Tensions with China-Pakistan can derail fragile water treaties, but India won't talk about it

Tensions with China-Pakistan can derail fragile water treaties, but India won't talk about it

Amidst all the discussion and debate on the future trajectory of India's neighbourhood foreign policy there is a glaring paucity of inclusion on the regions shared water which will prove detrimental in the future. It is very important in the long term that we include water security in the larger conversation. 

As India’s neighbourhood goes through a turmoil, with underlying fault lines exposed by the coronavirus pandemic and a deepening economic crisis, there is robust debate on the trajectory of India and its neighbourhood in the context of foreign and security policy. However, there is a glaring paucity of debate on how the ongoing crises, including the stand-off at the Line of Actual Control with China, might shape and influence the trajectory of South Asia’s transboundary water security.

It is no secret that water policies in South Asia receive less attention unless a natural disaster occurs or when we beat the drums of ‘water wars’ every now and again. Yet, water policies on shared rivers have far-reaching consequences for India and the entire neighbourhood. As populations grow, the climate becomes increasingly erratic and demand for water expands, the stress on shared waterways will prove even more contentious.

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Extending the scope of mistrust

Without strong bilateral and multilateral institutions to manage, the shared waterways and river systems are often subject to the vagaries and uncertainties of geopolitics. From the Indus River Basin to the interconnected Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) River Basin, how India and its neighbours successfully collaborate and cooperate is critical to the region’s future and people that account for close to 15 per cent of the world’s population. Working together to better manage shared resources, natural habitats and waterways, as well as joint action on climate research, could yield important dividends beyond immediate development benefits, including long-term peace, analyses a 2017 paper by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

The absence of strong policies, treaties and agreements, opens the door for mistrust and tension to spill over in other spheres. Following the 2017 Doklam crisis, China withheld monsoon data, critical for flood management in northeast India, thereby violating terms of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). Later in 2019, following the Pulwama attacks, India’s plan to divert water flowing into Pakistan gained momentum. Neither of these instances had anything to do with the shared waters or existing agreements, yet they had detrimental effects on the resource as well as the potential for furthering dialogue on joint management or cooperation.