Re-imagining Water (and Energy) Sharing in South Asia

Re-imagining Water (and Energy) Sharing in South Asia

The era of a relatively stable climate and water regime came to an abrupt end this past decade. In South Asia, rising sea levels, floods, and water scarcity threaten regional stability and exacerbate vast developmental deficits. Further, intense competition for available water resources and decreasing water quality, coupled with inadequate and uncoordinated planning, could jeopardize current development gains. Without sufficient water resources, advancements in hydropower generation and industrial development could backtrack. Similarly, degraded quality and lower supply of drinking water in major cities could lead to the resurgence of gastro-intestinal diseases and elevated maternal and child mortality, in turn triggering reduced labor productivity and higher public health costs. Without course correction, the prevalence of such adverse trends could elevate this water crisis to a regional calamity.

Water security has enormous consequences for agricultural productivity and food security in the region. To illustrate, India and Pakistan have over 80 million hectares combined under irrigation, and agriculture consumes more than 90 percent of total withdrawals from regional water bodies. A 2012 assessment of global water security by the United States Intelligence Community identified major water management deficits in the Indus and Brahmaputra river basins that could trigger regional food insecurity. Fortunately, governments and politicians appear to be increasingly aware of the economic and social consequences of unpreparedness for climate change impacts.

The South Asian region traditionally includes Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, but Afghanistan and China—states connected through shared water resources—are important to name as well. This agglomeration brings to the table three nuclear-armed states (China, India, and Pakistan) and three of the world’s least developed countries (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal). The history of military conflict between India and Pakistan suggests that any regional destabilization caused by competition or conflict over water resources could have global repercussions. Conversely, mutually shared water resources have the potential to serve as stepping stones to durable peace, while diminishing the threat of nuclear confrontations.

A heightened cognizance of water challenges and climate change threats may encourage innovative collaborations and partnerships among South Asian countries. The antagonistic approach commonly adopted by regional governments, punctuated by outright hostility, seriously hampers the enormous potential for social and economic development. Thus, cooperation around water, based on targets embedded in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and coupled with evidence-driven policies, may be the first step towards a lasting, regionally cohesive development agenda.

Unparalleled Opportunities for Cooperation

Three key opportunities that cooperative water sharing can foster are enhanced trade and energy sharing, joint disaster relief, and common information sharing platforms. First, nations must supplement water resource distribution with decreased trade barriers and increased energy sharing to accrue a fuller set of benefits. Viewing the region as a single interconnected basin that shares water across state and sub-state borders offers potential for collective management. The Indus Water Treaty of the 1950s envisioned such an approach among five rivers between the Indian and Pakistani border. However, the formulation and subsequent implementation of the treaty ceded control of two rivers to India and three rivers to Pakistan, thus failing to adopt a joint management concept. Instead, each took an antagonistic, zero-sum, and often counter-productive approach to water sharing and distribution infrastructure.

Energy is another area that could benefit from collectivity, as hydropower is a key source of South Asian energy; and many of the existing and planned water management projects in the region are linked to energy generated through hydropower. In the states of Jammu and Kashmir alone, India has some thirty-three hydropower projects of varying degrees of planning or implementation. Yet, an interconnected electricity grid does not exist in South Asia, as it does in other regions. Investing in a shared power grid would yield short and long-term economic benefits, balance out water-sharing inequities by offering concessional energy rates, and help thaw trade relations.

Second, the impacts of recent extreme weather events—disastrous and unprecedented flooding in Pakistan and India and major cyclones hitting Bangladesh—have demonstrated that no country has the capacity to deal with these natural disasters and their aftermath alone. Floods in 2017 killed more than 1,000 people in the region and affected at least forty-one million in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. Creating a regional entity that collectively responds to water-related emergencies would enable fast and effective responses and minimize the consequences for local populations. Such collaboration in difficult times also opens the avenue for backchannel diplomacy on other regional conflicts and disputes. From a political perspective, selling such a collective response system to the general public is a no-brainer and a political win for all sides.

Third, South Asian countries should create information sharing platforms managed regionally and supported by cutting-edge, remote-sensing technologies to offer real-time information that facilitates overall water management and optimizes disaster responses. The UN and other international organizations have supported this ongoing work—albeit on a piecemeal basis and on sub-regional scales. Emerging artificial intelligence (AI) technologies make it feasible to offer innovative ways of envisioning ‘big data’ on water and energy, such as by identifying irrigation system inefficiencies and providing early flood warnings.

Political and Economic Expediency of Cooperation

Importantly, each of these approaches carries sizeable opportunities for regional job creation and economic growth. Similarly, the overall economic benefits—cheaper energy supplies, sustainable and efficient irrigation systems, reduced economic damages from extreme climate events, development and marketing of AI technologies worldwide, and increased regional trade—accrue in perpetuity. Short and long-term gains will offset initial capital investments.

If these three opportunities make such obvious sense through mutual economic, social, and political benefits, why is there not already a strong regional push in that direction? Furthermore, what would it take to catalyze such a push and overcome the barriers deeply embedded through historic, geopolitical rivalries in the region?

To the first question: while available in literature, many economic arguments for regional cooperation remain largely hidden from public view and absent from political discourse. Various regional stakeholders, including national governments, the international community, civil society, and the private sector must make a concerted effort to initiate evidence-driven public discourse.

In response to the second question, the catalysts can come from multiple directions. First, the region’s political leadership must embrace the excitement these opportunities generate. A political commitment can trigger incremental but cumulative steps in building mutual confidence among the region’s national governments. Second, the international community—the collection of UN organizations, development banks, bilateral aid agencies, international NGOs, and regional organizations—can play a constructive role in helping re-imagine water and energy management. Lastly, the private sector, when enabled responsibly by governments, can be a major agent of change by offering efficient technologies, necessary capital, and management experience.

An analysis of the counterfactual also proves instructive. Under business-as-usual, extreme climate events will continue to wreak havoc on citizens and economies. To underline the economic significance of climate extremes, one only needs to look at the impact of the 2017 hurricane season on the United States and Caribbean, which exceeds $400 billion in early estimates. The U.S. Intelligence Community’s 2012 global assessment of water security identified both the Indus and Brahmaputra basins as under threat due to their inability to cope with climate change impacts to water resources.

The Outlook

The best case future scenario would unfold in parallel with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with South Asian political leadership spearheading collective efforts to deal with the combined water-climate challenges. The success in managing this crisis is imperative to the region’s survival; but, furthermore, South Asia has the potential to serve as a model for other developing regions of the world, while reaping tremendous social, political, and economic benefits.


Dr. Adeel is the Executive Director of the Pacific Water Research Centre at Simon Fraser University, and has over 25 years of experience in a broad range of environmental and policy issues. He served as the Director, UNU-INWEH from 2006 to 2016. He also served in a number of international leadership roles, including chairing a group of over 60 organizations called UN-Water (2010-2012), and co-chairing the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment team that produced the global desertification synthesis in 2005. Currently, Dr. Adeel serves as the Series Editor for a book series by Springer: “Water Security in a New World.”


*Unless otherwise specified, all data from Imagining Industan, a volume edited by Zafar Adeel and Robert G. Wirsing.