Water security in South Asia: Need for ratification of UN water convention

No other country in the world comes close to the hydro-hegemony that China has established. From Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to Myanmar’s troubled Kachin and Shan states, China has widened its dam building to disputed or insurgency-torn areas despite local opposition.

Dr Koyel Basu Dec 16, 2023
Brahmaputra River

Water security entails society’s ability to provide access to quality water to support livelihoods, health, power generation, and industrial growth. Water is, therefore, becoming an increasingly disputed commodity and a potential geopolitical threat to countries of South Asia where 40 per cent of the world population lives. The transboundary water situation in South Asia is blighted by nationalistic, technocratic, and zealously securitized policies and underlying frameworks (The Asia Foundation, 2014). 

South Asia has experienced long-standing poverty, late industrialization, wanton population growth and environmental degeneration and constitutes notable threats to water resources. These threats have multiplied with Chinese ambitions to project itself as a regional water hegemon.

What is hydro-hegemony?

Hydro-hegemony is a new theory that argues that water-sharing, conflicts, and river management between the countries that share transboundary rivers are influenced by their riparian position, power dimensions and exploitation potential. Prominent Indian scholar Brahma Chellaney used the term to explain China’s activity in the upstream that affected India. His pioneering study on the murky water politics in South Asia is mentioned in his book “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.” Six transboundary rivers originate in southwest China and are shared by 12 riparian countries, including those of mainland South Asia—Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. “China’s territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea and the Himalayas…. has been accompanied by stealthier efforts to appropriate water resources in transnational river basins,” he has stated. 

 Most areas of South Asia are in a permanent state of water stress as a result of overexploitation, poor management, and climate-change-induced rainfall viability. India and Pakistan are entangled in bilateral disputes over water sharing; Bhutan and Nepal are grappling with poor governance of water resources; and Bangladesh is in a quandary with managing the water flow as it shares 54 rivers with India. Amid this, China has massively invested in water-based resources leading to adverse impacts on the environment, displacement of local people, and huge costs to downstream countries in South Asia. Decisions on water management are unilateral and arbitrary.

 And hydro-diplomacy is very much at a nascent stage. Countries see water diplomacy through the lens of sovereignty. The Indus Water Treaty of 1960 between India and Pakistan and the India-Bangladesh Ganges Water Sharing Treaty of 1966 have pushed the limits on these agreements. There has always been a concern over the potential abrogation of the Indus Water Treaty. Pakistan has accused India of utilizing the water from Indus, Chenab and Jhelum for industrial activity in violation of the World Bank-negotiated treaty, a charge that India denies. Water cooperation has also been a controversial issue between India and Nepal where several hydroelectric project agreements have been signed on major rivers such as Kosi, Gandaki and Karnali, and yet there has been little or no execution.

Chinese arm-twisting in South Asia 

China refuses to sign any transboundary river agreements saying water exploitation was its sovereign decision. China’s decisions can have a direct impact on the quantity of water available downstream. China upped the ante by planning to construct a mega dam on the Brahmaputra river with utter disregard for ecological fallout and environmental conservation in India's northeastern states, particularly Assam. In June 2020, satellite imagery showed that China had used bulldozers to block the flow of river Galwan, a tributary. In July 2023 it was reported that the construction of the mega dam had begun. It has also not shown any interest in sharing hydro data and sedimentary load data, with India or any other countries. 

China has also attempted to exploit its Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), which contains a major portion of the world’s fresh water. The official figures reveal that at the end of 2017, the installed hydropower capacity of China reached 341 million kilowatts, while the installed hydropower capacity in the TAR was only 1.77 million kilowatts, accounting for only 1 per cent of the technically exploitable material. (Hangzhou Zhang and Genevieve Donnellon-May, The Diplomat, 1 September, 2021).

China’s rationale in investing in hydropower overseas is a neo-colonial drive to encapsulate resources and materials, both as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative and to fund its GDP growth at the cost of other nations. It is the source of transboundary river flows to the largest number of countries in the world from Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to the states in South Asia. The water dominance resulted from its absorption of the ethnic homelands that make up 60 percent of its landmass. 

China's manipulation of river flows

No other country in the world comes close to the hydro-hegemony that China has established. From Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to Myanmar’s troubled Kachin and Shan states, China has widened its dam building to disputed or insurgency-torn areas despite local opposition. China’s dam building in Myanmar has contributed to blood-fighting and ended a 17-year-old ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and the government. For example, the Myitsone dam project was a bone of contention as it was being built at the head of the Irrawaddy confluence of the Mali and N’Mai rivers in Kachin state.  It was an environmentally sensitive earthquake-prone area where armed ethnic minority Kachin fighters were battling the Myanmarese army. Many internally displaced ethnic people of Myanmar moved to Myitkyina or found shelter in Maina KBC. The project has been ultimately shelved by both countries.

China has manipulated natural river flows not only for its economic development but to demonstrate its political muscle. Although seeking to promote multilateralism on the world stage, it has given the go-by to multilateral cooperation among river-basin nations symbolized, for instance, by the Mekong River Commission and dismissed efforts by states sharing its rivers to seek bilateral water-sharing arrangements.

Better river basin governance and cooperation 

To increase the efficacy of water resource management, South Asia needs proper hydro-political relationships. It means a systematic study of conflicts and cooperation over water resources to avert inevitable threats to regional water security. To create a depoliticized environment where water is equally shared, South Asian countries need to ratify the United Nations Water Convention (The Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes). It entered into force in 2014. This is a unique platform that aims to ensure the sustainable use of transboundary water resources by facilitating cooperation. 

The prerequisites for addressing water security are proactive sharing of hydrological data and information and frequent and targeted dialogues to navigate complexities in the sharing of water. Decades-old conflicts should make headway for cooperation and strategic management which have cascading effects on regional welfare. To facilitate sustainable transboundary water governance, China, an upper riparian country, also needs to sign the UNWC. A tense and uncompromising geopolitical situation will serve no good for South Asia’s hydro-politics.

(The author is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Jangipur College. Kalyani University, West Bengal. Views are personal. She can be reached at koyelbasu1979@gmail.com)

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