Rethinking the Water Diplomacy for Peace and Prosperity
by Dr. Arvind Kumar, President, India Water Foundation
India’s geographical setting render it a key player in the South-East Asian region in water sharing, with neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, China and Myanmar. Interestingly, India’s relationships with her neighbours, becomes especially significant in the context of its water-sharing and transboundary river bodies’ existence. Indus Water Treaty 1960 (Indo-Pak), Ganges Water Treaty of 1996 (Indo-Bangla), Mahakali Treaty of 1996 (Indo-Nepal), co-operation on hydroelectric power plants in Bhutan and a potential river-water sharing treaty with China (for Tsangpo-Brahmaputra) are some of the legal and institutional frameworks governing transboundary water management in Southeast Asia (Iyer 2015).
As the World Biological Diversity Day and World Environment Day (5 June) concluded, we are confronted once again as a society and community with the growing demand on depleting water resources as the world move towards economic development. It raises the question of sustainable water management and access to potable water as the world population burgeons. We have two pressing concerns to address- supply side management of water through transboundary water governance and ensuring access to potable water across the country.
Estimates of 2005 indicate that nearly 40% of the world’s population lives in transboundary river basins and more than 90% live in countries with basins that range across sovereign borders. Several of these transboundary rivers comprise the largest flows of water in the world and are also the most highly polluted (Ramaswamy 2018). The need for water collaboration, especially amongst States that share rivers/water bodies has led to formulation of international agreements and treaties like the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses of 1997. There are also regional instruments that govern relationships between riparian States, like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Shared Water Resources.
These transboundary waters are integral to supporting the lives and livelihoods of a substantial proportion of the world’s population (UN Water 2021).In an age defined by water scarcity and depletion, management of this critical resource is fundamental to the promotion of lasting peace, partnership and cooperation for sustainable development. However, as of 2020, only 22 countries reported that all their transboundary basins are covered by cooperation arrangements (SDG 6 Summary Progress Report 2021). Depleted water supplies across national boundaries are the potential causes of social unrest and conflict internationally.
Therefore, to successfully address effects of climate change, burgeoning population and sustainable economic development, the UN stresses a supranational, integrative approach to transboundary water management, founded on a benefit and cost sharing legal framework. At a transboundary level, principles of equitable benefit-sharing and reparations for harm caused are accepted by countries in Regional and Basin level protocols. However, they are exercised sporadically. Co-operative principles as opposed to water rights are universally considered the best approach to transboundary water management.
The magnitude of the impact of scarcity is felt in the irrigated production sector. Agricultural production is expected to be constrained more by water unavailability than land availability where rainfall levels are inadequate. This jeopardizes food security and threatens the achievement of SDG 2. Lack of access to nutritious food directly impacts access to health and well-being. Additionally, it endangers continuity of terrestrial and aquatic species. Evidently, water plays a cross-cutting role that is fundamental to achievement of basic standards of living and human rights. This cross-cutting role of water demands a collaborative, multi-stakeholder level participation to respond to natural resource scarcity and changing market opportunities. FAO observes that even institutions dedicated to integrated regional or basin management deal primarily with either land or water resources instead of jointly catering to land and water. This absence of transboundary cooperation framework has led to unsatisfactory levels of investment and increasing tensions between upstream and downstream riparian countries. Examples of multi-stakeholder level participation include participatory collective irrigation or groundwater management. Such cooperation can promote optimal, multi-objective investment accountability at local levels. Irrigation reforms, involving stakeholders in planning and decision making and devising benefit sharing agreements that are equitable and non-discriminatory will result from greater devolution of water management responsibility.
Advantages of optimizing investment at the basin scale (for example, upstream investment in hydropower and downstream diversion for irrigation) should be weighed against sovereignty and water security concerns, by Governments. Low levels of returns and environmental safety considerations have resulted in reduced incentives for constructing large storage dams. Their construction is justifiable only on grounds of hydropower generation and benefits; and increasing water availability for irrigation downstream. Moreover, a cooperation framework will incentivize technical skill exchange, leading to mutually beneficial development and management and ultimately to an internationally supported agreement on international waters.
The UNEP’s Transboundary Waters Assessment Programme reveals that risk to transboundary water systems and dependent population are lower in developed countries and higher in South and Southeast Asia. These risks have been classified broadly into three categories- biophysical, socioeconomic and governance, reflecting a call for policy and management interventions to address the integrated natures of these risks and building resilient ecosystem health (UNEP 2016). Current river basin management approaches are driven by either “water development” or an “ecosystem approach”. Major water transfer projects in India and China have been devised within the framework of water development. However, FAO finds that irrespective of the approach, to integrate land and water use across a basin, planning and negotiation need to deal with more than in-stream water use and also cater to water use along the length of the river. River basin audits are another way to achieve this integrative approach by getting a basic account of water and land use in social, economic and environmental terms across the basin.
The suggested range of policy tools now available for the use of river basin agencies include statutory minimum environmental flow requirements to maintain a healthy ecology and fish populations; requirements for environmental impact assessments (EIAs) as a precondition for granting licences for water use (most frequently surface and groundwater abstractions and waste disposal); declaration and supervision of reserves and protected areas (for example, wetlands) to maintain biodiversity and protect land and water quality; and negotiation and supervision of measures to protect the watershed (e.g. through watershed management projects or other forms of Payment for Environment Services) (FAO and Earthscan 2011).
Coming to the second key concern of access to potable water, closer to home, in India 7% of the population does not have access to basic water supply (WHO/UNICEF 2019). Upto 90% of the groundwater extracted in India is primarily used for irrigation purposes and India accounts for nearly one fourth of the total groundwater extracted globally- more than even what United States of America and China jointly extract (WaterAid India 2019). Water borne diseases are the singular most significant cause of an economic burden amounting to approximately 600 Million USD a year, on India. A 2019 study revealed reliance of urban Indian households’ reliance on bottled water to be 12% (Sharma 2019).
A pilot project launched by the Government of India in 2018 is the “Swajal” Project, designed as a demand driven programme, initially implements in all aspirational districts of 28 states. It engages the community of a single village to launch a solar powered, mini pipe of water supply and provide sustainable access to safe drinking water in rural areas. The programme empowered communities to plan, design, implement and monitor single village drinking water supply schemes and mobilize community ownership for operation and maintenance (UNICEF 2021). This programme successfully contributed to 18.6 million people gaining access to potable water, in a significant step towards one day achieving a state of affairs when no one will need to buy a bottle of packaged drinking water.
In this context, Prime Minister Modi in August 2019 launched the flagship Jal Jeevan Mission with the aim of providing tap water supply to every rural home by 2024 to provide safe, constant supply of water to every home. As of 2021, the Jal Shakti Ministry’s data shows that the Jal Jeevan Mission has reached a new milestone of providing over 4 Crore rural households with tap water supply (Press Information Bureau 2021). The Jal Jeevan Mission has subsumed the 2009 National Rural Drinking Water Programme (JJM Note 2021), focusing not only on infrastructure creation but also “service delivery”; increased awareness on judicious use of water and the role of Gram Panchayat etc. in planning, implementation and management of in-village water supply systems (Press Information Bureau 2021). However, whether or not this tap water is suitable for drinking through an examination of its quality is yet to be undertaken.
In the end, it is important to remember that the water crisis is felt globally and may be more acute in countries like India. However, there exist a number of initiatives to advance knowledge and promote effective governance methods in the field and sector of water through regional and global cooperation- which provides guidance and technical support to countries in areas of integrated water resources management; transboundary water; water supply and sanitation; climate action and adaptation; gender and integrity to provide equitable, inclusive progress on water governance. Moreover, it is essential to approach water as a ground to negotiate diplomatic ties in the region, as opposed to treating it as a commodity waiting to be conquered for own utilization.
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