Water – a Potential cause of ‘Conflicts in Future’

Sub Title : Water is becoming an increasingly contested commodity and shared waters pose a great risk for conflict in the region

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2021

Author : Editoral Team

Page No. : 57

Category : Geostrategy

: August 5, 2021

Water depletion in major basins like the Indus, Brahmaputra-Meghna and Ganges and transboundary rivers across South Asia has been an issue of discord between India and other nations. Water is becoming an increasingly contested commodity and, as a result, shared waters pose a great risk for conflict in the region

Water Scarcity in South Asia

There are six transboundary rivers (the Red, Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and Indus Rivers) that originate in south-west China and are shared by 12 riparian countries including those of mainland South Asia (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan). These rivers and their tributaries are the source of water, food and livelihoods for over one billion people. Over the last few decades, however, rapidly increasing populations, urbanisation and increased environmental pollution have placed significant pressure on water resources. The basins are also increasingly being used to develop extensive water infrastructure for power and irrigation expansion, with several large-scale hydropower dams currently in operation and several more in the planning stage. Most areas of South Asia are in a permanent-state of water stress as a result of overexploitation, poor management and climate change-induced rainfall variability. The situation is worsening in the regions where temperatures are rising and populations increasing. For instance, in South Asia the average temperature is projected to rise four to six degrees Celsius in the next few years and it is the most populous region on earth. South Asian countries share a huge treasure of water resources.  This shared resource as it gets physically scarce, may lead to conflicts in the region. For instance, India and Pakistan share the waters of the Indus basin system. India, Bangladesh and Nepal share water from the Ganga River basin. South Asia’s three major river systems – the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra sustain India and Pakistan’ breadbasket areas and many of their major cities including New Delhi and Islamabad, as well as those in Bangladesh.

Melting of Himalayan Glaciers

Climate change is affecting  precipitation and thus available water resources along with the rising demand for water. It is also predicted that glacial melting on the Himalayas will pose a grave threat. A report by the WWF, “An overview of glaciers: glacier retreat and subsequent impacts in Nepal, India and China”, says the rate of Himalayan glaciers erosion accelerated as global warming has increased. The report states that glaciers in the region are now receding at an average rate of 10-15 metres annually. There is a general perception that the fast pace of melting glaciers will result in flooding and uncontrollable river systems in the region. However, with the passage of time melting of glaciers will result in reduced water flows in the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. More melting of glaciers also indicates larger amount of water being in liquid form and that this leads into an increase in the amount of water that is being evaporated.

Indo Pak: Transboundary Water Issues

The Indus Basin aquifer shared by north western India and Pakistan is the second-most overstressed underground water reserve. The Indus Basin represents an extensive groundwater aquifer, covering an area of 16.2 million hectares and the aquifer was in the state of hydrological equilibrium before the development of a canal irrigation system by India and Pakistan, according to a 2011 report of the Food and Agriculture Organisation. In 2016, the issue of water sharing between India and Pakistan gained prominence, with Pakistan’s move to take India to The Hague. This was an issue over damming of the rivers feeding Pakistan, namely the Indus. The groundwater in the Indus Basin is being drastically depleted. It currently has to support 300 million people; a population that is projected to rapidly increase. The transboundary Indus river basin has a total area of 1.12 million sq km distributed between Pakistan (47 percent), India (39 percent), China (8 percent) and Afghanistan (6 percent). The issues between the two countries are:-

♦   In 1948, India unilaterally cut off supplies to Pakistan canals originating from the headworks located on the eastern rivers of Ravi and Sutlej thereby asserting its right to the waters of three eastern rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej). Besides causing a serious setback to the national economy, this would have seriously disrupted Pakistan´s water resources development plans. Therefore, right from its creation, the country had to accord the highest priority to the resolution of water disputes involving India. After protracted negotiations, the dispute was finally resolved and culminated in the signing of the Indus Water Treaty in 1960.

♦   The Indus water treaty helped to resolve the issues between the two countries and allowed Pakistan to invest extensively in the Indus Basin Project (IBP) during the 1960s to construct a network of canals and barrages to divert waters from the western rivers to the command of the eastern rivers as replacement works. However, in the last few years Pakistan has objected to India’s development of hydropower projects on the western rivers, Chenab and Jhelum.

♦   Baglihar dam, constructed in the Chenab in Jammu and Kashmir and completed in 2008, has been the source of continuing disputes between India and Pakistan. After construction began in 1999, Pakistan claimed that the design parameters of the Baglihar project violated the Indus Water Treaty. The World Bank determined that India should reduce the freeboard in the height of the dam from 4.5 m to 3 m. India had offered to do this before Pakistan referred the dispute to the World Bank. Another objection by Pakistan was related to the width of the pondage that India could maintain in the run-of-the river project.

Brahmaputra Basin: Hydropolitics

China has been historically a water scarce country with uneven distribution of its water resources. The inter-regional disparity in water resources is stark. Four-fifths of the water resources in China are located in the south. The north, home to about half of the total population and the arable land, making it the centre of economic and agricultural activity in the country, contains only 20 per cent of China’s water resources. While residents of the sparsely populated south have access to 25,000 cubic meters of freshwater per person annually, residents of the populous arid north, which includes China’s biggest and fastest growing urban areas such as Beijing and Tianjin, have less than 500 cubic metres per person annually.

China’s unique position as the only country in the region which is completely upper riparian, lends it an unparalleled advantage and power to influence the flow of water to nations downstream. As an upstream state, China shares 42 major transboundary watercourses (including lakes) with its neighbouring countries. As a result, China’s international water policy is at the core of Asia’s water security. India functions as a middle riparian state. It is a lower riparian state in relation to China, but an upper riparian state vis-a-vis Pakistan and Bangladesh. China has been seen to act in a manner typical of an upper riparian nation. Its distinctive position as a completely upper riparian nation allows it to act as a hydro-hegemon in the region. China’s hydro-hegemony is made possible by its control over Tibet. The Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau extends over a vast area spanning 2.5 million square kilometres. This Plateau, often referred to as the ‘third pole’ and ‘roof of the world’, is home to the largest fresh water reserves outside north and south poles. It is the source of some of the Asia’s most important river systems including the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, Irrawady, Slaween, Mekong, Yangtze and Huang He. All these rivers are trans-boundary in nature, with the exception of Yangtze and Huang He.

In 2010, China completed the Zangmu Dam (510MW capacity) built on the upper reaches of Brahmaputra. Three more dams at Dagu (640 MW), Jiacha (320 MW) and Jeixu are at present under construction. The work on Zam hydropower station, which will be the largest dam on Brahmaputra, too commenced in 2015. The Chinese decision to build more and more dams on Yarlung/Brahmaputra and continued evasiveness on its long-term plans, the number and kind of dams it intends to build, has been an issue of major concern for India. China, on its part, insists that the dams are and will continue to be run-of-river projects, wherein water will be returned to the river after use. In building its dams, China has also polluted its rivers. The quality of water that flows downstream into India needs to be considered. The disruption of natural flood cycles of the river could also adversely affect the rich geo-environmental and bio-physical settings in India’s Northeast. These multifarious factors could also severely impinge on the economy of the region.


The Ganges Water Treaty has a limited ability to meet the current needs of both India and Bangladesh. In 1975, the Farakka Barrage was created by India to divert water from the Ganges river system. Bangladesh is a lower riparian country and relies heavily on the flow of the Ganges to meet its food and water demands; any change in the flow of the river significantly affects it. Given its geographical position, India has a strategic advantage over Bangladesh. Ninety-four per cent of Bangladesh’s surface water supply originates outside its borders. Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to upstream decisions, particularly Chinese and Indian dam construction and operation. While the barrage reduces salinity in Kolkata, the diversion of the Ganges has increased river salinity in Bangladesh.

As rice paddies are sensitive to salinity increases, this poses a threat to Bangladeshi food security. Decreased river flow effects the Bangladeshi environment, particularly the Sundarbans mangrove forest. Forest degeneration has caused Bangladesh to reduce its timber production and has created an economic loss for the country. Rising salinity levels also have a detrimental effect on Bangladesh’s potable drinking water. Given that increasing salinity has a detrimental effect on the Bangladeshi environment, economy and public health, this has the potential to increase tensions between the riparian neighbours. Given the importance of food and water security, and the adverse effects that Bangladesh has experienced as a result of the Farakka Barrage, it is possible (although unlikely) that relations between India and Bangladesh may weaken in the short-term. As the two become more water-scarce, and population pressures further impact water availability, conflict may accentuate in the absence of a concrete water-sharing arrangement.

Both India and Bangladesh are facing mounting pressure to secure some form of food and water security, particularly with demand-side pressures mounting. Bangladesh could improve the management of its water resources by dredging its rivers and watersheds and employing better water-management techniques. Bilateral co-operation might also be enhanced by developing early warning systems for floods and droughts. Alternative methods of co-operation must be employed to ensure that the interests of both countries are achieved while reducing the potential for conflict.


South Asian subcontinent, which is home to one-sixth of the world population, is one of the conflict-ridden regions in the world. The roots of conflicts among the countries of South Asia sub-continent are rooted in the soil of this region. Some problems have been traced which are at the base of conflicts. The water disputes in South Asian subcontinent deal with the complex orientation of the rivers of the region that cut across some countries in the region complemented by a tense and uncompromising geo-political situation amongst the fellow riparian countries brings out the strategic role played by water in the region.

Historically, the roots of water disputes among the South Asian subcontinent countries are in the British times. After the partition, the division and sharing rights of overflowing water between newly created nations engendered conflicts at political level which fortunately culminated in landmark agreements, treaties and memorandums of understanding for a peaceful solution such as the Indus Water Treaty, the Mahakali Water Treaty and the Ganges Water Treaty. After signing of these mutual agreements, the countries concerned maximized their benefits by way of harnessing the resources of the region. Considerable progress has been made in the field of water development and in maintaining relations. Though some critical debates have taken place on agreements by the active participation of regional organization and mutual understanding among shareholders, these issues could be addressed in the light of experience.