Water Crisis: A Man-made catastrophe in South Asia?

The water crisis has hit India this year at a worrying rate, but it’s not the first time this is happening. 2019 has just increased the results to an alarming rate, something which isn’t supposed to be completely unexpected considering the count of depleting water levels in the last few years and the report by NITI Aayog in 2018 which stated that by 2030, the country’s demand for water will be twice it’s availability.[1] If these weren’t clear signals of arriving water crises, then determining what could signal is a new issue. The water crisis is however not only limited to the shortage of water, or with problems of accessibility to clean water, it involves problems of flooding simultaneously. The problem persists, however, not only in India. India’s neighbours and the South Asian region collectively as seen facing water issues. Providing infrastructure to deal with both floods and water shortages for the long seems to be the hardest and the most important challenge for South Asian countries with regard to the water problem.

Current status of South Asian countries – an analysis of the issue

The entirety of South Asia faces a current simultaneous flood – drought situation. In Pakistan, flash floods in Kashmir in February killed 23 people and left many displaced. At the same time, due to the nature of the majority of dry land in Pakistan, the country faces water issues of providing safe and drinking water to all. Pakistan is commonly considered to be both water-scarce (low water availability per capita) and water-stressed (high water withdrawals high relative to water availability).[2] Climate change and increasing temperatures aggravate the situation on its arid and semi-arid regions. Bangladesh and Nepal face similar issues. WHO data shows that in Bangladesh, 97% of people have access to water, but 60% of this access is to unhygienic water.[3]Landslides and heavy rainfall in Nepal have left a significant amount of people displaced and killed many. Afghanistan suffered its worst flood in seven years this year and a devastating drought, due to which several lives were claimed. If not this year, Sri Lanka faced a disturbing situation of flooding last year. The problem remains consistent and needs to be dealt with effectively. This source of life is beginning to account for survival problems, and climate change is not solely to blame. This is a problem neglected and curated by a man more than through an interplay of unpredictable weather. For India, the problem runs throughout the country. The northeast sees floods, displacement and devastation. The river Ganga has almost crossed the danger mark for its flow.  Other parts of the country such as in the south have big cities where infrastructure for water management is expected to be efficient, like Chennai and Bangalore that face issues scarcity of water. Chennai has earlier faced problems of flooding ironically as well. Water problems persist due to a mix of factors which include the long-term effects and practices of large scale deforestation, low levels of water transpiration, increasing population and demand for water while there remain an inadequate water management infrastructure and overexploitation and misuse of water resources. Often the issue lies with water management planning, which in South Asian countries is evidently not planned for the long run. For example, when the flood hits a region, governments try to deal with the floods while forgetting that a dry season might be upcoming, and vice versa. This cycle repeats almost every year, leading to wastage of resources every time there’s a shortage of water or a flood. Planning in advance can reduce this wastage and increase efficiency in water management.  Simple measures like rainwater harvesting and town planning can be effective, but the implementation of such plans is poorly dealt within South Asia.

APRIL 2019 An image of the reservoir during the water crisis./ The Strait Times

Another issue for countries like India and Pakistan is population growth. A rapid increase in population means a future increase in demand for food and water. For countries like Pakistan and India where agriculture takes up a significant amount of available water, an increasing population can affect its agriculture and food production as well. Inadequate quality of foods and food insecurity puts lives at risk as well as the overall productivity of the country. India is predicted to be one of the most populated countries in a few decades, so issues such as population growth can affect the subcontinent drastically. Climate change also plays its fair share in the problem. Rising temperatures can lead to drying up of moisture that is produced by plants. Climate change can also contribute to unpredictable weather, which can aggravate the situation more. Not to forget the obvious, that floods leave hundreds of people displaced and devastated, leaving affected regions in a drastically worn-out state.

A cross-boundary issue – the hands of politics and geography

Needless to say, this issue also extends to not only national but international concerns. This area of concern is laid out specifically for India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, where rivers of one country flow to another, and the climatic conditions of one of these countries easily affects the situation in another. Like every other issue, the water dispute has also, unfortunately, touched its branches to politicization. Beginning with the Indus water basin, which is a huge source of Pakistan and its agricultural activities. India has often been blamed by Pakistan for using the water from Indus in a way that violated the treaty. Even though numerous parties from both Pakistan and India have sent delegations to check on the usage on the other side, hostility due to allegations remains an issue of conflict between these two states. Other cross border treaty issues of India with Nepal and Bangladesh also contribute to water sharing issues, with over a hundred-people killed due to floods in North East India, Nepal and Bangladesh.[4]

Farakka Barrage has been the main issue between Bangladesh and India, in which Bangladesh claims Indian exploitation of water claiming the larger portion of the dive created by the barrage diverts more water into India. A decrease in water supply has also left problems in salinity of water in Bangladesh. On the Indian side, the barrage has allegedly increased floods in regions in and around Bihar. In other areas, heavy rainfalls in Bhutan contribute to increasing water levels of Pagladia and Borolia rivers in Assam. The nature and location of these rivers as such – which give a geographical advantage to one region over another – along with the interplay of politics that takes over this advantage to hold leverage that will probably help influence other areas of interstate decision making maintain a level of hostility between South Asian countries. Having geographical advantage, however, does not make it the fault of the country solely in contributing to these interstate issues. What can possibly help elevate South Asia out of this crisis is possible collective international cooperation, however current tensions can influence the process of coming down to a shared or collective solution. Simple measures like reviewing the Indus Water treaty and trying to fix the loopholes within it so neither side takes advantage can be something to start with.

A possible solution to this inevitable threat

Other than solving international tensions, solutions to this double-sided water problem can be in small changes and planning proper long-term infrastructure. For example, planning the layout of drainages and water treatment plants before building cities can help drastically. This can be an efficient tool for those villages or towns that are still going through the process of development.[5] Other solutions to solve this issue can be on increasing focus on spreading awareness for the importance of water conservation. Very basic issues like pipes not reaching rural areas, or water being over-exploited in cities are being highlighted repeatedly. Often in megacities, water is being misused and over-exploited, which can prove to be a significant issue for water conservation. Something like smart toilet bowls which have vacuums instead of water can help save water. This type of technology can be expensive for people in developing countries, but governments must be encouraged to implement them at least in government-owned properties and must encourage wealthy households, hotels, etc., to implement them as well. Implementation of smart monitoring systems or a better force to check on water usage and pipe leakage problems can help save water that is lost through leakages. Effective reforestation planning, including smart agricultural planning, such as growing crops like rice in areas with more rainfall than in drier cities can help. Agriculture also takes up a lot of water/significant amount of water that is available in a country, thus better irrigation methods like drip irrigation could be used to save any possible wastage of water that occurs during irrigation processes. Another very effective solution is that of rainwater harvesting. Research has shown numerous times that most of the water that we get through rains is wasted and not collected. Infrastructure to catch this rainfall and then use it for constructive purposes could prove to be very effective. Many villages in Kerala, India are self-sustained through the same system, other parts of India and other countries could use this simple technology to help themselves. These simple water conservation solutions aren’t complex and neither new. These are being implemented into school textbooks of students since they’re in primary school. Lack of implementation of simple and cost-effective water conservation plans also shows the irresponsibility of governments. It’s high time for South Asia to begin climbing the steps for water conservation and effective and planned utilization.


[1]Niti Aayog Report on SDGs 2018

[2]https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/03/22/helping-india-manage-its-complex-water-resources

[3]https://thewaterproject.org/water-crisis/water-in-crisis-bangladesh

[4]https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/floods-assam-bihar-nepal-bangladesh-toll-displaced-1569829-2019-07-16

[5]https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/07/india-water-crisis-drought-could-be-helped-better-building-planning/

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Prashasti Saxena

Prashasti Saxena is a Research Intern at The Kootneeti (22 June 2019 - 28 July 2019). She's a student of International Relations at King's College, London. Her specific interests in the field, circle around tracking and improving development in India, Middle Eastern politics, Terrorism, Extremism and Counterinsurgencies, Mapping security issues and the statecraft of diplomacy. She can be reached at prashasti01@gmail.com || Twitter @saxenaprashasti

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