There have been more than a thousand wars fought in this world. Three most common reasons that were attributed to any war are dispute over resources, conflicting ideologies and struggle for power. Ideological conflicts primarily involve religious and political concepts. The struggle for power often resulted when a country wanted to expand its powers at the cost of others. While ‘ideologies’ and ‘power’ changed from time to time, ‘resources’ have remained a common and enduring cause of war since the evolution of human beings. Resources include land, minerals, water, oil, etc. In August 1995, Mr. Ismail Serageldin, the Vice President of World Bank warned, “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water – unless we change our approach to managing this precious and vital resource”. Chronology suggests that the world’s first war fought in 3000 BC by the Sumerians was probably a dispute over water. Terrain and geography provide better benefits to one community over another.
Water as a Critical Resource
Fresh water is a basic element for sustainability and survival of all living organisms, livestock, crops and humanity included. Although water covers over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, only three percent is considered fresh water. With rapid increase in population and development of industries including forestry, agriculture, mining, manufacturing and recreation, there is a considerable decrease in air and water quality but the requirement for fresh water has gone up.
Flash Points Between India and Her Neighbors
A study by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has highlighted five most vulnerable trans-boundary hotspots that may trigger tensions. They include the Nile, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Indus, Tigris-Euphrates and Colorado rivers. India, known as a peace-loving country has always strived hard to champion the cause of peace in the world. Though she has traditionally tried to maintain friendly and good relations, her relations with neighbors are always characterized by ups and downs due to her politically turmoiled geography.
Nepal is a strategically critical neighbor where huge number of people move across the border regularly for jobs and other economic opportunities. However, India’s relation with Nepal is not the same as it used to be in the past. Despite being Hindu majority countries, both have become openly conflictual and even hostile in recent years. One imperative reason for its strong anti-Indian sentiment is the perception that India has been unfair and unjust in exploiting its rich water resources for agricultural and energy needs. Though Nepal is rich in river water resources, it lacks capital and technology to build dams and hydro power projects. India used to be the only country to provide assistance in terms of water projects in Nepal for its own irrigation and hydropower needs and also for the flood control.
India’s bilateral relation with Nepal in respect of fresh water has been bitter even before independence. In 1920, the colonial administration signed the Sarada Treaty with Nepal. On basis of this treaty, India constructed the Sarada Barrage on the Mahakali River with exchange for 4,000 acres of territory. After independence, India signed agreements to build Kosi Barrage in 1954, Gandak Barrage in 1959 and a number of hydro-power projects. However, rising opposition against Indian water projects has delayed the realization of several of them. These India funded projects were perceived as ‘sell out’ of the national interest by most of the Nepalese. The Mahakali River which originates in Nepal forms the border among the two countries for an extensive distance. Lack of trust in Nepal for India has brought an impasse to the implementation of the Mahakali Treaty of 1996. The Treaty aims at an integrated development of water resources which covers the Sarada Barrage, the Tanakpur Barrage and Pancheswar hydro-power project.
India’s unofficial economic blockade of Nepal following the Himalayan state’s promulgation of the new constitution in 2015 created an unprecedented energy crisis. The growing resentment against India ignited Nepal’s desire for further closer ties with China. The circumstances have pushed Nepal to explore Chinese finance and collaboration to develop its water resources in recent years. With the blessings of China, Nepal will not be reluctant to challenge India any longer.
Bangladesh is highly dependent on India for fresh water as 54 trans-boundary rivers flow from India to Bangladesh. With a small military and weak economy, Bangladesh could not influence watershed management policies with India. The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna rivers are considered to be the extensive source of fresh water to the country. The Ganges originating from Himalayas flows about 1500 km before reaching Bangladesh. The Brahmaputra River originates from Tibet and enters the country through northeast India. These two rivers join to form the Meghna River before it finally drains into the Bay of Bengal. The primary conflict between the countries started in 1961 due to the construction of Farraka Barrage on the Ganges to maintain the navigation in Calcutta Port. The construction of the dam decreased the water flow along the river by 50 percent and resulted in serious drought and problems of saltwater intrusion. Considering the adverse impact on the riparian country, India suspended the operation of the dam. However, in 1976, after the change in political state of affairs in Bangladesh, India not only withdrew from the bilateral negotiations but also started using the water unilaterally. Without any official agreements, India started to construct several dams on trans-boundary rivers namely Teesta, Gumti, Khowai, Dharla, Dudhkumar, Monu and also blocked many rivers such as Muhri Chagalnaiya, Fulchuri, Kachu and few rivers that flow from Tripura to Bangladesh. It was reported that India has modified the flow of 48 out of 54 rivers. The recent construction of Tipaimukh dam across the Barak River in Manipur, Mizoram and Assam added a new fume to long trans-boundary water conflict in both countries. The dam adversely cuts off the water flow of the Surma and Kushiara River in northeastern region of Bangladesh.
In 1983, a bilateral agreement was signed between the countries against sharing of the fourth major trans-boundary river, the Teesta. According to the agreement, 36 percent of water was allocated to India, 39 percent to Bangladesh and rest 25 percent was unallocated considering the natural factors. However, due to the construction of Teesta Barrage and several hydro-electric projects, the river changed it course at many regions resulting in failure of irrigation dreams of both countries. Following this Bangladesh and India came to a mutual consent in sharing the water equally for which Bangladesh agreed to provide the corridor to India for its connection with mainland and land-locked northeastern states. However, the approach to reconsider the treaty legally is hanged on due to India’s internal political issues.
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Indus is one of Asia’s mightiest rivers. It originates at the north-western foothills of Himalayas, flows down through Jammu and Kashmir along the length of Pakistan and drains into the Arabian Sea. The Indus Valley Treaty of 1960 brokered by World Bank created a mutual understanding to divide six tributaries among the two countries – India and Pakistan. According to the treaty, Beas, Sutlej and Ravi can be used by India, and Pakistan has access to Jhelum, Chenab and Indus rivers. The controversy started in 1990 when India started constructing a hydro-electric plant in Doda district along the Chenab River. This act was seen to be a breach of the Indus treaty. The political and religious leaders of Pakistan saw this move as a threat to Pakistan’s economy as it directly or indirectly affects the agriculture and biodiversity of the country. Also, India has an upper hand in its political superiority that in case of a war, it could flood the river by releasing excess water.
The water dispute between both these countries has been revolving over several decades. As a tributary of the Jhelum River, the Neelum theoretically falls into Pakistan’s sphere, which launched the Neelum-Jhelum power plant project while India was working on Kishanganga dam and hydro power project. The conflict over who draws more water is almost like who draws more blood as the two nations exchange harsh warnings and are into legal battle to solve the issue. The construction of hydro-electric plant along the Kishenganga River in Indus and the Baglihar Dam along the Chenab River will drastically reduce the water supply to the country. In a terrorism overflowing country like Pakistan, serious threats exist in armed assaults and fatalities to India’s aspiring projects. Although the terrorist activities follow political causes, it is not a bid deal to alter the cause and trigger terrorists to carry out attacks due to water crisis. Dialogues have apparently failed to solve the crisis of the Indus treaty.
In the wake of the Pulwama suicide attack in February 2019, the Union Minister of India released a statement threatening to cut-off the flow of Indus tributaries to Pakistan. Few scholars are of the opinion that India is intentionally flouting the Indus treaty in order to force Pakistan to take military action against it. Such circumstances may lead to a full-scale war.
Just as the Persian Gulf sits over enormous reserves of oil and gas, China controls vast transnational water resources. China forcibly absorbed Asia’s ‘water tower’, the Tibetan Plateau, in 1951 and gained a throttlehold on the headwaters of Asia’s major rivers. China’s vision on harvesting fresh water has largely shifted from internal rivers to transnational rivers such as the Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Irtysh, Illy and Amur. With the world’s most resource-hungry economy, dams in China now total 86 thousand. These statistics say that China has completed at least one dam per day on an average since 1949. Nearly one third of these are large dams having a water storage capacity of more than three million cubic meter. By 2050, China hopes to move 45 billion cubic meter of water per year through a series of tunnels, aqueducts, and canals. There is no institutionalized system on water cooperation between India and China. The only MoU that two countries have signed are – Exchange of Hydrological data on Brahmaputra and Sutlej, and Expert Level Mechanism to cooperate in emergency disaster management such as flood.
Tibet is an area rich in natural resources and rightly called Xizang, or ‘Western Treasure Land’. Projects undertaken by China on Tibetan side lacks transparency. China is engaged in the greatest ‘Water Grab’ by damming the Jiexu, Zangmu and Jiacha rivers on the plateau. Due to the unannounced releases from rain-swollen Chinese dams and barrages, flash floods ravaged Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh between 2000 and 2005. During the Doklam face-off, Beijing was fashioning water into a political weapon by denying India flood-related hydrological data. The Chinese data denial led to poor flood forecasts and warning eventually flooding the states from Assam to Uttar Pradesh.
China reportedly conducts Geo Engineering Experiments to trigger natural disasters such as floods and droughts to weaken an enemy in the event of a war. Around 28 thousand rivers in China have dried up. As Tibet’s glaciers are melting rapidly, China is going to run out of fresh water soon. In response to this threat, China started building a gigantic network of tens of thousands of fuel-burning chambers that will ensure rainfall in the country. With a technology called ‘Cloud Seeding’, the silver iodine in the exhaust fumes of those chambers is supposed to bind water particles and make it rain — but of course only on China’s side of the plateau. The aim of the project is to intercept the water-vapor carried by the Indian monsoon over the Tibetan plateau and redistribute it in the northern regions to boost the water supply by five to 10 billion cubic meter a year
On India’s announcement to assert her right within the Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan, China threatened of building a dam on a tributary of the Yarlung Zangbo (Brahmaputra in Tibet). This will be its ‘most expensive hydel project’. It must worry India as there are no legal bilateral or multilateral treaties on exploitation of the Brahmaputra River. China also believes it could help in asserting claim over Arunachal Pradesh. Diversion of the Brahmaputra is another strategy that China does not talk about, because it implies devastating India’s northeastern plains and Bangladesh, either with floods or reduced water flow.
- The United Nation Watercourses Convention. It states that the ‘access to water’ is a fundamental right for every human being. In light of this Convention, one country cannot deprive another country access to water, and further, that specific right must be prioritized over building infrastructure for storage, hydro-electricity generation, irrigation, or any other non-consumptive purpose. Also, a country cannot stop or control the flow of water to a lower riparian country on grounds of ‘Economic Development’, particularly when it could harm the subsistence of people in the lower riparian state.
- Trans-boundary cooperation. It is predicted that more than 50 countries on five continents might soon be caught up in water disputes. A study by Strategic Foresight Group (SFG) on 205 shared river basins from 148 countries concludes: “any two countries engaged in active water cooperation do not go to war for any reason whatsoever, including land, religion, economy or terrorism”. The study was submitted to the United Nations Secretary Generals’ Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. The Strategic Foresight Group introduced a new tool called Water Cooperation Quotient that uses ten parameters (including economic, environmental, institutional, legal, political and technical factors) to examine legal and operational cooperation to share water body between countries. Countries are assessed on a scale of 0 to 100, with countries at risk scoring below 35. The group also proposed a Blue Peace framework to such countries. The framework creates regional mechanism for cooperation, a structured process to turn water from a source of potential crisis to an instrument of cooperation. It involves all riparian countries to agree on equitable sharing of water and its reasonable use. It enables the rival river-bordering countries to negotiate trade-offs between water and other public goods. Such mechanisms are already in place in Europe, North and South America, and West Africa.
- Hydro diplomacy. With United Nations as a mediator, a River Basin Agency shall be set up that broadly comprise of researchers, scientists and technicians. The role of the agency shall be to analyze the existing water management policies, hydro projects, requirement and effective utilization of water for irrigation in both the countries. The Agency shall also moderate treaties including exchange of hydrological data between the countries. It shall get all stakeholders in water management around the table in the context of new governance. This could also help economically weaker nation to build infrastructures for harvesting water through international funding agencies. The aim is to promote the economic and social benefits for trans-boundary basins and work on preventing the militarization of water related conflicts.
- Contingency plans. In situations of a war with an upper riparian country like China, chances prevail that it may open any of its massive dam to create flash floods. An emergency evacuation plan along the river with reserve support of basic amenities required for survival should be formulated. Also, construction of canals that lead to lakes and ponds in localities surrounding the river may reduce the flow of the river as it reaches downstream. These infrastructures shall be planned in parity with other lower riparian countries like Bangladesh.
- Interlinking rivers. Interlinking of river program is of national importance as it will ensure greater equity in the distribution of water by enhancing the availability of water in drought prone and rain-fed area. Under the National Perspective Plan prepared by Ministry of Water Resources, 14 links under Himalayan Rivers Component and 16 links under Peninsular Rivers Component for inter basin transfer of water have been identified.
- Non-privatization of water. The debate about water privatization is highly polarized and there seems to be very little attempt to explore privatization as both social and economic good. The issue is not about privatization but about the governance and regulatory framework to secure the rights and access of clean water to all. India’s first experiment with privatization of rivers where erstwhile undivided Madhya Pradesh government inked a deal in 1998 and sold 23 kilometer stretch of the Sheonath River to Radius Water Limited (RWL). According to the deal, RWL was supposed to construct a barrage across Sheonath for which it can supply up to 40 million liters of water per day to the Borai Industrial Estate in Durg district. Once the river was passed onto the hands of a private company, the villages of Durg district have been denied water for drinking, washing and irrigation besides banning fishermen from casting their nets. Another instance where 58 Coca-Cola bottling plants in India are allowed to exploit groundwater without any restrictions. In the village of Plachimada in Kerala, persistent droughts have dried up groundwater and local wells due to this. Similar groundwater problems have plagued the company in the rural Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. In 2003, the Central Pollution Control Board of India reported that sludge from Coca-Cola’s Uttar Pradesh factory was contaminated with high levels of cadmium, lead, and chromium. Thus, non-privatization can avoid depletion of groundwater table thereby reducing risks of drought.
Water related conflicts have a long history and will continue to be a global and regional crisis. India is taking a leap from a developing nation to developed nation and it is a serious challenge to face a war. As water scarcity in India and its neighbors worsens with rapid economic development and population expansion, the competition over shared water resources in trans-boundary rivers will intensify. Countries around the world should cooperate and share, rather than competing with each other which will benefit no one in particular.
The most important lesson to be taken from the history of oil is – not taking essentials for granted. If our hummers are a red flag in oil, maybe our Jacuzzis are the same for water. A new worldwide water ethic could do away with our lethal bottleneck of overpopulation and wasteful consumption. The use of technology needs to be enhanced in order to increase the existing water use efficiency in the industrial and agricultural sectors of the economy. Recycling and reusing, reverse osmosis, and drip method of irrigation, are some of the many ways through which technology can help mankind to preserve substantial water resources.