Water – A Potential for Conflict

Kishanganga dam/ Image source: WIkimedia

“The earth is one but the world is not. We all depend on one biosphere for sustaining our lives. Yet each community, each country, strives for survival and prosperity with little regard for its impact on others.”

Brundtl commissions report,

Our common future, 1987

Water has rarely been the main cause of leading to international conflicts. Rather it has been just one among a number of factors driving interstate relations. However, the water problem in South Asia is a complex issue with both internal and external linkages. It cannot be studied in isolation from the existing political and diplomatic relations of the countries. Logically confronted with common water problems and dependent on common resources, states should find it easy to forge cooperative mechanisms on water security to mutual advantages. The current situations, however, suggest otherwise. In a world running increasingly dry and with large portions of the region’s population subjected to uneven water distributions, water is likely to be at the forefront of international disputes in future. Water disputes in future may result in transnational conflicts and therefore suitable mechanisms need to be put in place to confront these challenges before they evolve into full-fledged conflicts. The water issue has emerged as the most significant geopolitical factor in the relationship between South Asian nations and disagreement over water sharing shall be an intricate part or even the source of future conflicts within South Asia.

Concept of Water Security

“The capacity of the population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters and for preserving the ecosystem in the climate of peace and political stability”.

The dimension of Water Security

The issue of water security has several dimensions such as scarcity, degradation of quality and completing uses. In the past, competition for water has triggered domestic social tensions and conflicts. Internal demand for water has forced governments to plan and invest in grand water projects such as the river linking project by India and the Three Gorges project by China. The water profile of the region with complex independence implies that internal dynamics within a nation now may increasingly manifest itself in an inter-state dimension.

Water, arguably one of humanity’s most vital resources, has come under increased demand due to rapid population and economic growth. Climate change will have an enormous impact on water security.

Water security is a concept with several aspects and dimensions, each consisting of two complementary aspects: direct-indirect, macro-micro, technical-political, and pace-conflict. These ideas have been investigated with case studies focusing on one aspect along each dimension. The case analyses the indirect role of water for food security at the global scale, using quantitate spatial approach.  Such cases are particularly interesting, as food security is thus in many ways interwoven to water security. The analyses include how water scarcity hampers food production, and how food trade influences this interplay. We also consider how societal resilience relates to these themes, and identify regions that face particular challenges in this regard. With this, we systematize the concept of water security and link it with to issues of vulnerability, resilience and ultimately sustainability.

An important aspect of water security is that in many situations, it felt indirectly through its impact on other sectors or it is caused by other sectors.

Tibetan Plateau rivers

Water Security in South Asia

Water, the key to human survival, has become a constant source of conflict both within as well as between countries. South Asia is an apt case study of water as a source of cooperation as well as conflict. The concern of water is more missing in South Asia and the China factor and the impact of its water policies had added another dimension to the problem.

It is estimated that by 2025, over half of the world’s population living in China and India will be directly affected by water scarcity. China has access to about seven percent of the world’s water resources but is home to around 20 percent of the global population. India possesses around four percent of water resources with only a slightly smaller populace. Both countries along with eight other Asian nations, comprising 47 percent of the world’s people, are heavily dependent on the Tibetan plateau for water. Any water policies for the region, therefore, will have transnational implications.

South Asia is a region of both water abundance and scarcity. The Hindukush-Himalayan region (HKH) is one of the largest storehouses of fresh water in the world, extending over eight countries from Afghanistan to Myanmar covering 3,500 kilometres. It has been going through rapid changes and a plethora of disruptions including natural disasters, infrastructure, development, migration, and land-use change.

To evaluate the impacts of these forces on the Hindukush Himalayan region and address the environmental, economic and social pillars of sustainable mountain development, more than 350 researchers, practitioners, experts and policymakers from the region came together to develop the first comprehensive assessment of Hindukush Himalayan region, which was developed over last five years.

Water shortages in the region need to be addressed with the due sagacity by the leaders of all the countries of the region collectively. In this connection, China’s interest and impact are of great concern to all the countries which are low riparian with China as the upper riparian.

Indus River/ Image source: Scroll

Indo-Pakistan Water Issues

The rivers in Pakistan originate in the higher reaches of Himalayas and derive their water primarily from snowmelt and monsoon rains. River Indus is the main river of Pakistan and North-West India. The irrigation system planned and thereafter developed during the pre-partition days was planned as an integrated system to store water from the six rivers namely Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas and transfer the surplus/impounded water to areas which were water-deficient through a very well planned and well-executed canal system which linked all the rivers. After partition in 1947, the Indus river basin was subjected to viva-section and unattended issues, wherein two of the major regulating structures in the form of Madhopur head works on Ravi river and Ferozepur head works on Sutlej river were left to India while canals emanating from the headworks went to Pakistan. It had a major impact on Pakistan’s agriculture.

India and Pakistan have been at loggerheads ever since the partition of British India in 1947. Disputes over water only serve to compound existing tensions including over Jammu and Kashmir region as evident in the rhetoric recently frenzied up by Hafiz Saeed of LeT. Although Indus Water Treaty governs shared river resources, India and Pakistan continue to feud over the interpretation of the agreement, with dam projects often serving as a flashpoint for tensions.

Tulbul and the Kishenganga projects are the two examples of long-standing water disputes between the two countries. Dating to the 1980s, the dispute regarding the Tulbul navigation/Wular barrage remains unresolved. India’s construction of a barrier along the Jhelum river aims to improve water flow and thus, navigation of a 20 km stretch between Sopore and Baramulla. Though construction began in 1984, it was halted in 1987 due to Pakistani opposition. The dispute over the proposed Kishenganga dam also remains unresolved. Under the plan, India seeks to build a 330-megawatt hydroelectric plant on the Jhelum River in the Jammu and Kashmir region. As with the Baglihar and Tulbul project, Pakistan claims the project violates the Indus Water Treaty because of its downstream effects, particularly the Indus Water Treaty, which offer scope for lessons and directions for future cooperation and conflict.

The Zangmu dam on Brahmaputra river in Tibet (Image source: AsiaBizz.com)

The China Factor

Six major Asian river systems, Indus (India, Pakistan), Ganges (Nepal, India and Bangladesh), Salween (China, Burma, and Thailand), Mekong (China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam), Yangtze (China) originate in the Tibetan plateau. The Ganga-Brahmaputra basin is a part of the composite Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin which lies in China, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh and drains an area of 10,86,000 sq. kms.

The water of river Brahmaputra is shared by China, India and Bangladesh. The average annual trans-boundary flow into India from the Brahmaputra is a maximum to any country. The substantial dependency reveals India’s vulnerability to China’s capacity to use water as a political instrument being an upper riparian state. Over 45000 glaciers drain into these rivers. Glaciers in the Tibetan plateau thus source most of the rivers in Asia. Due to this, the Tibet region of China acts as the reservoir for the entire region. However, the continued availability of the water storage in its mainland, China is planning for diversion of waters of Brahmaputra. This will have severe consequences not just on Sino- India relations but may have a direct bearing on the survival of people in the lower riparian countries.

Indo-Bangladesh Issues

Bangladesh located in the delta of two of the world’s largest rivers in the Ganges and Brahmaputra is the lower riparian state of the three-river basin, namely; the Ganges, Brahmaputra and the Meghna. About 93% of the catchment area of the country’s river system lies outside the country. Thus, what India does with the common water resources has a direct bearing on the water interests of Bangladesh.

India-Bangladesh on map

India shares 54 Transboundary with Bangladesh, including the major river Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna making water management a major issue between the two nations and providing the basis for a series of ongoing disputes between the two countries, particularly India’s efforts to divert water destined for Bangladesh. The distribution of Ganges water during Bangladesh’s lean months has historically been a contentious issue between India and Bangladesh.

India and Bangladesh the two subcontinents always shared cultural, linguistic and geographical ties. Nowadays there is growing realizations of improvements in relations as well as increased cooperation which can bring substantial socio-economic benefits that can no longer be overlooked. It has been argued by many security experts that water shall become a major source of conflict in the 21st century. The scenario in Indo- Bangladesh relations since the last few years reflects some extent this dismal truth.

There are some factors that make Bangladesh vital for India and the necessity for the conclusion of the long-pending water accord. The first and foremost is that India’s North-Eastern states are widely affected by Bangladesh’s policies and actions. If any type of hindrance occurs in the way of cooperation between the two neighbour countries, access will become difficult in terms of integrating the states with the Indian mainland. Secondly, the joint rivers commission in Dhaka exhibited concerns over receiving only 6.5% of water which was the lowest ever. This stark deadline in the basin has resulted in large scale protests both in Dhaka and West Bengal with their own arguments. In the absence of official agreement, technical issues regarding the quantity, division and share of the waters are bound to take centre stage. In spite of insubstantial progress, both the Awami League and the UPA government in Bangladesh and India respectively, have maintained peaceful cooperative relations in the past. A hegemonic stance by India would have a significant impact on Indo-Bangladesh relations. Therefore India should rely on an institutional doctrine with greater involvement with smaller and weaker neighbouring states with the aim to develop friendly relations with them. It would be better to adopt a more feasible approach that would be constituted by an integrated, collaborated and sustainable management of all shared rivers including Teesta River.

Teesta River/ Image source: North East Now

Conflicts over water can be considered at two levels. First, there is a possibility of internal political conflict due to the governments to provide sufficient water to various dependants. Second, there is a possibility of international or inter-regional conflict over Transboundary water supplies such as in the area of the Indus basin and the Northern and North East parts of India. Analyst point that the countries or regions such as South Asia that already face internal unrest, are particularly vulnerable to resource conflicts.

As water scarcity becomes a genuine threat to national security it may transform into a flashpoint, over which the likelihood for conflict increases exponentially. Factors such as population growth and consumption pattern have a major bearing on water security. Climate change is projected to affect the supply and demand for water including usage for domestic consumption, agriculture, energy and industry. This is likely to have a cascading effect on the existing water shortages. Even as internally, water conflicts within each country assume serious proportions, externally, the geopolitics of water spill far beyond existing disputes.

 In the South Asian region, a case in point is the proposed diversions of water of Brahmaputra by China. It is likely to be a potential cause of a conflict between two major economies of the world. Chinese control over the rivers of Tibet gives Beijing the power to use, divert or dam the receding waters as it sees, whether to increase supply to their eastern provinces, to generate more electricity, or to use it as a punitive measure against South Asia. These actions could cause abrupt flooding or drought, ravaging the water supplies on which the subcontinent depends and impact South Asian geopolitics in the process. Similarly, there is a case for conflict involving India and Bangladesh, as also, India and Nepal, owing to disputes over river water sharing. Disputes between India and Pakistan over water sharing also emerge as a likely reason for an armed conflict between the two countries.

Image for representation/ source: AFP/Getty Images

Possible Indo-Pak Conflict

By 2025, Pakistan would probably be the most water-scarce country in the region. Pakistan’s serious projected shortages, India’s damming and diverting waters destined for Pakistan and global warmings expected depletion of water in the Indus river system would probably become a collective source of increasing tension. Given the difficulty of increasing water supplies and the longstanding contentious relationship between Pakistan and India, Pakistan would blame India for its water woes. Such an approach would enable Pakistan’s political leadership to deflect public discontent over its own poor water management policies.

In such a scenario, Pakistan would be compelled to threaten India or even to utilize military force. While general discord is not uncommon in the Indo- Pak relationship, Pakistan would now actually have a potential pathway for military action to secure additional water resources. With water resources already scarce and key dams and reservoirs inside Indian-controlled Kashmir, limited military action would seem to be a rewarding proposition for Pakistan.

Another raging concern has been the emergence of the non-state actors and their ability to exploit water stress to precipitate or aggravate the already existing tensions in the various countries in South Asia. The role of non-state actors in triggering water conflicts by striking at sensitive water infrastructure as propagated by LeT chief Hafiz Saeed would also be a reality.

For Pakistan, the Indus waters are a lifeline: most of the country depends on it as the primary source of fresh water and supports 90 percent of the country’s agricultural industry. And while Pakistan was considered relatively plentiful with water, a mixture of mismanaged irrigation, water-intensive agriculture and climate change has reduced the Indus to a trickle in parts. A 2018 report from the International Monetary Fund ranked Pakistan third among countries facing severe water shortages. When the rapidly-melting glaciers in the Himalayas, which feed the Indus waters, eventually disappear as predicted, the dwindling rivers will be slashed even further.

Analysis and Recommendations

Many scholars and policymakers, including Thomas Homer-Dixon, Robert Kaplan and Shlomi Dinar consider water security to be a potentially key factor contributing to intrastate and interstate political or even armed conflict. In the past, access and control of water has rarely been a predominant cause of wars or other violent conflicts between states. But water is now increasingly involved in the disputes between countries, and such conflicts threaten to increase alarmingly in the future.

Efforts of various countries as regards to water are generally within the frame of a ‘nationalist mindset’ rather than a ‘South-Asian mindset’. South Asian countries must now begin a collaborative effort for joint governance of the transboundary rivers. Besides coordinating with the international climate regimes, South Asian countries must also establish coordination procedures, such as the one existing for Nile river, which clearly defines the mechanisms of water sharing and responsibilities of the nations for their implementation. Such procedures that are presently lacking among them as well as with neighbouring regions should be urgently evolved in order to handle the crisis more effectively.

Collective monitoring of glaciers and rivers, sharing and transparency of information is crucial, along with close collaboration between scientific, academic and civil society institutions working on the impact of changing climate in the region.

Potential water stress leading to conflict is likely to impact military aspects as well. Hence, there is a need to consider and plan on aspects such as raising of specialised military units such as Territorial Army (TA) battalion (water management) engineer units, the equipment philosophy as well as reorientation towards recognising and preparing for such emerging challenges.

There needs to be a recognition that water insecurity (in the form of water stress or water scarcity) is not an isolated problem. Its effects can extend to human, national, regional and international security. Consequently, governments in the region should encourage and promote more effective conservation efforts, greater environmental awareness, and the recognition that all people have a basic need and right to clean fresh water.

Indus River/ Image source Erin Wilson/ Flickr


In the larger context, water security has the potential to affect more traditional concepts of security, with consequences beyond local, provincial, and national borders. In the end, the moot question is whether future wars will be fought over water. In human history, the last time two nations went to war over the water was 4500 years ago, between the Mesopotamian city-states, Lagash and Umma. We are now living in an ever-shrinking world, wherein interdependence and international opinion is becoming increasingly important. It does not, however, preclude the possibility of yet another conflict, and this time it may involve us. As states increasingly tap into shared water resources, they are shaping the water security opportunities for the rest of the regions. We must, therefore, involve robust mechanisms that are effective and competent to deal with these challenges.

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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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Saurabh Singh

Saurabh Singh is a Research Intern at South Asia Center, MP-IDSA, New Delhi

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