Countries might wage wars over oil but the most valuable resource in the world is water. It’s the new oil, the colourless gold that’s at a premium because it is becoming scarce.
Today’s nightmare is that tomorrow the glass will be empty because water supplies are fast evaporating on account of population pressures, urbanization and now, climate change. No country is likely to be left untouched, but the great thirst will be felt the most in the region that has the world’s two most populous countries — India and China.
A new study says the situation will be the bleakest in the basins of major Himalayan rivers, ie our own backyards. The study by the Strategic Foresight Group (SFG), Mumbai is titled ‘The Himalayan Challenge’ and frighteningly predicts that “in the next 20 years, the four countries in the Himalayan sub-region (India, Nepal, China, Bangladesh) will face the depletion of almost 275 billion cubic metres of annual renewable water. For comparison, this is more than the total amount of water available in...Nepal at present.”
But why must this region run dry? It is fed by major rivers such as the Yangtze, Indus, Ganges and the Brahmaputra. But the problem is all of them originate in the Tibetan Plateau and will be badly affected by melting glaciers. The report says it may all end very badly because a water deficit will have a cumulative, destructive effect on agricultural production, power generation, food availability and livelihood, forcing all four countries in the sub-region to try and secure water resources. They may even look beyond their borders, leading to geo-political tension.
The point here is interesting. There are global forums that deliberate on oil prices and availability, but disputes over water are generally handled regionally or bilaterally. Sundeep Waslekar, executive director of the SFG laments the basic truth that “there are no global treaties on water. Only 17 nations (which don’t include the four aforementioned) have signed the UN convention on non-navigational uses of international water courses, 1997 (which provides a mechanism to deal with trans-border waters).”
India has bilateral agreements on water. Treaties with Nepal and Bangladesh cover development of the Mahakali river and sharing the waters of the Ganga. But New Delhi has nothing like that with Beijing. If today’s legal and policy architecture were used to deal with any future water dispute, India and China would have nothing more to look to than a couple of MoUs on sharing flood-season hydrological data on the Yarlong Tsangpo/Brahmaputra and the Sutlej/Langquin Zangbu rivers. Former water secretary Ramaswamy Iyer agrees that there is a chasm where there should be formal agreement. Until some years ago, water did not even figure in talks between India and China, he points out.
Retired Colonel P K Gautam, research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, adds that “if China builds a dam on the Brahmaputra now, and we complain about lesser water flows later, it could say that India doesn’t have any projects in the northeast.”
Add to this the current problem of massive water shortages in both countries. This could force both India and China to “securitize” water sources and lead to tension. India is already worried about China’s reported plans to construct a massive 40,000 MW dam at the point where the Brahmaputra takes a U-bend to enter India. Delhi is also concerned about Beijing planning to divert Brahmaputra waters towards China’s arid north.
But B G Verghese, visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research, says fears about the diversion of water are “highly exaggerated” because the difficult terrain makes it all but impossible to do this.
Waslekar agrees, but says that’s a reprieve that will only last 15 years at the most. He says it could be a window of opportunity, especially as “China’s attitude has changed a little bit, especially towards the Mekong river basin on which it had earlier refused to share data with other affected nations. ... it is showing some kind of openness.” So should India try and make joint plans with China for hydropower development and setting up stations in glacial areas to monitor their melting?
Yes, says Gautam. “India should negotiate with China. We need data on the quantum of water flow in the Brahmaputra, on the melting of glaciers.”
The SFG report suggests creating a new regional forum, say a Himalayan rivers commission, to better manage the looming water problem. But like much else, that’s difficult in a region dominated by the trust deficit between countries. The key lies in doing something before the rivers run dry and the taps as well.