Troubled Waters: India and the hydropolitics of South Asia

Paula Hanasz

    Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


    The year 2013 was the United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation. It was also the year that saw the Indian geostrategist Brahma Chellaney publish Water, peace and war: Confronting the global water crisis not long after his award-winning Water: Asia's new battleground. One year, two very different perspectives. Which is it then? Is water a nexus for peace, or a nexus for war? And what does the answer imply for the future of hydropolitics in the world generally, and for India in particular?Since the 1990s it has been a truism that the conflicts of this century will be about water, and looking at South Asia specifically at first glance this seems a compelling concern. The region is rapidly growing while water appears increasingly scarce. Zero-sum competition over water resources is said to be intensifying, while recent state fragility makes for volatile geopolitics. At the same time, India, the regional hydro-hegemon, is not taking clear leadership of South Asia's troubled hydropolitics. On closer inspection however the situation is far more complex and ambiguous than alarmist headlines or the UN's wishful thinking would suggest.For a start, there is no such thing as 'water war'. A broader concept, water conflict, is ill-defined, multi-faceted, and usually based on the fallacious assumption that conflict is the opposite of cooperation. Cooperation and conflict, however, coexist in every relationship in various configurations. More importantly, ostensible cooperation, such as the signing of a water-sharing treaty, can cement inequalities in the status quo while conflict can lead to the airing and ultimately the resolution of grievances (Zeitoun and Mirumachi, 2008, 297-307). Water interactions, in short, are much more complex than the simplistic and alarmist fear of water wars would suggest.Nonetheless, there does seem to be a 'perfect storm' of water-related issues and tensions in South Asia that appear to put the region particularly at risk of imminent hydro-conflict. This Fearless Nadia paper begins by addressing the three most common fears about water wars on the Indian sub-continent: water scarcity, increasing competition and the specter of China. It goes on to discuss the bilateral issues between India and its co-riparians and asks whether any of these could escalate to a water war. The basis of water wars is then challenged, and the paper concludes with an exploration of ways in which India could take leadership of multilateral approaches to the region's water woes. Water woes in the region are, of course, not exclusively transboundary. Domestic water conflicts are also common. In India, for example, the widespread over-exploitation of groundwater for irrigation is creating serious problems for policy (Pearce, 2006, 36). It has even been said that the unsustainable depletion of groundwater resources may be the biggest threat to South Asian rivers (National Research Council of the National Academies, 2012, 90). The management of India's groundwater is complicated by relevant laws and regulations dispersed across central and state jurisdictions and a multiplicity of administrative bodies, thus creating conflict and confusion (Saravanan, 2008, 231-232; Lahiri-Dutt, 2008, xxvii). Water disputes within India thus tend to be intractable, bitter, and enmeshed in party politics. It is ironic therefore that India, though it seems unable to resolve internal disputes within its federal structure, has been largely successful in minimizing conflict in transboundary hydropolitics and in developing treaties that appear to be working moderately well (Iyer, 2007, 25). It is these regional water interactions that are the focus here, while domestic disputes have been largely covered elsewhere.
    Original languageEnglish
    Commissioning bodyAustralia India Institute
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


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