By: Our Correspondent

india-water
Water is destined to be a determining factor in the regional
conflicts of South Asia in the years to come, particularly between
India and Pakistan. Unquestionably one of the most crucial of
environmental resources, this essential ingredient for human life is
growing so scarce in some areas globally that if current trends
continue, two-thirds of humanity will suffer "moderate to severe
water stress" within 30 years, according to a comprehensive
assessment of freshwater resources by the United Nations.

Nowhere is this truer, however, than in the parched regions of India,
Pakistan and Bangladesh, where overpopulation, poverty and scarce
resources make the competition more acute. In a remarkably
even-handed paper published in a recent issue of the Journal of
International Affairs, Saleem H. Ali, associate professor of
Environmental Policy and Planning, at the Rubenstein School of
Environment and Natural Resources of the University of Vermont in the
US, identifies the lack of environmental cooperation in bilateral and
multilateral relations as the root cause of a potential conflict
"between two nuclear neighbours, India and Pakistan, predicated
in a history of religious rivalries and post-colonial demarcation."

The Pakistani scholar urges India and Pakistan to put aside their
mutual distrust to reconfigure the riparian issues for lasting piece
in the region, their inveterate, decades-old antagonism
notwithstanding, and concentrate on a matter of equal importance to
their survival of each country. Ali praises the World Bank’s
“instrumental role in its negotiation during the height of the
Cold War to bring the two countries to the negotiating table with the
Indus Water Treaty after bilateral negotiations failed. The outcome
of this historic treaty was the unrestricted use by India of the
three eastern rivers, the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas and complete control
of the three western rivers, the Jhelum, Chenab and Indus by
Pakistan.

The rivers all have their origin in the bitterly disputed region of
Kashmir. And thus, theoretically whoever controls Kashmir controls
the rivers, a fact conveniently forgotten for years as Pakistan and
India tested each other’s mettle in a series of wars. The
Pakistani Prime Minister, Hussain Suhrwardy, in 1958 pointed to the
geographical importance of Kashmir when he emphasized the importance
of the six rivers of the Indus Basin.

"Most of them rise in Kashmir. One of the reasons why,
therefore, that Kashmir is so important for us is this water, these
waters which irrigate our lands," Suhrwardy said at the time. He
proved himself a prophet. The only other international statesman who
thought along the same lines was the British Premier, Anthony Eden,
who believed that the resolution of the water dispute would reduce
the tension over Kashmir, hence the Indus Water Treaty.

India denied the link between Kashmir and the water issue, however, a
denial that has contributed to the growing resentment between the two
countries, and an amazing one given reality. The head of the Indus
flows through the valley corridor that connects Indian and
Pakistani-held Kashmir.

Further south India has been engaged in a running dispute with
Bangladesh over the Farakka Barrage over the River Ganges since 1973.
This project involved a dam built on the Ganges in West Bengal, about
10 kilometers from the Bangladesh border. Bangladeshi objections that
the project would seriously affect the country’s water supply
have proved correct. Falling water levels below the dam have raised
salinity levels, affecting fisheries and hindering navigation.
Falling soil moisture levels have also also led to desertification.

Ali firmly believes that "environmental factors can play a
pivotal role since they help link various issues such as economic
development and security." He points out that, "states that
are ecologically vulnerable to extreme climatic events, such as
Bangladesh, are recognizing that poor environmental planning in
coastal areas can have devastating economic impacts".

"I have long been criticizing the brazenly reactionary promotion
of water disputes among Indian states by the political parties in
power,” said Surajit Guha, the former deputy-director general
of the Geological Survey of India and one of India’s top
hydrologists “It may not be confined within the Indian
territory. The Farakka impasse is a clear evidence of this. Have you
seen European countries through which the mighty River Danube flows
engaging themselves in dispute over sharing of water during the last
one hundred years? I do not know why water is increasingly
politicized when most of the peoples of SAARC region are deprived of
access to safe and potable water.”

While the west is busy concentrating its efforts on securing a ready
supply of oil, in South Asia the governments are slowly but surely
waking up to the fact that in the not too distant future water is
going to be equally, if not more important to the survival of their
people.