Looming conflicts over water
CLIMATE change has prompted nations to lock in heated debates over the rise in sea levels. Yet not enough focus, it seems, is being put on the growing crisis of fresh water which could in the foreseeable future lock nations in conflict over the precious dwindling resource. The latest report released by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints a gloomy picture whereby global temperature may rise anywhere between 0.3 to 4.8 degrees Celsius in the latter half of the present century. As pointed out by IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri recently, "Unfortunately, the world has not really woken up to the reality of what we are going to face in terms of the crises as far as water is concerned."
The availability of fresh water sources is compounded by droughts and floods – the intensity and frequency of which have increased over recent decades. Take those two factors and throw in manmade disasters such as the continual pollution of rivers and lakes, filling up on water bodies thanks to the rapid urbanisation process which is happening in both developed and developing nations and the diversion of precious water resources by upper-riparian nations, and we are basically sowing the seeds for future conflicts between nations.
As reported by a U.N. report made public in December, 2014, an estimated 2.9 billion people in 48 countries will be facing one form of water shortage or another in the coming decade. And the global water shortage is expected to hit 40 percent within a decade. While that may mean more water bills for owners of swimming pools in the first world, it poses a life and death situation for the world's poorest. Should the forecasts prove true, going to war over water will become a distinct possibility on various continents, particularly Africa and Asia. While we may take water for granted, usable fresh water stands at a mere 2.5 percent of all the water available on the planet whereas only 1 percent of it is readily available in rivers and fresh water bodies. The problem does not end there. The water that is available is not evenly distributed around the globe; it is concentrated in specific locations. Yet its use is global in nature and is varied ranging from human consumption to agriculture, agriculture to industry, sanitation to energy production.
Climate change has brought forth various problems for developing nations. Weather patterns have become unpredictable, so we do not know exactly when and how much rainfall there will be. In the case of Bangladesh, when one takes into account the large dam infrastructure already installed or being built in India and China, major rivers and tributaries are dwindling. The case of Bangladesh is hardly a case in point example. Pakistan for its part has taken its complaint to an international court that the hydropower dam being built by India in the Gurez valley in Kashmir will affect river flows in the country. The court has ruled in Pakistan's favour, but work continues in other forms. India itself is in doldrums. As it builds large hydropower dams and nuclear plants to quench its thirst for energy, precious water gets diverted from agriculture. Water scarcity is a global problem, but the solutions to this global phenomenon are being taken by individual nations ignoring the needs of bordering nations – and there lies the crux of the problem.
Without cooperation on water in South Asia, conflict between nations cannot be ruled out. Yet, decades of mistrust stands in the way of putting in place regimes that will provide the platform for water sharing across borders. As pointed out by Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow, Chatham House Asia Programme in his article 'Preventing water wars in Asia': "Optimal utilization of water in South Asia has been stymied by distrust. For instance, in relation to India's western rivers, which flow into Pakistan and are currently regulated by the Indus Water Treaty, many water experts believe that the best position for dams would be in Indian Kashmir, part of a territory over which India and Pakistan have gone to war. But this is unacceptable to Islamabad."
It stands to reason that countries in South Asia to work together, as opposed to against each other, for sharing what is, essentially a shared resource. Water, electricity and food are all interlinked with one another and every nation needs access to all three for survival and development. The inability to access water due to deniability by another nation could potentially lead to conflict. Regional cooperation can lead to better planning and coming to terms on a pricing mechanism on water must become a priority issue for policymakers of countries in our region. As Gareth Price states, "Water in South Asia is frequently conceived of as a zero-sum resource. But there are models of collaboration at both local and international level that can lead to better outcomes. And while in many respects the glass of water in South Asia is half-empty, there are some emerging signs that it may, in fact, be half-full."
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.