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May 19, 2012

A precious necessity... a boy bathes under a water pipe to cool off on a hot day in Allahbad. Pakistan is claiming a hydro-electric plant India is building will rob it of water.A precious necessity… a boy bathes under a water pipe to cool off on a hot day in Allahbad. Pakistan is claiming a hydro-electric plant India is building will rob it of water. Photo: AFP

Water could be the focal point of South Asia’s next great conflict, writes Ben Doherty.

South Asia lives on its rivers. Its three great basins – the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra – are the most densely-populated in the world. The Ganges alone supports half a billion people.

Seventy per cent of South Asia’s 1.5 billion people live in farming families, and depend on the water of those basins for their survival. That number grows by 25 million every year.

For generations the rivers have watered the bread basket of the Punjab, the cotton plants and fruit trees of the Sindh, and the rice paddies of Bangladesh, and grown this region faster than anywhere else.

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But South Asia’s water supply is unpredictable, and increasingly unmanageable. Lashed annually by monsoons, and regularly by devastating floods, in between, there are severe and prolonged droughts across the region. Even when the rain falls in moderation, there is often little infrastructure to manage or preserve it for leaner times.

Across every part of all three basins, there is less water, and ever more people who rely on it. The issue of water in this part of the world is back in the spotlight this week with a case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague between Pakistan and India.

Pakistan claims a new hydro-electric plant India is building on the Kishanganga River (known as the Neelum River in Pakistan) in Kashmir will rob it of water that rightfully belongs to it.

This is the political reality of this water-short century: rivers are (even more) powerful. Water is becoming a powerful weapon of diplomacy, even of coercion, and a new point of dispute.

And South Asia’s geography, demography and climate portend a growing, global, problem.

A security report from the US director of national intelligence released this year says that over the next decade, ”many countries … will experience water problems – shortages, poor water quality, or floods – that will risk instability and state failure”.

”As a result of demographic and economic development pressures, North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia will face major challenges coping with water problems.”

Disputes are likely to emerge between countries, between states within countries, and even between cities and communities, over the right to an increasingly scarce resource. Water shortages will likely drive nation-states towards diplomatic solutions and to sharing agreements, the report says, but extremists will ”almost certainly” target vulnerable water infrastructure.

”Beyond the next 10 years, water in shared basins will increasingly be used as leverage, the use of water as a weapon or to further terrorist objectives also will become more likely.”

The Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, told her department: ”These threats are real, and they do raise serious security concerns.” Already, water has become part of the terrorist call-to-arms.

The alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Hafiz Saeed, has railed India for it’s so-called ”water terrorism”, threatening ”water flows or blood”.

Lashkar-e-Taiba, a proscribed terror group, regularly threatens to blow up India’s dams, and violent condemnation of India’s water policies is cheered on by a growing hardline.

Last year, Pakistani newspaper Nawa-i-Waqt, urged the government: ”Pakistan should convey to India that a war is possible on the issue of water and this time war will be a nuclear one”.

Most experts argue a declared ”war” between nations in the near future is unlikely, but as pressure grows, smaller conflicts will flare across the region.

The Strategic Foresight Group, has postulated the idea of an ‘arc of hydro insecurity’, stretching from Vietnam in the east through China, the countries of South Asia, to Iran, Iraq and other Middle East countries, and finally through to Egypt and Kenya in East Africa.

Scarce water will drive up food prices, destabilise governments, and spark mass migrations within and across state borders.

For South Asia, climate change will see less water in rivers. A recent Dutch study found that by the middle of this century, shrinking glaciers will reduce the flow of water to the Indus by 8 per cent while Purdue University researchers found climate change could cause weaker monsoons, which start later, and have longer breaks in between periods of rain.

Demographics are changing too. As a country like India, especially, develops economically, a wealthier population will eat more meat, requiring more water-intensive agriculture.

Environmental author B.G. Verghese said water was already a major security concern for the region. ”Water, and the energy that comes from water, affects every household … If the well is empty and the women have to walk to the next village for water, mini water-wars breakout between villages, fighting over the last bucket. More people will be killed by insanitary water than by all the sum total of all the wars and all the insurgencies that might be fought.”

Mr Verghese said while water issues will lead to disagreements between countries, ”I don’t think it will lead to war”.

”The only country that could go to war on this question is Pakistan, and Pakistan simply has no case. They have mesmerised themselves into thinking all their problems come from India.”

The current Pakistan-India water dispute is a test of a decades-old water-sharing agreement that has withstood three wars, territorial disputes, nuclear tests and terrorist attacks.

Essentially, the Indus Waters Treaty, signed in 1960, gives Pakistan rights over the Indus Valley’s three western rivers, India control over the three rivers to the east. The treaty is hugely important, in particular to Pakistan, which is downstream from India, and reliant on its larger neighbour’s adherence to it for survival.

The Indus irrigates more than 80 per cent of the country’s 22 million hectares of farmland, in turn providing 21 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

But the treaty is beginning to crack under new pressures, and Pakistan’s increasing anxiety about its neighbour’s activities on its watercourses.

India has no fewer than 45 dams or power stations completed, planned or proposed on ‘Pakistan’s’ western rivers, which Islamabad believes will give Delhi control over how much water flows over the border, and the ability, if it so chooses, to choke off Pakistan’s agriculture, starve its people and ruin its economy.

India dismisses Pakistan’s fears as paranoid and without scientific basis. It says it has adhered to the treaty and its as-the-river-runs dams don’t affect its neighbour. But after 15 rounds of bilateral talks, to no progress, the parties are back in the Permanent Court of Arbitration next week seeking satisfaction.

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