The big three Himalayan rivers entering South Asia - the Brahmaputra, Ganges and Indus - provide the basic livelihood conditions for more than 1 billion people in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, India and Pakistan. The rivers are of immense importance to these countries and their development. However, water availability per person is estimated to decline as the effects of climate change consolidate in the region and with rising temperatures and melting glaciers, more runoff will occur during rainy seasons and less during dry seasons. The Ganges is predicted to become seasonal by 2050. Water linked conflicts are also on the rise. A few years ago the then Indian Minister of Water Resources Das Munshi stated "I am not the Minister of Water Resources but the Minister of Water Conflicts".
With such a grim picture for South Asia one would expect these large, transboundary river systems to attract much attention. It is today well known what should be done in order to deliver more welfare per drop of water used - but is it done? There are many answers to that question; some would say "yes" and other "no".
The Indus is a major river, covering 71% of the Pakistan territory and providing water for 77% of its population. The Indus Water Treaty was signed many years ago to handle the allocation of water between India and Pakistan. The treaty has reasonably well survived five decades and two wars between the basin neighbours and is today ranked as one of the most successful international treaties of water cooperation. However, as the treaty was designed in 1960 it does not provide for changes in water availability, increasing demands, environmental factors, data collection and sharing, or technological advancements. These are major shortcomings that need to be addressed - but they are not. Are the two countries so badly focusing on differences and conflicts and a danger of so-called “water wars”, that cooperation and development is of no importance? The fact that water wars do not exist has apparently no significance.
Further east in the Himalayan range we have neighbouring India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. In "Cooperation or Conflict in Transboundary Water Management: Case Study of South Asia" (http://www.thirdworldcentre.org/hsjsouthasia.pdf), Asit K. Biswas compares two cases and discuss the opportunities for regional, basin-based cooperation.
The first case is cooperation between India and Bhutan. The Chukha hydroelectric scheme was commissioned in 1986 and has since generated large amounts of energy for both countries. Peace, stability and growth have all thrived and Bhutan's GDP per person has increased greatly in recent years. That is fine. But the second case is one of many years of missed opportunities due to mistrust and the "big brother-small brother" syndrome. India, Nepal and Bangladesh are neighbours and have great opportunities for large-scale benefit sharing along their shared rivers; Nepal can develop and produce huge amounts of hydropower that India and Bangladesh are more than willing to buy, thus enhancing growth and development in all three countries. But a lack of trust and an absence of visionary thinking again block a much needed process. Costly as well, not to those blocking the development, but to those millions of poor people longing for electric light, children at school and decent living conditions.
The Strategic Foresight Group (www.strategicforesight.com), a water think-tank based in Mumbai, India, is very concerned about the region's water development. In three recent reports, "The Himalayan Challenge: Water Security in Emerging Asia", "Himalayan Solutions: Co-operation and Security in River Basins" and "The Indus Equation", it argues forcefully that an emerging water crisis is on the way in South Asia. It also argues - and this is both constructive and positive - that this can potentially foster cooperation and security among the basin states. The group presents a number of specific areas where enhanced cooperation can flourish, like new technology, inter-disciplinary research, hydropower and regional conventions.
Finally, in a recent SIWI report, "Addressing Power Asymmetry: How Transboundary Water Management May Serve to Reduce Poverty" (http://www.siwi.org/publications) the authors trace the linkages between power in transboundary water management and poverty. To understand better how a basin hegemon acts, and thus develop appropriate strategies to counter the potentially negative effects on cooperation, benefit sharing and growth is important.
To review Himalayan cooperation on shared water resources is a rather discouraging exercise. The opportunities for collaboration and benefit sharing are there. Still, almost nothing is happening. it is not because we do not know what to do - early warning systems, data collection and sharing, and setting up river basin commissions - is all well-established knowledge. Should we compare transboundary water management with food security and the wisdom of Nobel Price Laureate Professor Amarty Sen? "Famines do not exist in democracies". When openness and debate become the rule of the day, the immense costs of inaction and inefficiency will not be tolerated.