Politics worsens South Asia’s water crisis

Ashok Swain 17759dbf13f author

The Joe Biden administration’s White House Action Plan on Global Water Security says water stress in South Asia creates challenges for agriculture, energy production and access to clean water and sanitation. Pakistan recently gained global attention due to a massive flood, but it also faces a severe water crisis, ranking 14th out of 17 countries with extremely high water risk.

The largest country in the region, India, has 18% of the world’s population but about 4% of its freshwater resources. The Indian government policy think tank Niti Ayog’s 2018 report showed that 600 million Indians face high or extreme water stress and 200,000 die each year due to lack of clean water.

By the end of this decade, India’s water demand is expected to be twice the available supply. In the last week of April, India released its first census report on the country’s water bodies. While reporting that most water bodies are privately owned, many of which have become unusable, the census blames the country’s growing water shortages on high population growth and urbanization.

Population and water scarcity

The population is certainly growing in India and South Asia. India has already overtaken China and South Asia has become home to a quarter of the world’s population. Like the rest of the developing world, South Asia is also experiencing urbanization, not always due to economic growth.

However, blaming population growth for increased water scarcity is an easy and lazy escape route for political leadership instead of taking responsibility for it. Domestic freshwater availability per capita in South Asia is still the same as in South Korea. However, there is a wide variation in water availability among countries in the South Asian region.

Despite the regular fear, India still has more than 1,000 cubic meters of water availability per capita. However, Bhutan has per capita freshwater above 100,000 cubic meters, Nepal almost 7,000 cubic meters, Bangladesh about 634 cubic meters and Pakistan 246 cubic meters. Therefore, instead of blaming the growing water scarcity on the growing population, it would be appropriate to explain how South Asia has not made efficient use of water and how it lacks a cooperative mindset to make the best of it. possible use of shared water.

Not only have countries in the region failed to cooperate with their shared water, but several states or provinces within these countries are also involved in long-standing water disputes.

If the economy of a region is mainly agricultural, the need for water is greater. More than 90 percent of South Asia’s water is used for agriculture. It is around 85% in India, and for countries with high water insecurity such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, it is around 95%. When water is used for agriculture, it mostly evaporates and only a small amount returns to the water system for reuse, unlike water used for industrial and municipal uses. Therefore, to make the best possible use of available water, an agricultural country should conserve and recycle water for irrigation.

In South Asia, the political leadership rarely dares to take decisive and practical steps for water conservation. Farmers are seen as vote banks, not primary consumers of water. Therefore, the water used for irrigation is very poorly regulated and inefficient. The system of transporting water from rivers to agricultural land is primitive and, in most cases, only a quarter of the water taken from the source reaches its destinations. Irrigation canals in South Asia are open and prone to leaks, and countries have yet to move towards transporting water through concrete pipes.

Rapidly depleting water table

South Asia accounts for 40% of total groundwater abstraction globally and uses water mainly for agriculture. Without effective governance, South Asia is also witnessing groundwater over-exploitation and the water table depleting faster than the social and economic optimum.

In addition to effectively regulating groundwater uses, South Asian countries should also focus on using recycled water for irrigation. A country like Israel recycles 90% of its wastewater and 85% of the recycled water is used for agriculture. Water recycling is not only cost effective and provides a reliable water supply, but will also make South Asia less water insecure.

The other reason for increasing water scarcity in South Asia is the lack of cooperation between countries and states or provinces. Almost all of South Asia depends on the supply of fresh water from transboundary rivers. Despite the high geographical interdependence, South Asian politics has not been conducive to the creation of effective cooperation for the best possible use of shared water resources.

India has an agreement to share the Indus River with Pakistan and another agreement with Bangladesh to share the Ganges River. These two agreements are mainly to divide the water of these rivers and have no mechanism to make the use of water more effective and beneficial.

Many other regional transboundary rivers have no bilateral agreement and have been subjected to unilateral exploitation. Not only have countries in the region failed to cooperate with their shared water, but several states or provinces within these countries are also involved in long-standing water disputes.

Climate change has worsened the water crisis in South Asia, but this has not persuaded political leaders to take the necessary steps to use water efficiently and refrain from using water as political tool

Ashok Swain


Ashok Swain is Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.

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