Water security in South Asia and China

Image credit: lubpak.net

by Sabena Siddiqi 26 April 2019

Throughout history, hydro-politics has remained a significant factor in geopolitics as water is life. Essential for economic growth, sustainable development and food and energy security, water reserves have started depleting since the turn of the new century and climate changes are making matters worse.

 According to the World Economic Forum risk survey , only 60% of global water requirements will be met by existing sources by 2030 and water will become one of the critical drivers for peace and stability. Assessing that a lack of co-operation could result in wars, World Bank executive Ismail Serageldin has observed that, “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water”.

And one of the regions with high risks of conflict over water is South Asia.

With a population of nearly 1.6 billion between them, South Asian countries India and Pakistan often have frictions over water-sharing. Ever since the partition of the sub-continent in 1947, Indo-Pak rivalry has dominated South Asian politics. As the headwaters are in Indian territory, minor water feuds happened even in 1948. Finally, the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) was signed in 1960, this agreement miraculously survived and helped contain the water issues between them.

Materializing after 10-year negotiations by the World Bank, the IWT was inked at a time when both India and Pakistan were in dire need of financial support. Providing over $1 billion to both countries in the form of the Indus Basin Development Fund in 1960, the World Bank cemented this breakthrough. Over the decades, three major wars took place and water matters were considered as national security issues. As a result, a negligible exchange of water and climate data took place.

Any contravention of IWT clauses “can be taken as an act of war,” and chances of a water war are quite real since India has been building dams and there is a deficit of mutual trust. Bound to provide lower riparian Pakistan unrestricted use of waters flowing down into its territory, India cannot store water, especially with movable gates.

Projects such as the Kishanganga, Wullar, Baglihar etc on the Indian side increase the likelihood of water wars between the two nuclear powers. Unfortunately, water and climate matters were not discussed effectively even at regional forums like the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Not only that, no formal dialogue has taken place between New Delhi and Islamabad since the last SAARC Summit got cancelled in 2017.

In this combustible scenario, the redeeming factor has been China which helped ease the deadlock between the two South Asian powers in 2016. When trouble brewed between New Delhi and Islamabad over water-sharing, Beijing blocked a tributary of the Brahmaputra River in Tibet. Though this move was in connection with the construction of Lalho, a Chinese hydroelectric project initiated in 2014, the timing greatly helped in containing the Indo-Pak water feud. In this way, China has leverage over both the lower riparian countries.

 Flowing into Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and later into Bangladesh, the Brahmaputra originates in China’s Tibet. Since a while, New Delhi is worried about Chinese dam construction on rivers originating in China and flowing down into the sub-continent. Raising the issue last year at the 5th India-China strategic dialogue, India expressed its reservations over the new water infrastructure.

Denying plans to divert rivers originating from its territory, Wang Dehua, a hydrological expert from the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, had said that Beijing had always sought to be a good neighbor and that, “The more dams that are built, the more downstream countries benefit.”

Nevertheless, with its extensive network of hydropower dams tapping the sources of 10 major rivers flowing into 11 countries, China has clout and it has the control on ‘Asia’s water tap.’ In recent years, Beijing has completed three dams on the source of India’s Brahmaputra which originates in China as the Yarlung Zangbo.

Representing a third of the global population together, India and China both have access only to a tenth of the world water reserves and have no water-sharing system. In the long-term perspective, water issues have become a bigger threat in South Asia than long-standing territorial disputes like Tibet or Kashmir. Having no water treaty with Beijing, India is much more likely to face such a conflict with China than with Pakistan.

Beijing only provides New Delhi water flow charts as per an Expert Level Mechanism (ELM) settled between both the powers in 2013. Considering China’s sensitivity over Tibet, there seem to be poor chances of any settlement. All three countries are facing looming water shortages and China already has a shortfall of usable water resources by 2.3 % domestically.

Projected to become “water-stressed” by 2025 and “water-scarce” by 2050, 22 of 32 main Indian cities face a daily water deficit while Pakistan’s largest city Karachi has an ongoing water problem it has not been able to resolve. Any interruption in water supply can also be a major crisis for Pakistan as according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) “Pakistan’s storage capacity is limited to a 30-day supply, well below the recommended 1,000 days for countries with a similar climate.”

In recent years, Pakistan and China have also become partners in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative and happen to be working together on hydroelectric projects right now. Hypothetically, any water blockade against Pakistan could result in a similar cessation of water supplies from Chinese headwaters for India.

Therefore, New Delhi and Beijing should settle for a water management mechanism that suits them both on an urgent footing while the IWT continues between India and Pakistan. Having survived major wars between India and Pakistan, the treaty remains an exemplary bilateral water mechanism. Any attempts to revoke it should be prevented as water wars do not guarantee a water supply in the long term. Continuing with the IWT not only helps India set a good example for China as a responsible upstream riparian, it can set the way for more hydrological co-operation and prevent any tri-party water conflict.


  1. Ms Sabena please read my article ‘Flash Points of River Water Wars’ – South Asia Journal
    by Narindra Nath Bhatia 11 February 2019. Wars are as old as mankind. Some of the other races, societies, classes, religions, economic, trade and states for known or unknown reasons or grievances have fought wars.

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