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Could Modi's election ease South Asian water tensions?

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 7 July 2014 01:00 GMT

A farmer plants rice saplings in a paddy field against the backdrop of pre-monsoon clouds in the northern Indian city of Amritsar on June 13, 2013. REUTERS/Munish Sharma

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Conflict is likely to grow over scarce water - but the election of India's new prime minister could shake things up

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Growing competition for scarce water in South Asia is likely to lead to conflict among countries, as well as between big users in agriculture, cities and industry, a new report warns.

But the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister of India, the region’s largest political power, could remove some of the roadblocks to better and more coordinated water policy in India and beyond, said Gareth Price, lead author of the report by Chatham House, a London-based thinktank on international issues.

Many of the 500 South Asian policymakers interviewed for the report blamed water problems in part on political infighting and weak coordination among Indian ministries dealing with water, exacerbated by the coalition nature of the previous government, Price said.

But Modi’s landslide win in May, enabling him to govern without a coalition, could pave the way for better coordination among ministries and fewer power struggles. That may allow the new prime minister to replicate some of the successes he had in improving water management as chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat.

“One of the main things everyone cited as a problem (in managing water in South Asia) isn’t there anymore,” Price said in an interview. “If (India’s coalition government) was the excuse, the excuse has disappeared.”

That’s not to say “there isn’t a whole load of other problems”, he warned.


As South Asia’s population rises toward an expected 2.5 billion people by 2040, a third bigger than today, pressure is growing on dwindling water resources, the report said. Groundwater supplies are depleting fast, largely due to overuse for irrigation in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, with “few feasible options for increasingly supply”, it warned.

Poor management of what water remains threatens bigger shortages and political animosity, it added. In particular, with about 90 percent of fresh water going to agriculture, leaders will need to work out how to get a larger share to industry and expanding cities without hurting food supplies.

“Water is the biggest challenge the region faces,” Price said. “There are some good things going on, but the region isn’t coping with the challenge at the moment.”

South Asia has some history of successful international water deals. The Indus Waters Treaty, signed in 1960, still governs water sharing between India and Pakistan, having survived three conflicts between the two countries.

But tensions over rights to the region’s rivers, most of which cross national boundaries, are growing. Many existing water agreements give each nation a percentage share of a river’s flow, or ensure the downstream country receives a minimum flow of water. Increasing demand and climate change effects are putting pressure on many of those deals.

Political squabbling also is taking a toll, the report said. A proposed agreement between India and Bangladesh to share the flow of the Teesta River, for instance, fell apart last year after the Indian state of West Bengal held it hostage to an unrelated political dispute.


New deals are particularly hard to negotiate because India now classifies much of its national data on water availability as a state secret, something that “does little to build trust” with downstream neighbours, the report noted.

Water consumption data, similarly, reveals little in India where industries and big companies – including smart New Delhi hotels – pump their own supplies of fast-vanishing groundwater from private wells.

In some parts of South Asia, efforts to better manage limited water also are handicapped by “notions that water is a ‘human right’ or an infinite gift from God”, not something that should be priced or regulated, the report noted.

Without major changes to water management in the region, “local grievances over water availability and quality will spread and intensify,” the report predicted.

But potential ways of easing tensions do exist. Price pointed to work in Gujarat, Modi’s home province, to curb water waste in irrigation. Farmers once given free, 24-hour electricity to pump irrigation water can now only access water for a few hours a day.

Rebuilding leaky distribution systems also could help in a region where many urban water systems lose a third to half of their supply before it reaches taps.

And there are signs that cooperation over water pays dividends for both sides. Indian’s West Bengal state and Bangladesh, for instance, have managed to improve fish stocks in a shared river after both put in place fishing moratoriums on certain species.

“You have to think laterally - find a shared problem to which there is a shared solution,” Price said. But a lot depends on political will and effective bureaucracies, he said, noting that South Asia’s bureaucratic systems “are not renowned for their adaptability”.

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