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We need to “democratize” the water debate and take charge. Our region seems to have abdicated the water debate to war mongers. This in turn has affected our focus on impending water problems. Worse, is the political abdication of the issue to bureaucracies and courts.

Photo Source: The Express Tribune

D. Suba Chandran
Professor
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore

During the recent weeks, there have been numerous commentaries and talk shows on sharing of the Indus waters. So much space and time was spent in social, print and electronic media to discuss the Indo-Pak water “conflicts” and their fallouts. While issues relating to sharing the Indus and tributaries are undoubtedly important, let our obsessive focus on the Indus Waters Treaty not undermine some of the equally important water issues and problems facing South Asia.

Sharing of waters at the international level between Afghanistan and Pakistan, India and Pakistan, Nepal and India, Bangladesh and India, and China and India have subsumed some of the other important issues that the region will be facing in the near future. Perhaps, we are already facing it now in some areas. We need to invest more time, funds, efforts and capacities in understanding water from a multi-disciplinary perspective, than focussing narrowly on “sharing the rivers” and “securitizing” it in terms of focussing on “Water Wars” debate.

One of the most important issues that South Asia is likely to face in the next few years is water scarcity. Barring perhaps Nepal and Bhutan, there are enough indicators backed by statistics at the national and international levels about the impending disaster. We don’t need PhDs and rocket science to understand the basic issue – substantial increase in population. South Asia, despite criticism has relatively better health facilities leading to declining death rates, and expanding life expectancy. This would mean that the nature has to provide water more human beings in South Asia (approximately 1650 million), than it has ever been in the history. When the livestock are added to the above, then one could understand the South Asian explosion. Any reasonable, even conservative estimate for the next twenty years would reveal the extent of the problem. 

An added point to the above debate, in the recent years is the emphasis on “quality” of the water, and not just its availability. If the focus on access to “clean water” has to be taken into account, then the above calculations will become even more alarming in terms of availability.

Second important water issue that goes unnoticed in the larger “water wars” debate is the rapid urbanization process in South Asia. Again in historical terms, never before our population lived in cities as much as we do now. On the one hand towns are metamorphosing into cities; on the other, there is a deliberate strategy to build satellites cities around the main centers. And take a look at our cities and their population: Delhi and Karachi have a population of 23 plus millions each, almost the total population of Australia. Population of the entire Scandinavian countries put together is only around 26 million. Mumbai, Kolkata and Dhaka have approximately a population of 15 million plus each; almost the twice the population of Austria. Lahore, Chennai and Bangalore have a population of around 10 million each - roughly the population of Sweden. Eight cities of South Asia alone will account for 120 million plus population, which is more than the total population of Germany (80 mn) and Turkey (78 mn) and almost the double of France (66 mn) and UK (65 mn).

We are happy and even proud of rapid urbanization in South Asia; but, from a water perspective – we have to be worried about from two counts. Where we will find the water that would support the cities? This is not only about feeding the population, but also finding adequate water to service the entire urbanization process – from construction to cleaning. Second, where will this water come from and at what cost? Water for cities like Bangalore and Chennai come from far, straining the already existing water agreements over rivers. 

Our cities are likely to appropriate more water, at the cost of spending the same on our agriculture. Since the politics and politicking take place mainly in the cities, the farmers and their requirements are either likely to get silenced, or politicized in the process. Added to the above appropriation is the presence of media in the cities – social, print and electronic – totally diverting the water debate into a different direction. 

Third problem over water would stem from the above – “securitization” of water debate, by those actors who are sitting in their air conditioned offices, abusing water (from their daily shaves to car wash) but talking about water wars. These are scaremongers, who don’t have to walk even a meter to get water (when compared to those who walk miles searching for water whether in Balochistan or in Rajasthan), or wait in a queue to fill a pot, but have the money to buy – either the bottled water for drinking, or tanker water for daily use. The upper class salons and spa centers will even advice to rinse the scalp with mineral water to avoid hair fall. Compare it with the stories of “water wives” in Maharashtra in India, where men marry more than one woman, primarily to ensure adequate water for daily use; the primary objective of these water wives is to fetch water. If the local society silently accepts and relegates our best halves just to fetch water, there is a serious sociological problem. 

We need to “democratize” the water debate and take charge. Our region seems to have abdicated the water debate to war mongers. This in turn has affected our focus on impending water problems. Worse, is the political abdication of the issue to bureaucracies and courts. Political leaders and community leaders are better suited to discuss the problems of water; instead, we have entrusted this crucial issue to our bureaucracies filled with engineers. So is our idea of taking the issue to courts, expecting our lawyers and judges would understand and deliver justice. Unfortunately, despite their efforts and experience, these are people who could talk in terms of numbers – height of the dams and amount of water to be released. Sharing of water is humanitarian issue that cannot be quantified and talked in terms of cusecs and cubic meters. Community and political leaders will have to take charge and understand that it is matter of life and death, and not just adhering to treaties and numbers. 

Fourth issue is related to our institutions of water governance – for example - IRSA, WAPDA and numerous Water Tribunals of India. Are they our best way forward to understand and appreciate the water problems? Or, should we take a basin approach for each of our rivers, and bring the community in? There could be a twin approach with the above two segments, complementing each other in their work. The “spirit” of cooperation in addressing water problems through the second approach will work well, especially when the “letter” approach of the former get caught in politics and problems of governance leading to an inexplicable delay.

Fifth, we will have to look into water availability, scarcity and its quality both for human and wildlife, and the need to sustain their growth. A region that believes in “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” – that the world is one family, cannot look at water needs from the perspectives of only the human beings; it should include people, wild life and plant life as well.

Finally, our investment in water studies both at the national and regional levels need to be augmented. From Amazon to Jordan to Mekong, there is so much we could learn in terms of effective use of existing water. We need to invest in alternative measures – from dry land farming to drip irrigation and make better use of our crop patterns. All the above need investment, sustained research and cross-pollination across the region. Equally important is also to understand issues of climate change; they have to be studied, predicted and forecasted in terms of what they would mean from a water perspective. 

We need more institutions, people and reports from a multi-disciplinary perspective, supported by a regional dialogue cutting across national boundaries. And this focus cannot be only on human beings; it has to include our wildlife and flora as well. There is so much we need to study, learn and forecast about water. Let the “water war” debate not derail what our primary focus should be.
 
The above comment was published originally in the Daily Times. 

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