South Asia’s water battles

Four millennia after the fall of the Indus Valley


February 13, 2019

/ By / New Delhi

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Experts believe that a series of droughts had led to the disappearance of an entire civilization four millennia ago 

The region’s 1.7 billion people face rapidly dwindling water resources, pushing South Asia on top of water stressed regions in the world.

About 4,500 years ago, the Indus Valley civilization that had flourished in northern and western parts of the Indian subcontinent disappeared. Though the reasons behind this are not known, but experts believe a series of droughts, due to failed rainfall, had led to the disappearance of the entire civilization. Ironic, as the Indus Valley civilization was undoubtedly the most advanced of its time in urban development and water management, as archaeologists have discovered an extremely well-developed network of sewage drains and water channels all over the vast area where the civilization had prospered.

Almost four millennia later, the area that was home to this civilization is facing another existential threat and once again due to scarcity of water and climate change. A lot has, of course, changed on the ground in the intervening 4,000 years. The first big difference is the huge growth in the population as the region now accounts for almost 1.7 billion people, almost one in four persons on the Earth, leading to a quantum jump in the consumption of water, which is also due to the changing lifestyles of the modern era.

On top of the increased consumption, global warming and climate change has led to erratic rainfall and melting of the hundreds of glaciers that feed the rivers flowing through the basin, dramatically reducing the availability of fresh water in the entire Indian subcontinent. As a result, the three countries in northern part of the subcontinent, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, are now amongst the eight most water stressed countries in the entire world. For thousands of years, the region has depended on the Himalayan range for its water needs, besides the seasonal monsoon rainfall that refreshes the water resources all over the South and South East Asian region.

Measuring the waters 

For South Asia, the Himalayas are the only permanent reservoir of water, ensuring year-round flow in dozens of rivers that flow through these countries and provide water to the hundreds of  millions of people living in the Indo-Gangetic river basin for all their needs. The Himalayas are home to the world’s second largest freshwater resource, after the polar ice caps. Glaciers cover over 30,000 sqkm surface in the Himalayas and can supply over 8.6 million cubic metres of fresh water each year.

However, for almost two decades the weather has turned erratic, with rising temperatures and less rain during the monsoons and much lesser annual average snowfall during the winter months. These have led to a sustained retreat of the hundreds of glaciers and other high altitude water bodies that in turn serve as reservoirs for the rivers that originate in the Himalayas.


India and Pakistan could be on the edge of a water war ;Photo credits: Dawn

Reports by various UN agencies suggest that South Asia and notably India and Pakistan could suffer from outright water stress – annual availability of less than 1,000 cubic meters per capita – by 2025, and gross water availability could fall as much as 37 percent by mid-century. In addition to the implications for drinking water and sanitation, this could considerably diminish crop yields in the region. Temperature increase of as little as 0.5 to 1.5°C might trim yield potentials for wheat and maize by 2 to 5 percent. For greater warming, above 2.5 degrees centigrade, the losses in non-irrigated wheat and rice yields in South Asia could cut net farm level revenues by 9 to 25 percent. Even under the most conservative climate change scenarios, net cereal production for South Asian countries is expected to tumble by at least 4 to 10 percent.

The worsening water shortage is likely to heighten tensions between India and Pakistan and water could turn into a flashpoint between the two nations, who have had trouble over sharing natural water resources, especially of the six rivers flowing from India into Pakistan, from the time of independence.

In 1960s, after the intervention of the World Bank the two neighbours agreed on the Indus Water Treaty that covers all the rivers shared by them. Despite the agreement, the two sides have had numerous disputes in the last five decades, accusing each other of violating the treaty. Now, the two countries are battling over a couple of hydroelectric projects that India is constructing over the Chenab river, even though the waters of the Chenab were meant to be exclusively for use by Pakistan. However, India says that over 60 percent of the water from Chenab goes unused and falls into the Arabian Sea as Pakistan has failed to tap the river in the past seven decades.

For over four years, consultations failed to resolve the dispute, with Pakistan threatening to go to the International Court of Justice against India. In a breakthrough of sorts, recently India invited experts from Pakistan to inspect the two projects and verify that they don’t violate the bilateral water treaty. While the two nations are trying to resolve the dispute over Chenab, a planned dam in Afghanistan has again dragged the two nations in a verbal duel. India has agreed to fund the construction of a dam that will provide drinking water to the Afghan capital as well as irrigate farms around Kabul.

Pakistan is upset about the dam as it fears that the dam will curtail water flow of the Kabul river by nearly a sixth, adding to the extreme shortage of water that its cities and villages already face. To boost its dwindling water resources, Pakistan itself is building two large dams, costing about USD 17 billion and which Prime Minister Imran Khan is trying to finance through crowd funding.

Though India and Pakistan have avoided a war over water, but rising populations and shrinking water availability, to the point of water scarcity could push the two countries over the brink. Water could easily replace Kashmir as the most inflammable issue between the two nations. Their leaders would do well to keep their heads cooler next time they discuss water.

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