Safeguarding South Asia’s water security


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IN today’s era of globalization, the line between critic and hypocrite is increasingly becoming blurred. Single out a problem in a region or country other than one’s own, and risk triggering an immediate, yet understandable, response: Why criticize the problem here, when you face the same one back home?

Such a response is particularly justified in the context of water insecurity, a dilemma that afflicts scores of countries, including the author’s United States. In the parched American West, New Mexico has only ten years worth of drinking water remaining, while Arizona already imports every drop. Less arid areas of the country are increasingly water-stressed as well. Rivers in South Carolina and Massachusetts, lakes in Florida and Georgia, and even the mighty Lake Superior (the world’s largest fresh-water lake) are all running dry. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, if American water consumption habits continue unchecked, as many as 36 states will face water shortages within the next few years. Also notable is the fact that America’s waterways are choked with pollution, and that nearly twenty million Americans may fall ill each year from contaminated water. Not to mention that more than thirty U.S. states are fighting with their neighbours over water.1

Such a narrative is a familiar one, because it also applies to South Asia. However, in South Asia, the narrative is considerably more urgent. The region houses a quarter of the world’s population, yet contains less than 5% of its annual renewable water resources. With the exception of Bhutan and Nepal, South Asia’s per capita water availability falls below the world average.2 Annual water availability has plummeted by nearly 70% since 1950, and from around 21,000 cubic metres in the 1960s to approximately 8,000 in 2005. If such patterns continue, the region could face ‘widespread water scarcity’ (that is, per capita water availability under 1,000 cubic metres) by 2025.3 Furthermore, the United Nations, based on a variety of measures – including ecological insecurity, water management problems and resource stress – characterizes two key water basins of South Asia (the Helmand and Indus) as ‘highly vulnerable’.4


These findings are not surprising, given that the region suffers from many drivers of water insecurity: high population growth, vulnerability to climate change, arid weather, agriculture dependent economies and political tensions. This is not to say that South Asia is devoid of water security stabilizers; indeed, its various trans-national arrangements, to differing degrees, help the region manage its water constraints and tensions. This paper argues that such arrangements are vital, yet also incapable of safeguarding regional water security on their own. It asserts that more attention to demand-side water management within individual countries is as crucial for South Asian water security as are trans-national water mechanisms.


To understand the importance of trans-boundary water arrangements in South Asia, one must first bear in mind a paradox: the region is poorly integrated, yet linked together by water co-dependencies.

Consider, first, that the World Bank has declared South Asia the world’s least integrated region. According to the Bank, South Asia has the world’s worst railways and road density, while only sub-Saharan Africa has worse electricity and sanitation systems. Predictably, intra-regional trade accounts for just 5% of the region’s total international trade, and less than 2% of gross domestic product.5 Not surprisingly, South Asia’s regional organization, SAARC, is not nearly as dynamic as regional groupings like the European Union or the Association of South East Asian Nations.


Second, that many of the region’s countries depend on the same rivers – and, by extension, neighbouring upper riparians – for their water supply. India, Bangladesh and Nepal look to the Brahmaputra, while both Pakistan and India are beholden to the rivers of the Indus basin. Bangladesh and Pakistan, both lower riparians, must obtain great majorities of their water resources (91% and 75%, respectively) from beyond their borders.6

Conversely, China, while not a geographic entity of South Asia, is an upper riparian for many of the key rivers flowing into South Asia. India is both a lower (in the case of the Brahmaputra) and upper (in the case of the Indus) riparian. This means, hypothetically, that any flow-diverting Chinese activities on the Brahmaputra could alarm India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and in turn trigger Indian flow manipulations on the Indus, with implications downstream for Pakistan. Such a dynamic creates a hydro domino effect: one nation’s water policies can spark a chain reaction throughout the region.

Another notable factor about South Asia’s interconnected water geography is that many major rivers originate in or pass through politically contested or tense areas. The Tibetan plateau – where the mighty flows of the Salween, Brahmaputra, Indus, Sutlej, and other rivers all spring to life, providing water to 1.5 billion people downstream – is controlled by China, and abuts India’s water-rich Arunachal Pradesh state, which China covets and has sparked Sino-Indian tensions. The rivers of the Indus basin, of course, flow through the Kashmir region – an unending source of Pakistan-India tensions. No wonder that many of South Asia’s riparian pairings (India-Pakistan for the Indus, and India-Bangladesh for the Brahmaputra and the Ganges) reflect the region’s most troubled bilateral relationships.

In effect, South Asia’s water relations play out amid a volatile backdrop of shortage, dependency and geopolitical tension.


A nation’s upper riparian status by no means guarantees water security. China, an uber-upper riparian, suffers from a full-blown water crisis. The North China plain – one of the country’s ‘economic and social cores’ generating more than 20% of its grain supply, according to China scholar David Pietz – is frighteningly water-scarce, with a per capita availability of 225 cubic metres per year.7 India, meanwhile, contains about 20% of the world’s population, but only about 4% of its water.8 A 2010 Asian Development Bank report projects that the country could suffer from water shortages of as much as 50% by 2030.

Faced with current shortages, policymakers in upper riparian states frequently opt for supply-side solutions. Water generation measures may ease water stress internally, yet they often exacerbate regional tensions. India and China, to generate desperately needed water resources for both agriculture and energy, often resort to dam construction and other large engineering projects. Many of these are run-of-the-river and hence do not prevent flows from continuing downstream. Still, dams are a delicate matter. China’s insistence that its South to North Water Diversion Project will not divert flows from the Brahmaputra is met with skepticism in India. Additionally, even run-of-the-river dams and other hydro projects threaten lower riparians’ water and food security. For example, if India builds all its envisioned hydro projects on the western rivers of the Indus basin, Pakistan’s agriculture could be deprived of up to a month’s worth of river flows – enough to ruin an entire planting season.9


Lower riparians also opt for large, supply generating projects. Pakistan’s water resources policy has been dominated by dam building for decades, and the country’s Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) plans to construct five dams, three large canals, and five hydropower facilities by 2025. As a lower riparian, these national engineering projects will not impede river flows into downstream countries. However, they upset riparian communities, who risk being displaced. Supply-side efforts also aggravate regional and provincial tensions, which are high in many South Asian countries. The furious debate surrounding Pakistan’s Kalabagh dam, for example, has pitted supporters in Punjab against opponents everywhere else in the country. This internal discontent feeds into the domestic instability that so concerns Pakistan’s neighbours.

In Pakistan, water insecurity also spawns different manifestations of militancy. In recent years, the Pakistani Taliban, aware of Pakistan’s precarious water situation, has attacked the country’s largest earth-filled dam, the fabled Tarbela. More recently, extremists in Punjab have issued violent threats, angrily blaming India for ‘stealing’ Pakistan’s water and vowing aggression against India unless it ceases such ‘theft’. It is perhaps not coincidental that while Pakistan based extremists have been largely absent from the latest uprising in Jammu and Kashmir, they have been increasingly vocal in their accusations of India’s alleged water theft. These extremists regard their India blame game as an expression of nationalism – an attempt to draw attention away from divisive debates within Pakistan about dam construction and toward a unified front on confronting India.10 Water may well be supplanting Kashmir as the militants’ chief rallying cry.


Another response – more potential than actual, at least at this point – is for desperate citizens to flee to more water-secure nations. According to a Strategic Foresight Group estimate, water scarcity will contribute to the displacement and migration of 50 to 70 million people in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and China by 2050.11 To be sure, water strain takes a devastating toll on human security inside upper and lower riparian nations alike – as evidenced by the livelihood-shattered Pakistani fishermen along the disappearing Indus plain and the water starved, suicidal Indian farmers in parts of India.

However, migration is a particularly worrisome threat for lower riparians, with the potential not just to uproot millions of people, but also to imperil regional stability. Bangladesh offers a vivid example. As an impoverished, highly populous, lower riparian that depends on other countries for nearly all its water needs, it is deeply vulnerable to Indian or Chinese activity on rivers upstream and to glacial melting in the Himalayas. And as a low-lying nation, it is susceptible to rising sea levels and monsoon flooding. This array of water problems, according to some observers, could hasten mass Bangladeshi migrations into India’s volatile East, with politically explosive implications.12


The combustible mix of water vulnerability, geopolitical tensions, and supply-side responses with ripple effects across borders constitutes a recipe for disaster – and figures to become even more explosive in the coming decades as the region’s population growth soars and Himalayan glacial melt accelerates. Several nightmare water-driven scenarios come to mind:

* Indus Basin War. Militants in eastern Pakistan, vowing to avenge India’s ‘theft’ of Pakistan’s water from the Indus basin’s western rivers, launch terror attacks in India. New Delhi dispatches troops to its western flank, and threatens to shut-off western river flows into Pakistan.

* Sino-Indian Water Showdown. China, in response to Indian defen-sive upgrades in and near Arunachal Pradesh, the water-rich northeastern Indian state that Beijing has long claimed, seeks to reclaim a strategic advantage by slowing the flow of the Brahmaputra into India’s Assam state – an impoverished bastion of separatist militancy that is also an important area of agricultural production.

* Environmental Refugee Crisis. As glacial melt in the Himalayas runs its course, river flows slow to a trickle, and lower riparian Bangladesh experiences rampant water scarcity, Bangladeshis migrate en masse to more water secure but politically volatile eastern India – deepening instability in the latter as violent factions target these new arrivals, and long entrenched separatist militants exploit the unrest by launching their own attacks.

These hypothetical scenarios, and the bubbling cauldron of water insecurity and political tensions that makes them impossible to dismiss, crystallize the importance of trans-boundary water arrangements with the ability to manage, if not reduce, the region’s water based tensions.


Numerous trans-boundary rivers in South Asia are governed by treaties. These include the Mahakali (to which India and Nepal are party), the Ganges (involving India and Bangladesh), and the Indus (comprising India and Pakistan). The Mahakali accord is meant to promote the river’s integrated development, though various disagreements have prevented the treaty from being properly implemented. The Ganges agreement is also constrained by several disagreements, particularly over the Farakka Barrage, which Bangladesh believes has reduced downstream flows of the Ganges.

Nonetheless, none of these countries has ever gone to war over water, and the treaties are surely a major reason why.

The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) allocates the Indus basin’s western rivers to Pakistan, and the eastern rivers to India (India is authorized to draw on the western rivers for agricultural purposes, so long as this use does not involve storage). It deserves particular attention, given that it is repeatedly lauded as a magnificent example of international cooperation and conflict management. Such rhetoric is warranted. The two parties, despite their rocky relations, truly make a commitment to uphold the treaty’s provisions. The IWT emphasizes transparency, particularly in terms of data exchange and notification of plans to undertake hydro projects. Sure enough, in 2010, India allowed Pakistan to inspect several under- construction Indian hydropower projects on the western rivers. The two nations have also agreed to set up a telemetry system to measure river flows.


Additionally, only once in the treaty’s 50 year history have the accord’s mechanisms for dispute resolution been put to the test. This was a period between 2005 and 2007, when a neutral expert (appointed by the World Bank, as per the IWT’s stipulations) weighed in on the concerns of Pakistan about the Baglihar dam, a project being constructed by India on one of the Indus basin’s western rivers. The expert ruled against Pakistan on several technical points – particularly when he stated that a gated spillway was necessary – yet agreed with it on others (such as on the issue of power intake levels). While many on both sides undoubtedly found ways to oppose the outcome, it is undeniable that the dispute was settled peacefully. In June 2010, both governments concurred that the Baglihar dispute had been definitively resolved.

In 2010, Pakistan decided to bring some technical concerns about the Kishanganga dam (a hydro project being constructed by India in Jammu and Kashmir) to an international court of arbitration. While the outcome of this latest case is far from clear, the Baglihar precedent suggests the arbitration process for Kishanganga should be similarly smooth.

Despite its successes, many observers fear the IWT’s increasing vulnerability. This derives in part from the long-standing grievances harboured by both countries about the treaty. Indians believe it curtails the storage rights of Jammu and Kashmir, and hampers the development of hydro projects on the western rivers. Indeed, India’s participation in the treaty is both economically and politically risky – given that the energy-starved nation must forego opportunities to harvest hydroelectric resources, and given the resentment these cautious hydro development policies breed among Kashmiris.13


Pakistan, meanwhile, resents its inherent vulnerability as the lower riparian (even though the IWT allots it 80% of the total Indus basin river flow). For many in Pakistan, the country with the lowest per capita water availability in Asia, entrusting its water security to its deeply mistrusted neighbour is profoundly unsettling.

Furthermore, worries about population growth and climate change effects (particularly the melting of Himalayan glaciers) are fuelling calls for a revised treaty that takes such trends into account. There are also recommendations that the treaty be expanded, so that it includes the other two Indus basin riparians, China and Afghanistan. Those advocating this latter view argue that a four-party treaty would reduce the possibilities of region-wide conflict, and promote basin-wide ecological sustainability.14


Some experts contend that the ‘dividing the resources’ mentality of the IWT is no longer tenable, and that Pakistan and India should move toward a more cooperative ‘share the resources’ paradigm. Ahmad Rafay Alam, one of the most eloquent articulator of this view from the Pakistan side, argues that the two nations should determine ‘whether it is in the economic, social or political interest of both riparians to cooperate on water, rather than be antagonistic over it.’15 For example, instead of railing against Indian run-of-the-river dam projects on the western rivers, power-starved Pakistan should consider buying the electricity they generate – a more affordable investment than buying power from pricier indigenous gas-powered rental power projects.

This paradigm can be applied to a broader geographic area as well. Bhutan and Nepal are blessed with ample hydroelectric potential; India could therefore invest in energy resources in these countries just as Pakistan could in India.

Some experts make more modest suggestions about improving trans-national water arrangements. They believe that regional water security is best attained not by changing the architecture or philosophy of regional water agreements, but instead by strengthening mechanisms for cooperation and transparency within existing arrangements. In other words, instead of crafting a new IWT, the parties should make even greater commitments to respect the treaty’s current provisions on transparency.

A core component of this viewpoint is the need for more data sharing on river flows, hydro project plans, and glacial melting. This emphasis on transparency is a chief feature of U.S. government policy on trans-national water arrangements. Policymakers in Washington, when describing South Asian water arrangements, repeatedly underscore the same terms: good communication, data sharing and joint management.


Some modest steps have already been taken along these lines. As mentioned above, India and Pakistan recently agreed to several information sharing measures. Additionally, China and India have agreed to share data on glacial melt. Still, much more can be done, and it is here that the international community can play a key role. International academic conferences and other forums facilitating the exchange of information about water constitute one way to boost water transparency. Technology sharing is another avenue.

The United States, for example, can share its new METRIC system – a new water measurement tool developed by academic researchers that has already helped resolve a fight over water in the Arkansas river, and could similarly be deployed in the Indus basin. Similarly, America could provide satellite data that document water availability. It is sometimes observed that there are no international water treaties or other global mechanisms to promote water cooperation. The international community’s participation in water data sharing exercises, in South Asia and elsewhere, can serve as a modest corrective.

Champions of trans-boundary water transparency argue that by fostering greater data sharing, riparians’ mutual suspicions can be reduced, paving the way for greater water cooperation. It is important to note, however, that greater water transparency can easily backfire, and even undermine riparian relations. As one study concludes, revelations of ‘inequitable Indian water stewardship on Indus tributaries’ could exacerbate the volatility of India-Pakistan relations.16 One might then argue that nations with delicate relations may in certain cases be better served by not revealing inflammatory water data, and should instead maintain opacity.


This raises a critical point: Advocating for more trans-boundary water openness, pushing for ‘resource sharing’ paradigms, and proposing more inclusive treaties all presuppose a level of political cooperation that may not exist in South Asia. After all, it is easy to propose the formation of a new Himalayan Rivers Commission to govern water management in this sub-region, as was done in 2010. However, it would be much more difficult to implement such an arrangement, which would necessitate the close cooperation of nations harbouring major trust deficits toward each other.

So the question invariably arises: How can South Asia’s trans-national water arrangements be enhanced in such a troubled political environment? One answer is to look within, and to muster better efforts to improve internal water governance. This is because sounder water management inside countries can create a more favourable political climate for the pursuit and achievement of lasting external water cooperation. Better internal water management can serve as a catalyst for effective regional water governance.


It is common to attribute water problems exclusively to politics. It is often said that India-Pakistan water tensions are just one facet of a long troubled bilateral relationship. Similarly, one frequently hears that India-China disagreements over water are rooted in the larger competition between the two rising powers for influence over South Asian territory and resources. And India’s water disagreements with Bangladesh and Nepal too are said to be part of a long history of poor political relations.

Such views are accurate, yet incomplete. After all, across the United States and Australia, regions and states bicker over river water allocations – yet these tensions have little to do with politics. Neither Colorado and Kansas in the United States, nor Victoria and Queensland in Australia, are at risk of going to war; they simply disagree about how to properly divide up river flows. As such, their squabbles demonstrate an inability to efficiently manage existing water resources. In South Asia, where the availability of water resources is more precarious, this poor water governance is a chief cause of water insecurity.

In South Asia, water insecurity is not solely a function of resource shortages. To be sure, much of it is running low on water. However, excluding some arid portions of the region, very little of South Asia is actually water-scarce. The resource is precious, yet present. South Asia’s water problems are very much rooted in the wasteful and inefficient management of the region’s available water supplies.

Pakistan is arguably the worst culprit. Water infrastructure and transmission systems – the canals and pipes that have helped make the Indus river system the world’s largest contiguous irrigated area – are literally falling apart because they have not been properly maintained. As a result, millions of gallons of water are lost to leakage every day. In urban areas, wastewater treatment facilities are nearly non-existent – hence the country’s great cities are notorious for fetid surface water resources that sicken and kill hundreds of thousands every year.


Meanwhile, Islamabad offers few incentives to the population to use water saving technology. The lack of subsidies for drip irrigation, for example, compels farmers to use traditional, water wasting flood irrigation. Furthermore, the government has made little effort to diversify crop production. This is unfortunate, given that Pakistan’s most intensively produced crops – and those that fetch the greatest profits for small farmers – are also the most water guzzling.

Then there are the structural factors that exacerbate Pakistan’s water mismanagement. Thanks to the nation’s feudal land setup, a small landed elite owns most rural land, while the majority of the rural population is landless. In a country with few water laws or rights, land ownership determines water access. As a result, most of Pakistan’s rural population struggles to obtain water. In theory, mechanisms such as warabandi – the colonial-era water distribution system meant to ensure farmers equal access to irrigation water – and provincial level water arbiters such as the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) are meant to compensate for such inequalities. In reality, they fail miserably. Warabandi is exploited by politically connected large farmers, while IRSA is rarely taken seriously, and its edicts about provincial river flow allocations are routinely ignored.

Given this gloomy domestic water situation in Pakistan, it is clear why not only militants, but also the country’s government, have chosen to externalize blame over the border. After all, bringing attention to its dysfunctional domestic water management would essentially be an acknowledgment that Islamabad is to blame for its water crisis. While Islamabad is much less prone to blame India than it was several years ago (in fact, in 2010, Pakistan’s minister for water and power acknowledged that India rarely prevents river water from flowing into Pakistan), it rarely admits that the country’s water problems are largely internally rooted.


Pakistan is not the only poor water manager in South Asia; India’s water governance is similarly troubled. India is home to ‘dilapidated’ pipes and pumping stations that cause more than one-third of New Delhi’s fresh water (and at least 40% of most Indian cities’ total water resources) to be lost to leakage. The Yamuna river is choked with ‘faecal bacteria’, and this sewage has increased ‘thousands of times’ over the last decade. Water intensive rice and wheat crops are championed by the government through price guarantees to farmers. And per capita storage availability – the sine qua non for dam efficiency – has plummeted in recent years to levels found in Africa’s poorest nations.17

Poor internal water management has grave implications for public health, food security and the environment. Sometimes the effects can be catastrophic. Consider this summer’s flooding in Pakistan. If the country’s water infrastructure had been sturdier and better maintained, raging rivers would have been better contained and the damage wrought by the deluge may not have been as extensive.

Perhaps the most disturbing implication is the strain on groundwater resources. With poor internal water management regimes causing surface water to be wasted, lost or contaminated across the region, South Asians are increasingly digging deeper – literally – to alleviate their water insecurity.


In the context of agriculture – by far, the sector that consumes the most water across South Asia – the increasing inefficiency of highly subsidized, state-run irrigation systems have driven farmers to mine groundwater, which they have more control over and is more readily available. Even back in 2000, nearly 70% of Bangladesh’s irrigation, and more than 50% of India’s, was served by groundwater resources.18

Yet groundwater depletion goes beyond the agricultural sector. According to the World Bank, India is the world’s most voracious consumer of groundwater. This heavy consumption is reflected in a 2009 study by several U.S. scientists, which found that groundwater levels fell by about four centimetres per year between 2002 and 2008 across three states in northwestern India – including the breadbasket of Punjab.19 These areas could conceivably exhaust their entire groundwater supply within the next few decades.

Pakistan, too, is increasingly groundwater-reliant. Lahore – the country’s second-largest city – is completely dependent on it for drinking water needs, and groundwater tables have fallen by as much as sixty-five feet in some areas of the metropolis. Worse, wastewater is now infiltrating the city’s groundwater, choking it with arsenic.20

Groundwater – once a pristine, untapped resource – is now being extracted intensively throughout South Asia. In effect, with this onslaught on South Asia’s groundwater, the last bastion of regional water security has been breached. And as groundwater becomes increasingly short and scarce, South Asia may be compelled to return to rapidly dwindling surface water resources and to compete ferociously for the ultra-precious supply that remains – a terrifying prospect, and particularly for lower riparians.


Faced with domestic water problems, and mistaking mismanagement for shortages (or intentionally cloaking mismanagement in the guise of shortages), governments succumb to their supply-side fancies, and construct more dams and reservoirs. Such actions, as noted earlier, fan provincial tensions, and, in the case of upper riparians, anger downstream neighbours. Herein lies the troubling link between poor water management at home and trans-national water cooperation: the former prompts governments to take actions that threaten the latter.

Whether such actions outweigh the risks of imperilling trans-national water cooperation is debatable. This is because many supply-side coping strategies are neither efficient nor sustainable. One of Pakistan’s top water experts, Simi Kamal, has calculated that the quantity of water projected to be generated by the nation’s under-construction Diamer-Basha dam pales in comparison to the amount that would be freed up simply by repairing and maintaining Pakistan’s leaky canal system.21 Additionally, Pakistan’s dams, like India’s, are rapidly losing storage capacity.


Such considerations give way to another unsettling reality: So long as internal water management remains poor, the benefits accruing from deeper regional water cooperation will be strictly political; from a water resources standpoint, little will improve. Take the case of Pakistan. Assume, for a moment, that increased cooperation enables Pakistan to succeed in getting India to release more water downstream. What would be the result? Many Pakistanis would argue that their water problems would be solved: parched farmland saved, children’s thirst quenched, and lost water livelihoods restored.

In reality, however, none of this would happen. Instead, more water would mean more inefficiency: More water lost to leaky canals and pipes, wasted in irrigation, showered on water-guzzling crops, and contaminated by urban waste. Indeed, if nothing is done to improve internal water governance, allowing more water to gush into Pakistan would simply intensify the country’s water crisis.22

South Asian nations need to focus more on demand-side solutions to domestic water problems. These include water conserving technologies, crop diversification, better investments in infrastructure maintenance and wastewater treatment, and a stronger embrace of rainwater harvesting (a conservation method that has already caught on quite strongly in parts of the region). Such policies are less expensive, and potentially more efficient, than traditional supply-side water engineering projects like large dams. Some encouraging signs are emerging from India, where there has been some debate about the merits of emphasizing sugar-bean cultivation over that of sugarcane, which is notoriously water wasting. There has also been discussion about embracing water saving mechanisms such as the direct seeding of rice.


If such demand-side management policies are implemented successfully, South Asian nations would become more judicious in their use of existing water resources, and therefore less threatened in the short-term by the spectre of scarcity. Upper riparians would, presumably, be less likely to initiate new hydro-generation projects that upset their downstream neighbours. Lower riparians, meanwhile, would have less incentive (and fewer grounds) to stoke tensions with their upstream neighbours by accusing them of water theft. As a result, trans-national water arrangements would be threatened less, and the calmer political climate would enable riparians to make more substantive progress on the data sharing and transparency essential for better South Asian water security. None of this, it should be noted, would necessitate drawing up new treaties or other water agreements.

To be sure, new demographic and environmental realities may well call into question the continued relevance of decades-old trans-national water arrangements. Still, these mechanisms need not stop functioning simply because of the presence of factors not at play fifty years ago. One study of the Baglihar dam case observes that the issue was ‘addressed bearing in mind the technical standards for hydropower plants as they have developed in the first decade of the 21st century, and not as perceived and thought of in the 1950s when the [IWT] was negotiated.’23 A precedent has effectively been set for new conditions to be taken into account when interpreting the existing treaty, without needing to incorporate such conditions into an altogether new or revised treaty.


This is just one more reason for South Asian nations to redouble their efforts to ameliorate internal water management. Trans-national water arrangements can also stand to improve, yet they are not in desperate need of reform and revision. Rather, it is the water governance of the region’s individual countries that so urgently needs to be fixed. In effect, South Asian water policies must adopt a new approach – one that, in the words of noted water expert Ramaswamy R. Iyer, embraces the ‘responsible, harmonious, just, and wise use of water.’24 With population growth and climate change continuing apace, the stakes have never been higher, and the costs of inaction never starker.



1. See Maude Barlow, ‘Where Has All the Water Gone?’ American Prospect, 12 June 2008, article =where_has_all_the_water_ gone; Charles Duhigg, ‘Millions in U.S. Drink Dirty Water, Records Show’, New York Times, 7 December 2009,; and Robert Glennon, ‘Our Water Supply, Down the Drain’, Washington Post, 23 August 2009, For one of the best contemporary accounts of the U.S. water crisis, see Robert Glennon, Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to do About it. Island Press, Washington, DC, 2009.

2. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Asian Institute of Technology, ‘South Asia: Freshwater Under Threat – Vulnerability Assessment of Freshwater Resources to Environmental Change.’ UNEP, Nairobi, 2009,

3. Ashok Jaitly, ‘South Asian Perspectives on Climate Change and Water Policy’, in David Michel and Amit Pandya (eds.), Troubled Waters: Climate Change, Hydropolitics, and Transboundary Resources. Stimson Centre, Washington, DC, 2009, p. 22.

4. UNEP, ‘South Asia: Freshwater Under Threat’, op cit.

5. World Bank, ‘South Asia: Growth and Regional Integration’, Report #37858- SAS, World Bank/Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Sector Unit, South Asia Region, Washington, DC, 2006, and Michael Kugelman, ‘Introduction’, in Michael Kugelman and Robert M. Hathaway (eds.), Hard Sell: Attaining Competitiveness in Pakistani Trade. Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington, DC, 2008, http://www. wilson center. org/topics/pubs/ASIA_Hard. Sell.pdf

6. Asia Society, ‘Asia’s Next Challenge: Securing the Region’s Water Future – A Report by the Leadership Group on Water Security in Asia’, April 2009, http://asia

7. David Pietz, ‘Managing Scarcity: The Origins and Implications of China’s Water Crisis’, paper presented at Asia Policy Assembly, the inaugural conference of the National Asia Research Programme, Washington, DC, 17-18 June 2010.

8. Michael Specter, ‘The Last Drop: Confronting the Possibility of a Global Catastrophe’, New Yorker, 23 October 2006,

9. Lydia Polgreen and Sabrina Tavernise, ‘Water Dispute Increases India-Pakistan Tension’, New York Times, 20 July 2010,

10. Graeme Smith, ‘India-Pakistan Water Treaty Poised to Burst’, Globe and Mail, 27 July 2010, water-treaty-poised-to-burst/article1652763/

11. Strategic Foresight Group, ‘The Himalayan Challenge: Water Security in Emerging Asia’, Mumbai, 2010, http://www.strategic 20ES.pdf (executive summary).

12. Lisa Friedman, ‘Bangladesh: Where the Climate Exodus Begins – Facing the Specter of the Globe’s Biggest and Harshest Mass Journeys’, Environment and Energy Publishing/ClimateWire, 2 March 2009, http://www.

13. Graeme Smith, ‘In Kashmir, Water Treaty Means Less Power to the People’, Globe and Mail, 27 July 2010, http://www.theglobeand

14. Eric Strahorn, ‘The Indus River Basin in the 21st Century’, paper presented at Asia Policy Assembly, the inaugural conference of the National Asia Research Programme, Washington, DC, 17-18 June 2010.

15. Ahmad Rafay Alam, ‘New Approach to the Indus Treaty’, The News, 23 July 2010, =252248

16. Geoff Dabelko and Russell Sticklor, ‘Understanding the Security Implications of Water Challenges: India’, Environmental Security and Change Programme, Woodrow Wilson Centre, unpublished commentary, 2010.

17. M. Specter, ‘The Last Drop’, op cit.

18. A. Jaitly, ‘South Asian Perspectives’, op cit., p. 23.

19. ‘India’s Economic Boom Threatens Water Crisis: Study’, Times of India, 13 August 2009, http://timesofindia.indiatimes. com/india/Indias-economic-boom-threatens-water-crisis-Study/articleshow/4888373.cms

20. Anita Chaudhry and Rabia M. Chaudhry, ‘Securing Sustainable Access to Safe Drinking Water in Lahore’, in Michael Kugelman and Robert M. Hathaway (eds.), Running on Empty: Pakistan’s Water Crisis. Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington, DC, 2009, 090422_Running%20on%20Empty_web.pdf

21. Simi Kamal, ‘Pakistan’s Water Challenges: Entitlement, Access, Efficiency, and Equity’, in Michael Kugelman and Robert M. Hathaway (eds.), Running on Empty: Pakistan’s Water Crisis. Woodrow Wilson Centre, Washington, DC, 2009, http://www.wilson Running%20on%20Empty_web.pdf

22. Michael Kugelman, ‘Water Shortage: The Real Culprit’, Dawn, 26 July 2010,

23. Salman M.A. Salman, ‘The Baglihar Difference and its Resolution Process – A Triumph for the Indus Waters Treaty?’ Water Policy 10, 2008, p. 115.

24. Ramaswamy R. Iyer, ‘Approach to a New National Water Policy’, The Hindu, 29 October 2010,