25 August 2020 | 5 minutes.

Tensions in South Asia can derail fragile water treaties

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Ambika Vishwanath
Founder and Director, Kubernein Initiative and Transboundary Water Security and Diplomacy Specialist

Ambika Vishwanath, Founder and Director, Kubernein Initiative and Transboundary Water Security and Diplomacy Specialist

The recent tension with Nepal, misunderstanding with Bhutan and border clash with China show that India can no longer create policy of long-term water security in isolation.

As India’s neighbourhood goes through a turmoil, with underlying fault lines exposed by the coronavirus pandemic and a deepening economic crisis, there is robust debate on the trajectory of India and its neighbourhood in the context of foreign and security policy. However, there is a glaring paucity of debate on how the ongoing crises, including the stand-off at the Line of Actual Control with China, might shape and influence the trajectory of South Asia’s transboundary water security.

It is no secret that water policies in South Asia receive less attention unless a natural disaster occurs or when we beat the drums of ‘water wars’ every now and again. Yet, water policies on shared rivers have far-reaching consequences for India and the entire neighbourhood. As populations grow, the climate becomes increasingly erratic and demand for water expands, the stress on shared waterways will prove even more contentious.

With over 1,000 people per square kilometre, the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta is one of the most populous deltas in the world. Photo: Vijay Kumar Gaba.

Extending the scope of mistrust

Without strong bilateral and multilateral institutions to manage, the shared waterways and river systems are often subject to the vagaries and uncertainties of geopolitics. From the Indus River Basin to the interconnected Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) River Basin, how India and its neighbours successfully collaborate and cooperate is critical to the region’s future and people that account for close to 15 per cent of the world’s population. Working together to better manage shared resources, natural habitats and waterways, as well as joint action on climate research, could yield important dividends beyond immediate development benefits, including long-term peace, analyses a 2017 paper by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

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This article was originally published by The Print.