(Second related piece w/ more global perspective at end)
Thirsty South Asia's river rifts threaten "water wars"
By Nita Bhalla
Jul 23, 2012 4:51pm IST
KANZALWAN, India-Pakistan Line of Control (AlertNet) - As the silver
waters of the Kishanganga rush through this north Kashmir valley,
labourers are hard at work on a hydropower project that will dam the
river just before it flows across one of the world's most heavily
militarised borders into Pakistan.
The hum of excavators echoes through the pine-covered valley, clearing
masses of soil and boulders, while army trucks crawl through the steep
Himalayan mountain passes.
The 330-MW dam is a symbol of India's growing focus on hydropower but
also highlights how water is a growing source of tension with
downstream Pakistan, which depends on the snow-fed Himalayan rivers
for everything from drinking water to agriculture.
Islamabad has complained to an international court that the dam in the
Gurez valley, one of dozens planned by India, will affect river flows
and is illegal. The court has halted any permanent work on the river
for the moment, although India can still continue tunneling and other
In the years since their partition from British India in 1947, land
disputes have led the two nuclear-armed neighbours to two of their
three wars. Water could well be the next flashpoint.
"There is definitely potential for conflict based on water,
particularly if we are looking to the year 2050, when there could be
considerable water scarcity in India and Pakistan," says Michael
Kugelman, South Asia Associate at the Woodrow Wilson International
Center for Scholars in Washington.
"Populations will continue to grow. There will be more pressure on
supply. Factor in climate change and faster glacial melt ... That
means much more will be at stake. So you could have a perfect storm
which conceivably could be some sort of trigger."
It's not just South Asia -- water disputes are a global phenomenon,
sparked by growing populations, rapid urbanisation, increased
irrigation and a rising demand for alternative power such as
Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq quarrel over the waters of the Tigris and
Euphrates. The Jordan river divides Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the
West Bank. Ten African countries begrudgingly share the Nile.
In Southeast Asia, China and Laos are building dams over the mighty
Mekong, raising tensions with downstream nations.
A U.S. intelligence report in February warned fresh water supplies are
unlikely to keep up with global demand by 2040, increasing political
instability, hobbling economic growth and endangering world food
A "water war" is unlikely in the next decade, it said, but beyond that
rising demand and scarcities due to climate change and poor management
will increase the risk of conflict.
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That threat is possibly nowhere more apparent than in South Asia, home
to a fifth of humanity and rife with historical tensions, mistrust and
The region's three major river systems - the Indus, the Ganges and the
Brahmaputra - sustain India and Pakistan's breadbasket states and many
of their major cities including New Delhi and Islamabad, as well as
"South Asia is symbolic of what we are seeing in terms of water stress
and tensions across the world," says B.G. Verghese, author and analyst
at New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research.
The region is one of the world's most water-stressed, yet the
population is adding an extra 25 million people a year - South Asia's
per capita water availability has dropped by 70 percent since 1950,
says the Asian Development Bank.
The effect of climate change on glaciers and rainfall patterns may be
"Most of the water that is used in Pakistan comes from glacial melt or
the monsoon," says Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and coordinator
of the water programme at Lahore University of Management Sciences.
The dry months of June-July offer a snapshot of the extreme water
crisis in the region.
Hospitals in New Delhi this year cancelled surgeries because they had
no water to sterilise instruments, clean operating theatres or even
wash hands. Swanky malls selling luxury brands were forced to switch
off air conditioners and shut toilets.
In Pakistan, the port town of Gwadar ran out of water entirely,
forcing the government to send two naval water tankers. Some
government flats in the garrison city of Rawalpindi have not had water
for weeks, said the local press.
India, as both an upper and lower riparian nation, finds itself at the
centre of water disputes with its eastern and western downstream
neighbours -- Bangladesh and Pakistan -- which accuse New Delhi of
monopolising water flows.
To the north and northeast, India fears the same of upstream China,
with which it fought a brief border war in 1962. Beijing plans a
series of dams over the Tsangpo river, called the Brahmaputra as it
flows into eastern India.
For India, damming its Himalayan rivers is key to generating
electricity, as well as managing irrigation and flood control.
Hydropower is a critical part of India's energy security strategy and
New Delhi plans to use part of it to reach about 40 percent of people
who are currently off the grid.
A severe power shortage is hitting factory output and rolling outages
are routine, further stifling an economy which is growing at its
slowest in years.
India's plans have riled Bangladesh, which it helped gain freedom from
Pakistan in 1971. Relations cooled partly over the construction of the
Farakka Barrage (dam) on the Ganges River which Dhaka complained to
the United Nations about in 1976. The issue remains a sore point even
More recently, Bangladesh has opposed India's plans to dam the Teesta
and Barak rivers in its remote northeast.
But India's hydropower plans are most worrying for Pakistan.
Water has long been a source of stress between the two countries. The
line that divided them in 1947 also cleaved the province of Punjab,
literally the land of five rivers - the Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab and
Jhelum, all tributaries of the Indus - breaking up millenniums-old
India's latest hydro plans have fanned new tensions.
"Pakistan is extremely worried that India is planning to build a whole
sequence of projects on both the Chenab and Jhelum rivers ... and the
extent to which India then becomes capable of controlling water
flows," says Feisal Naqvi, a lawyer who works on water issues.
In recent years, political rhetoric over water has been on the rise in
Islamabad, and militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba have sought
to use the issue to whip up anti-India sentiments - accusing New Delhi
of "stealing water".
India brushes off such fears as paranoia and argues the dams won't
consume or store water but just delay flows, in line with a 1960
treaty that governs the sharing of Indus waters between the two
SINK OR SWIM
South Asia's water woes may have little to do with cross-border
disputes, however. Shortages appear to be rooted in wasteful and
inefficient water management practices, with India and Pakistan the
worst culprits, experts say.
"All these countries are badly managing their water resources, yet
they are experts in blaming other countries outside," says Sundeep
Waslekar, president of Strategic Foresight Group, a Mumbai-based think-
"It would be more constructive if they looked at what they are doing
at home, than across their borders."
Their water infrastructure systems, such as canals and pipes used to
irrigate farm lands, are falling apart from neglect. Millions of
gallons of water are lost to leakages every day.
The strain on groundwater is the most disturbing. In India, more than
60 percent of irrigated agriculture and 85 percent of drinking water
depend on it, says the World Bank. Yet in 20 years, most of its
aquifers will be in a critical condition.
Countries must improve water management, say experts, and share
information such as river flows as well as joint ventures on dam
projects such as those India is doing with Bhutan.
"Populations are growing, demand is increasing, climate change is
taking its toll and we are getting into deeper and deeper waters,"
says Verghese, author of 'Waters of Hope: Himalayan-Ganga cooperation
for a billion people'.
"You can't wait and watch. You have to get savvy and do something
about it. Why get locked into rhetoric? We need to cooperate. Unless
you learn to swim, you are dead."
(This story is part of a special multimedia report on water produced
by AlertNet, a global humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters
Foundation. Visit water.trust.org)
(Additional reporting by Rebecca Conway and Qasim Nauman in Islamabad
and Sheikh Mustaq in Srinagar; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and
FACTBOX-Regions where water disputes are fuelling tensions
Jul 23, 2012
July 23 (AlertNet) - Disputes over water are common around the world,
exacerbated by climate change, growing populations, rapid
urbanisation, increased irrigation and a rising demand for alternative
energy sources such as hydroelectricity.
Following are a few of the regions where competition for water from
major rivers systems is fuelling tension.
India is home to three major river systems -- the Ganges, Brahmaputra
and the Indus -- which support 700 million people. As an upstream
nation, it controls water flows to Bangladesh to the east and Pakistan
to the west. The Indus supplies some 80 percent of Pakistan's
India and Pakistan are both building hydropower dams in disputed
Kashmir along Kishanganga river. Pakistan fears India's dams will
disrupt water flows.
India, for its part, is concerned that China is building dams along
the Tsangpo river, which runs into India as the Brahmaputra.
Central Asia is one of the world's driest places, where, thanks to 70
years of Soviet planning, growing thirsty crops such as cotton and
grain remain the main source of income for most people.
Disputes over water use from the Syr Daria and Amu Daria rivers have
increased since independence in 1991. Problems are compounded by
rising nationalism and lack of progress on a regional approach to
replace Soviet-era systems of water management.
Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan need more water for growing
populations and farming, while economically weaker Kyrgyzstan and
Tajikistan want more control for hydropower and irrigation.
Afghanistan, linked to Central Asia by the Amu Daria, is claiming its
own share of the water.
The countries of the Nile basin are Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan,
Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo,
Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania.
Egypt and Sudan control more than 90 percent of the Nile's waters due
to colonial-era and other treaties but others in the basin want a
Demand for irrigation has risen, with millions of hectares leased for
large-scale farming. Dams have complicated access to water.
Water needs are expected to rise as the Nile basin population is
projected to reach 654 million by 2030, up from 372 million in 2005,
according to UN estimates.
TIGRIS-EUPHRATES RIVER SYSTEM
The Tigris-Euphrates basin is mainly shared by Turkey, Syria and Iraq,
with many Tigris tributaries originating in Iran.
Iraq, struggling with water shortages due to aridity and years of
drought, says hydroelectric dams and irrigation in Turkey, Iran and
Syria have reduced the water flow in both rivers.
Increasing desertification, especially in Iraq, is compounding
problems. A large amount of Euphrates' waters evaporate due to extreme
heat. Contamination from pesticides, discharge of untreated sewage and
excess salinity due to low water levels are all common.
Iraq, Syria and Iran want more equitable access and control from
Turkey, where almost 98 percent of Euphrates waters originate. Despite
some cooperation on common management, a final agreement has yet to be
JORDAN RIVER BASIN
The river basin is highly stressed due to aridity in Jordan, Israel
and Palestinian Territories.
All three discharge untreated or poorly treated sewage. The Mountain
Aquifer - a key fresh water source for West Bank Palestinians and
major Israeli cities - is threatened by decades of over-exploitation
and groundwater pollution.
Despite efforts to cooperate, agreements to share water resources are
complicated by the long-stalled Middle East peace process. Israel
dominates the Palestinian water economy.
MEKONG RIVER BASIN
Most Mekong countries, especially China, have been planning and
building hydropower dams since the late 1980s.
Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam argue that China diverts or
stores more than its fair share of water due to dam-building on the
There is growing concern about serious environmental damage to
agriculture, fisheries and food security for some 60 million people
due to plans by Laos and Cambodia to build more than 10 dams along the
Despite cooperation efforts by Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam
through the Mekong River Commission, national interests are getting in
the way of joint river management.
Sources: Reuters, AlertNet, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies,
Brookings Institute, International Crisis Group, Nile Basin Research
Programme, GRAIN, UNDP
(This factbox is part of a special multimedia report on water produced
by AlertNet, a global humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters
Foundation. Visit water.trust.org) (Reporting by Astrid Zweynert;
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)
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