Event ReportsPublished on Aug 06, 2010
Outlining the need for a concerted effort to deal with water challenges in South Asia, experts at a roundtable suggested that there was a strong reason to create collaborative rather than competitive frameworks.
Experts for collaborative approach to deal with water challenges in South Asia

Outlining the need for a concerted effort to deal with one of the most critical challenges staring at an already water-scarce South Asian region, Suresh Prabhu, Member of Parliament and former Union Minister and former Chairman of the Task Force on Interlinking of Rivers for the Government of India said that with such commonality of river and riparian systems from the same sources, there was a strong reason to create collaborative rather than competitive frameworks within the South Asian region. Despite obvious political obstacles, ordinary people, he said, really wanted to work together to solve the water problem irrespective of national boundaries. Mr. Prabhu, who has dealt with water as a Union Minister of Power and, later of, Environment, said the world as a whole faced serious challenges concerning water and that very few countries like those in Latin America were blessed with excess water resources.

Making a presentation at a round-table discussion on Water Security in South Asia: Building Trust for Mutual Cooperation organised by Observer Research Foundation and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Germany, on June 8, 2010, Suresh Prabhu said there was a need to define South Asia in the context of water; Thus, China, which was not geographically part of South Asia, would find itself included in the region whereas Sri Lanka would not.. In many ways, water is a common resource for the countries in the region. The Chinese with single largest hydroelectric potential in the world, the bulk of transportation in Bangladesh relying on water ways, a substantial part of Bhutan's GDP coming from royalty from power sold to India, Pakistan's domestic water sharing issues becoming political problems which in turn create diplomatic issues were examples of how various countries had considerable stake in water resources. The issue of water must therefore be pursued with a sense of greater urgency.

During the discussions that followed, it was mentioned that solutions to flooding in Bangladesh probably lay in Nepal. But, this alone would not prevent floods in Bangladesh. It was said that the idea was to cap the peak flooding by storing the excess water, to augment and raise low flows. Initial results of a recently concluded study suggested that Himalayan valleys were so steep that any kind of storage system to prevent floods seemed improbable. To a question whether the Nepalese would agree to build such storages, it was said that the Nepalese had a feeling of coming out worse from negotiating agreements and thus would be reluctant. The question of whether Nepal would agree to the storages was still doubtful and whether an outreach programme would help. It was pointed out that the fact that India, Bangladesh and Nepal had recently agreed to talk on water issues was a positive development.

Another concept which was proposed during the discussions was the concept of sub regional cooperation. It was argued that an Eastern sub region of SAARC comprising Bangladesh, Indian ,Bhutan and Nepal could become a natural composite sub region, with environment and ecology dictating  collaboration on water. Likewise, the north western sub region-with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan—and the southern sub region comprising India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Seychelles could offer a more conciliatory framework for discussions.

Speaking on the occasion, Bangladesh High Commissioner to India Tariq Ahmed Karim highlighted the worsening water situation in the region. He said the present century could be a century of water wars rather than cooperation and peace. He said a river had a life form of its own and in order to tame a river, it must be tamed from head to mouth and taming it in segments would not work. Unfortunately the present agreements, he said, could only allow us to tame the river in segments which only circumvented the objectives and thus defeated the purpose. He said the countries in the region were hostage to the Partition syndrome and were trapped in debates over ownership, possession and rights. Lamenting the lack of political collaboration, he said being the lowest riparian Bangladesh had the least chance to ensure a solution to the problem. He said the supplier-driven policies had been detrimental to the water situation, citing tube well usage in Bangladesh leading to reduction in ground water table and arsenic poisoning and instability of lower layers of soils causing buildings to collapse. He also spoke at some length on augmentation as opposed to sharing. Saline water reconversion into fresh water was not economically feasible, he said.

Responding to some of the points highlighted during the speech, various discussants highlighted the inseparable nature of the agriculture-water link, it was said the relationship determined the sustainability of the social fabric of the nation. The region had a large agriculture-dependent population with livelihood and employment issues being closely linked to water. The spin-off effect of agriculture on other sectors was substantial. The demand for water for agriculture was going to increase with availability decreasing. Citing that water cycle enforced a strong correlation between surface water and ground water, it was pointed out that most of the discussions on water centred on surface water whereas about 2/3rd of the irrigation for agriculture used ground water. One of the discussants pointed out that the ground water situation in India and elsewhere was as acute as that of surface water and yet there was no law worth its name to deal with ground water. Sharing experiences of water sharing and best practices, getting farmers together for benefit sharing were cited as steps to make sure that the information and knowledge went to the grassroots and the actual users instead of it being restricted to elitist gatherings. It was said that people at the grassroots level were not averse to work together on the question of water but, given the historical negative perceptions among them, there was a need to initiate confidence building measures to create the groundwork for such cooperation.

One of the speakers struck a note of caution and said water sharing issues could cause political upheaval leading inevitably to conflicts. Such an eventuality becomes more critical when three countries in the region, with varying degrees of water crisis, were nuclear weapon states.

A British expert on climate change, Clare Shakya, spoke on the impact of climate change on water availability in the region. Shakya, who has worked extensively in South Asia, said the region was a climate change hot-spot. She said the glacier-melting scenario could be very hard to mitigate; precipitation could change, sea water intrusion could cause increase in soil acidity, flora could be destroyed, there could be a large displacement of population and that worst-case scenario needed to be considered. It was said that one of the key problems was a concentrated and complex pattern of water distribution. Developing countries also happen to have very high variability in rainfall which was unfortunate as economic development in a way helped to cope with the variability. Countries like U.K and U.S continued to enjoy lesser variability as compared to the South Asian nations. Massive overexploitation of ground water was also highlighted citing NASA’s map showing acute water stress in areas of north-western India.

It was, however, concluded that there were new threats, but also opportunity for new solutions and that there was an interdisciplinary inter-sectoral approach from water as a problem to water as an opportunity. Augmentation would come automatically once collaboration started.

The issue of storage was discussed at length. It was pointed out that in India there were only 15 actual days of water availability to be used and stored for the next 350 days. Natural storages were not sufficient. Though storage was not the core problem, it was no less important in the management of water in areas of water stress. There was a need to change mindsets. Communities could be investors and shareholders and get returns from the storage as they would get electricity, jobs and incomes. Ecological considerations should be kept in mind while building storage facilities, it was pointed out. The overall impact of water storages on economic growth would depend on the nature of water uses, the effectiveness of the institutional mechanism for water allocation, and policy regimes. It was said that local groundwater development and water harvesting were mooted as alternatives to creating large storages. However, the basins that were facing problems of environmental water scarcity and degradation in the world due to large water projects had their river-flows used up for various consumptive needs. Most of these regions had problems of groundwater overuse. It was summed up that water development was a pre-requisite to improving the access to and use of water. The amount of storage that needed to be created to improve access to and use of water depends on the type of climatic conditions.

Dr. Dinesh Kumar, Executive Director, Institute of Resource Analysis and Policy (IRAP), explained the empirical basis for the arguments being made globally. He said there was renewed interest globally on how water insecurity threatened human development and economic growth .He said that international development debate was heavily polarised with some believing that policy reforms in the water sector would be crucial for bringing about progress in human development and others believing that economic growth itself would help solve many of the water problems. He said the region ranged the lowest in terms of Human Development Indices in the world and that there decreasing per capita availability of water. Illustrating the direct relation of water with Human Development Indices, he said 2/3rd of diseases in India were water borne and that education and health, among others, would be affected by water.

He discussed the water poverty index at length. He said to understand the water situation in a country a new index called Sustainable Water Use Index (SWUI) was derived from the Water Poverty Index to assess crucial attributes like access to water for various uses; level of use of water in different sectors; condition of the water environment; and technological and institutional capacities in water sector. Such an assessment analysed the nature of linkage between water situation of a country and its economic growth besides understanding the role of large water storages in boosting economic growth and changing human development indicators of countries which fell in hot and arid, tropical climates.

The three propositions Dr Kumar presented were that improving the water situation through investments in water infrastructure, institutions and policies would help ensure economic growth through the human development route. Second, nations could achieve reasonable progress in human development even at low levels of economic growth, through investment in water infrastructure, and welfare policies. And third, countries in tropical and arid climates have to invest in large water storages to support economic prosperity. It was hypothesised that improved water situation supported economic growth through the human development route and that arid tropical countries could support their economic growth through enhancing per capita reservoir storage that ensured water security for social advancements.

Worldwide, experiences showed that improved water situation led to better human health and environmental sanitation, food security and nutrition, livelihoods, and greater access to education for the poor. Good irrigation facilities have direct impact on rural poverty; food security, livelihoods and nutrition, with positive effects on productive workforce. Domestic water security had positive effects on health, environmental sanitation, with spin off effects on livelihoods and nutrition, school drop-out rates and productive workforce. It was also mentioned that improved water situation reduced the chances of impoverishment and infant mortality. Hence improvement in water situation would improve HDI, as it captured three spheres of human development. Analysis of data from 145 countries showed that water security improved progress in human development. Further analysis showed that Water security improved economic conditions of nations as well.

The question of whether water security or economic growth should be priority was addressed. It was concluded from regressive analysis of obtained data that improved Human development Indices had a stronger relationship with water security rather than with economic growth hence it was concluded that water security was priority. Economically poor countries, which showed very poor indicators of human development, should start investing in building water infrastructure, create institutions and introduce policy reforms that could lead to improved water situation vis-à-vis access to and use of water, water environment and institutional capabilities. Only such actions could support progress in human development, and sustain economic growth through poverty reduction, ensuring food security, improving livelihoods, besides domestic water security. But, a pre-requisite for hot and arid tropical countries was that they invest in large water resource systems to raise the per capita storage.


< class="heading11verdana">•  Water, Human Development and Economic Growth: Some International
by M. Dinesh Kumar

< class="heading11verdana">•  South Asia to reimagine water management by Ms. Clare Shakya

The report has been prepared by Akhilesh Variar, Research Intern

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