries. This ongoing ice melt would eventually disrupt the water supply to millions of people in Himalayan Asia, threaten agricultural production, wreak havoc in the food supply chain, and put coastal communities across the world at a huge risk. 

Photo by: Badal Chandra Shekhar  via Wikimedia CommonsRivers that originate in the water tower – the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra – rely heavily on the glaciers. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who get water from these three rivers, are bound to face extreme water scarcity if the glacial melt continues at this rate. As the ice sheets deplete, the water level in those rivers will drop heavily. Agricultural production will decline, giving way to a food crisis. The region may even get mired in an energy crisis.  

Water crisis meets geopolitics 

When a resource as vital as water depletes, it inevitably follows that states compete to exert control over it. Geopolitics gets dragged in, as is the case now. States have opted for securitization and dominance over water resources. In doing so, they are trapped in the quagmire of one’s own making. 

Diplomatic settlements of the issues, though not impossible, have become more unlikely. States refuse to recognize water as a shared resource and are stubborn on their binary stances. Politicians are busy capitalizing on the transboundary water crisis with a motive to secure their vote bank and unleashing nationalist fervour among their constituents. It is for the same reason that hard-line rhetoric of nuclear threats and “water-or-blood” are circulating in the region.

Though the idea of exclusive water wars remains far-fetched, the possibility of a water crisis inducing full-blown conflicts among nations can’t be ignored. The destabilizing effects of the water crisis – food insecurity, emigration, and sub-national tensions – when spilled beyond a nation’s border can give way to such conflicts. That possibility aside, tussles among nations in the region to secure dominance over water resources is already at play and it is only intensifying. 

Geography in China’s favour

In general, an upstream state through which water flows down south can pull leverage against a downstream state by controlling the flow of water, diverting rivers and building dams and hydropower plants. China, an upstream to all, enjoys geographic advantage in the Himalayan Asia that it can effectively use to its favour.

Yarlung Zangbo, (Brahmaputra In Tibet) By 钉钉 via Wikimedia

Delhi points to the “western route” of China’s South-North Water Transfer Program as a plan to divert the Brahmaputra’s direction. Its water is critical for India to irrigate its highly dense northeast regions. 

Such a move would help China meet its increasing water demand and irrigate its dry north as well. This would put India’s security and economic interests at stake, while it will also face water scarcity. 

Water dynamics between India-Pakistan and India-Bangladesh

Like China, India enjoys a strategic upstream advantage over its arch-rival Pakistan in the Indus/Sutlej basin and Bangladesh in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin. 

India’s historically fraught relationship with Pakistan only sustains the ongoing water disputes between the two. Despite the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) brokered by the World Bank decades ago, India and Pakistan are still fighting over the Indus River and its tributaries. India chafes at what it sees as the IWT’s unfair water allocation formula, while Pakistan blames India for robbing Pakistan’s share of water. Pakistan has even attempted to halt India’s construction of dams in the Chenab and Neelum rivers and challenged the construction of the Kishanganga Hydroelectric Project in Kashmir. India, for its part, has threatened to disrupt the water supply using its upstream advantage.

As Pakistan forges closer bonds with China, India’s fears have intensified, adding a new dynamic to the conflict. Pakistan is a lower riparian and depends on the Indus water supply, but receives most of the water through Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Although India can exercise some leverage against Pakistan, China-Pakistan water-alliance against India could put India’s interests at stake.

Bangladesh and India, too, have issues pertaining to the Ganges Water-Sharing Treaty of 1996, which will expire in 2026. The treaty regulates the flow of water from the Farakka Barrage. But the treaty – agreed on unequal terms – has made Bangladesh suffer disproportionately. Bangladesh is deprived of water in the dry season and faces increased flooding in the wet season. It is uncertain if they can reach a consensus and revise the treaty on equal terms once it expires. 

As of now, India’s control over Ganges and the possibility of Indian or Chinese unilateral control over the flow of the Brahmaputra and Indian control over the Barak River are Dhaka’s major headaches. 

Nepal’s water woes 

For Nepal – upstream to India with more than 6000 rivers – water politics should have been to its advantage. But Nepal lacks economic, military or political capabilities to leverage its upstream advantage against its downstream neighbour. 

Nepal is mired in water politics, and India is accused of exerting undue influence and hydro-hegemony over Nepal. Under Delhi’s influence, Upper Karnali Hydropower Project’s construction was agreed with an Indian company reducing the production capacity from 4,180 MW to 900 MW. Likewise, while India has managed to control floods in Bihar through the construction of an embankment in the Koshi River, the same embankment has contributed to floods in Nepal sweeping away agricultural lands and displacing thousands of people in the eastern Terai.

Nepal has had historical boundary disputes over transboundary water resources with India and China, which have rekindled in recent years. These disputes still persist despite several bilateral and multilateral treaties signed over the course of history. 

Many of those treaties are on “unequal” grounds and favour one or another – the Koshi and the Gandak treaty of 1954 and 1959 respectively are cases in point. Interpretation and implementation of different treaties have also faced challenges – the Sugauli treaty of 1815, for instance, which is grabbing headlines recently after the Lipulekh-Limpiyadhura row with India. 

All this shows that Nepal is likely to face more challenges in the future. Still, there exists enough room for diplomatic settlements and that alone should be the path forward. 

As for the Himalayan Asia, hard-line rhetoric, binary positions and penchant for dominance over resources will only add to our collective water woes.

Sourav Dahal is a writer-analyst at the_farsight.

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