Cooperative Water Diplomacy: A Fine Way To Prop Up Asian Century – Analysis


Water is vital for life and to attach its great significance, many civilizations have water gods and goddesses to represent lakes, rivers, other sources of water, and seas. It is central to ensure economic growth and enhance development. Access to safe water, its adequate availability for all, and its effective management is the most important indicator of the level of development of a country. A developed country means a country that has most effective institutions to manage its water resources. Anywhere, if water is easily and adequately available for people when they need it in their household, in farms or in industrial works – it means people there enjoy democracy and human rights. – an American nonprofit development aid organization says that more than 3.4 million people die each year from water related causes and almost all such deaths occur in developing countries. In every 20 seconds, a child dies from water related illness and women spend 200 million hours a day in collecting water, the states.

UN agencies and World Bank has admitted that around 1.2 billion people are already living under water-starved situation. Another 500 million are approaching this situation and another 1.6 billion – global population is facing water shortages. That means they lack necessary water infrastructures to collect water from fresh water sources. This ultimately has created tough geo-political rifts in every part of the world and has impeded political stability and development efforts of many countries and societies.

By 2025, two thirds of world’s countries and more than one third of global population will have been suffering from severe water scarcity. Countries thus hit hard by water starvation will have to face chain of tremendous socio-political and developmental pressures and even among them; those that are weaker, smaller, and poorer indubitably suffer worst.

By the first half of this Century, we will have other 3 billion people mainly in developing countries – already under water stresses. According to a projection made by two academics of University of Minnesota David Tilman an ecologist and Jason Hill an economist, global food demand could double by that time. However, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), has predicted that food demand by 2050 will have increased 70 percent more than it is today. Various UN and other international agencies have also approximated that only “Asia’s food and feed demand is expected to double” by that time. Similarly, FAO says, “The daily drinking water requirement per person is 2-4 litres, but it takes 2,000 to 5,000 litres of water to produce one person’s daily food”.

An assessment of United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) states that the total volume of water on the Earth is about 1.4 billion cubic meters (km3) but the volume of fresh water resources is around some 35 million km3, that is about some 2.5 percent of the total volume. Nevertheless, even from that 2.5 percent, the total usable fresh water supply for ecosystems and human use is about 200,000 km3. That makes it less than 1 percent of all fresh water resources. Rest is locked in Arctic zones.

Moreover, according to UN World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP), since the formation of the planet total volume of water on the earth in its liquid, solid and vapor forms has been the same. Not a single drop of water has been added in the Earth’s water reserve since it was created, but the people using it have reached 7 billion now and within the first half of this Century, we will have 2 more billions.

Simply, more people mean more water for our food, for our farms, industrial units, and households. That makes it an impossible task by present day measures. Furthermore, an assessment of the Asian Development Bank says, “More than 75% of the countries in Asia and the Pacific are experiencing a serious lack of water security, with many of them facing an imminent water crisis”.

Inevitably, economic growth in many countries will uplift many people above the poverty level and this will make up a huge and vibrant middle class. Naturally, their food habit will change with their new source of income. That means they demand more water consuming foods like meat, dairy products, fruits, and vegetables. Therefore, much of the efforts are needed to produce more food and bring greater change in agricultural practices. Failures to meet these challenges will create major food shortages and greater environmental disasters.

UN International Year of Water Cooperation 2013

On March 22, we observed the World Water Day. The year 2013, is also being observed as the UN International Year of Water Cooperation. The press statement released by United Nations on the World Water Day 2013 – Cooperation for peace, prosperity and Sustainable development reads – “The fulfillment of basic human needs, the environment, socio‐economic development and poverty reduction are all dependent on water. Cooperating around this precious resource is key for security, poverty eradication, social equity and gender equality”. In his message for the International Year of Water Cooperation 2013, UN Secretary‐General Ban Ki‐moon said, “Water is central to the well‐being of people and the planet”, and it becomes our common responsibility to work together to protect and carefully manage this fragile, finite and most precious natural resource.

“One in three people already lives in a country with moderate to high water stress, and by 2030 nearly half of the global population could be facing water scarcity, with demand outstripping supply by 40 per cent”, Ban Ki-moon continued. The UN Secretary General in his message focused competitions growing among people in all sections of societies at all places – in towns, villages, “upstream and downstream; and across borders.”

According to Roar Hagen, Graham Chapman, and Terje Tvedt, in 1900 the global population was just 1 billion. Fifty years later in 1950, another 1.8 billion was added. However, in 1992, it reached 5.3 billion and in 2012, it became 7 billion. By 2050, the world population will be more than 9 billion. In the world we are living in, nothing is more challenging than to secure water related needs of all these people around the world.

It was on this backdrop, when President of the Republic of Tajikistan Mr. Emomali Rahmon initiated an important proposal for global level water cooperation at the Fifth World Water Forum held in Istanbul in March 2009. On December 20, 2010, UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the resolution entitled “International Year of water cooperation 2013” – that was moved by Tajik delegate that was co-sponsored by 48 UN member countries representing all the continents.

UN General Assembly in its resolution calls the attention of all its member organization to note that water is critical for sustainable development, indispensable for human well-being, to upkeep environmental integrity, eradicate poverty and hunger and also central to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

The General Assembly expressed its deep concerns on the slow and uneven progress in achieving its water related goals that was further complicated by the continued shortage of water in quantity and deterioration of its quality due to climate change.

Following its resolution, the General Assembly empowered its Secretary General to take needed steps to organize the activities of the International Year of Water Cooperation 2013 in coordination with UN- Water and develop necessary activities to support and facilitate member countries to implement the Year.

It was later decided to dedicate the “International Year of water cooperation 2013” to the “World Water Day”, being observed on March 22 every year and UNESCO was appointed to coordinate the “Year” and the “Day” for its multidimensional mandates and tremendous contributions it has made since its inception.

The events that followed the UNGA resolution, several round of discussions at various levels occurred to highlight the links between growing need for water security and international peace.

Most notable, was the High-Level Roundtable Discussion on Water, Peace, and Security, jointly hosted by the United States, the European Union, and UN-Water that took place during the 67th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2012. During the session then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, highlighting the importance of water security and international cooperation said that water security is key for ensuring peace and security and for human development. Clinton further underlined that water security offers opportunities for cooperation, collaboration that would address the challenges in a multi-disciplinary and cross-sectoral way in order to reduce risks for potential conflicts and manage continued sustainable development and growth.

Water sources like rivers, lakes, and aquifers do not recognize political units of a country or across borders. Therefore, when political borders and natural courses of water collide, it poses enormous challenge to water security inside the country and across its borders.

According to UN – Water, around the world, there are some 276 major trans-boundary watersheds, crossing the territories of 145 countries. These watersheds cover nearly half of the earth’s land surface. Similarly, there are more than 300 trans-boundary aquifers located across two or more countries. Until countries joined by such water sources develop a common policy and credible institutional mechanism to implement them, water scarcity is liable to eat up all the economic prospects of many countries and every here and there people will be fighting for water.

Water Scarcity in South Asia and China

Take India and China – twin great powers that are defining this Century with their exponential economic rise followed by the heavy political influence they are enjoying with their economic power. When combined, Indo-centric South Asia and China comprise more than 40 percent of the global population. However, with reduced water supplies from depleted groundwater source and shrinking the major rivers system in their territory, riding high on the growth record they have enjoyed and projected for future, can turn into a tough challenge to sustain their economy. Moreover, with numerous conflict zones, increased social tensions, violence, and state fragility, threat to water security can turn the region – these two countries represent into a major crisis spot.

China – the second largest economy of the World and projected to overtake United States earlier than 2020, has experienced severe water shortage. Its Northern part where nearly 50 percent of their populations live has to survive with less than 19 percent of water availability.

According to Rory Pike and Rick Stathers, China annually spends some 2-3% of its GDP in water resource development, but the situation has not improved. A country that has 20 percent of the world’s population has to survive with only 8 percent of its renewable fresh water availability. In years to come, to sustain its heavy industrialization, it has to spend more of its GDP in securing more water and reallocate water from agriculture to industry. It will create a water deficit for China up to 80 percent by 2050 – a cost that may not be easy to bear.

Note one example -most part of basins of the Yellow River- the second longest of China after Yangtze and the world’s sixth with a total length of 5,464 kilometers, have gone arid and semi arid in the last three decades. The river – that meanders across its nine provinces among the 21 in the mainland is also known as the birthplace of ancient Chinese culture and the cradle of Chinese Civilization – is facing greater risks and uncertainty.

Similarly, abundance of natural resources, unique geo-political location, the power of its economy and above all the Tibetan plateau that has collected the largest reserve of water in the World only next to polar regions, have given China an unparallel strategic asset. That, if used strategically, will create major political crisis from South Asia to South East Asia – dependent on Himalayan waters.

The situation might become worse in South Asia. Monsoon rains and Monsoon fed Himalayan Rivers are its major source of water supply. The average natural flow of water in South Asian River is about some 1800 billion cubic meters, but for its geography only some 1100 billion, including some 500 billion cubic meters from ground water source – that also depends upon the recharge during Monsoon, is available for human use.

A recent Report commissioned by several UN agencies working in India and involved in water issues says that the demand for water in India far outweighs its supply. The Report entitled – Water in India: Situations and Prospects, has stated that India that has some 16 percent of the world’s population, as compared to only 4 per cent of the global water resources.

The Report also mentions that per capita water availability in India is around 1.170 cu m/person/year much lower than global average. Because of this, severe water shortages have led to a growing number of conflicts between users from agriculture to industrial and domestic sectors. The conflict has taken another dangerous dimension in India when it becomes an issue of sharing waters among its various states within the same river basins. Indian Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), has also estimated that by the year 2050, India’s overall water demand will double and if water use and water management and water development policies are not reinvented and updated, impending economic, political social and environmental crisis may turn India and South Asia into a major disaster zone.

Pakistan – the second most powerful nuclear country of South Asia is in most vulnerable situation. The Indus River that originates from Tibet and enters Pakistan from Indian Territory is largely the single source of all its major water supply. More than 80 percent of its cultivated land that contributes a quarter of its gross domestic product depends upon the waters of this river, but various water bodies have acknowledged that Pakistan has almost fully exploited the surface and groundwater sources that is available to it.

Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), a government owned body in Pakistan says that the per capita water availability in Pakistan has dwindled by over 406 percent from 5,260 cubic meters in 1951 to 1,038 cubic meters in 2010. It is marginally above the 1,000 cubic meters per person threshold value under the global criteria, the report said.

The report further says that If the status quo continues, then by 2020, the water availability in Pakistan would further plummeted to 877 cubic meters per annum, which will further go down to an alarmingly level of 575 cubic feet in 2050.
Unfortunately, Pakistan has no more options to increase its water availability, because with the 1960 Indus Water Treaty, India has agreed to provide 80 percent of the waters of the Indus River system – that flows from India to Pakistan and India itself is reconciled with just 20 percent of it. India, itself a water stressed country, agreed to share 80 percent of its water with its lower riparian, is perhaps unparallel magnanimity on the part of India even by any international standards. With experiences of Indian approach with other neighbors like Bangladesh and Nepal, it is an impossible treaty. Therefore, any possibility to increase its share of water from Indus River seems bleak.

Inevitability of Effective Water Diplomacy for Meaningful Cooperation

The Ganges – the mighty river that discharges 19,000 cubic meters of water per second in its mouth supports 500 million people in its basin. However, in dry season when the Ganges enters Bangladesh its flow at times is so slow and low – that “you can walk across the river” quoting a water expert in Dhaka , The Economist (November 19,2011.) says. Similarly, the third largest river of the South Asia – the Indus that covers a drainage area of some 724,205 square kilometers and supports 300 plus millions people in its basin in India and Pakistan when meets Arabian Sea, seldom any water flows in its delta. As a result of this and people living in Indus delta have abandoned their settlements and migrated.

Nepal has adequate water resources to meet all its water and energy needs. It can also help India and Bangladesh to realize their pressing water requirements. However, for a huge majority of the people in Nepal, even in its capital, public water supply system is almost dead for years. Availability of water when they need it for their domestic use or for agricultural or industrial use has become a pipe dream for almost all people in Nepal.

All the Himalayan Rivers of Nepal including those originated in Tibet flows into India. However, Nepal’s murky and shortsighted politics and India’s over bearing attitudes have left Nepal with limited options. With Bangladesh, the situation is the same. During Monsoon in Bangladesh, everywhere there is water, but when dry seasons come, water becomes scarcer and scarcer.

Seventy percent populations of Pakistan depend upon the waters of the Indus River. It originates in Tibet, flows in India then it enters into Pakistan and ends up in Arabian Sea. Similarly the Brahmaputra and some major tributaries of the Ganges: the Sunkoshi, the Tamakoshi, the Arun, and the Karnali that flows into India from Nepal, originate in Tibet. This way, all the three major rivers of South Asia – with their origin in Tibetan plateau stretch across Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Obviously, India shares all the three great river system with its neighbors. With Pakistan, it shares the Indus; with Nepal, it shares the three tributaries of Ganges – The Koshi, the Gandaki and the Karnali. Similarly, with Bhutan, it shares the Brahmaputra. And with Bangladesh India shares both the mighty rivers of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. As the scarcity of water is hitting China hard, a new dimension of South Asian waters has emerged. In years that follow, China might come to play a critical role as an upper riparian in sharing the waters of Tibetan plateau.

In 1949, when China occupied Tibet, perhaps neither China nor India had realized the real significance of Tibet as a water tower of Asia or the third pole that has the biggest reserve of fresh water after the two other poles. Besides, Tibet is also a “treasure land” – extraordinarily rich in bio-diversity. Tibet has also the huge reserve of minerals from coal and dolomite to lithium and uranium.
For long, Indian media and academics have been reporting a huge construction work ever built in world – the Brahmaputra River water diversion project in Tibet. The dam site is said to have located at Medong, 30 kilometers north of the Indian border in the Great Bend of Brahmaputra from where it moves south and enters India. A project estimated to divert 200 billion cubic meters of water from Brahmaputra and generate 40,000 megawatts of electricity would have devastating effects upon the environment of North Eastern Indian states and Bangladesh. Although, China has categorically denied about any such plan, people in India have been much concerned about it and they hint Chinese intransigence to sign any bilateral or multilateral treaty in sharing the water of its Trans border rivers originating in Tibet as an indication of China’s ulterior motives.

In this regard, South Asia and China – the most vulnerable region in all aspects from environmental to socio-economic, political, can be a test case to foster cooperation on use of most precious thing that is available to them with very limited quantity. On the other hand, if used with reason and prudence, it is more than adequate to satisfy all the needs of these countries – including the sustenance of its eco-system. Much needed is the Diplomatic skill to work together, encourage ongoing dialogue, stimulate larger trans-border and regional cooperation, supported by such competent multilateral instruments is the key to their shared survival.

Both China and India –two fastest growing economies, connected through a vibrant bilateral trade that has stood for over $4 trillion was unimaginable few years back from now. When markets are integrated, they cannot disrupt or reverse only at the cost of their people. What do they want is a strong country, a prosperous national community, and a competitive work force. The economic integration between these two countries at the one hand and on the other, their integration to a rule based global economic order, can only give them the role they expected to play in the prospective Asian Century.

A broader bilateral framework followed by the multilateral one that can effectively address the food security of their people. That is largely depends upon availability of water for their agriculture and industry. The countries that have responsibility to feed the world’s largest population, provide them better jobs, instill confidence in them and inspire them to work hard and excel in life, cannot just sink deep upon the misadventure of their political and military masters. The best security they can attain is to institutionalize their economic integration and that kind of institutionalization has to cover a broad range of issues from trade to climate change and water security. The starting point can be a water treaty between them.

If China and India could invent effective diplomacy between them on sharing of trans-border river waters, a new era of mutual trust and confidence would begin in the region. Nevertheless, no fragmented approach of water use may work. Together with this, and to substantiate the global power and influence they enjoy, first in principle, India and China should agree on the modality of any such water cooperation between them. Later, they are to be joined by all South Asian countries sharing Trans- Border Rivers. It can be followed by an integrated institutional mechanism of China and South Asia to develop all the trans-border water resources and promote effective management of it. This would ensure its benefits to all the countries as per the International Water Law. This in result would completely change the strategic scenario of the region as a whole and conducive environment to attain food and energy security for all could be created. This will certainly promote larger peace and political stability in the region that ultimately would spur unhindered economic growth in South Asia and a huge market for China and India to lead and realize an Asian Century.

It is easy to fight for water, but it has never solved water problems anywhere. But water scarcity was never so precarious than it is now and it will continue to get worse. Therefore, the only option available to us is to build alliances and partnership for sharing water and expanding cooperation on making best use of it among people, communities, and countries. For that reason, nowhere is diplomacy needed more than on building effective practices and creating institutions that ensures water for all and water dearth to none. Indubitably, water front is the test case for the new rising Asian powers to reflect that whether they are true to the global recognition they attained or not.

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai is the former President of Nepal Teachers' Association, Teachers' Union of Nepal and General Secretary of SAARC Teachers' Federation. Currently, he is the Advisor of Nepal Institute for Strategic Affairs (NISS). Mr. Bhattarai has also authored four books -- two of them are about Nepal's Relations with India and one each on educational Issues and Nepal in global Geopolitics.

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