The Promises And Pitfalls Of Water-Sharing Cooperation In South Asia

It has been two years since governments of the Hindu Kush Himalayas (HKH), often referred to as the “water tower of Asia,” agreed to take joint action on South Asia’s looming water crisis, but so far no institution for transboundary water cooperation has emerged. In October 2020, representatives from all eight HKH countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan—signed a declaration at the Ministerial Mountain Summit that called for greater discussion on emerging issues in the HKH, a unified voice for the region in global platforms, a science-policy forum focusing on mountain environments, and the creation of a Task Force to assess the feasibility of establishing a regional institutional mechanism. The summit’s motivation stemmed from a 2019 assessment that water availability to downstream regions of the Tibetan Plateau will suffer a total collapse by the end of this century in a ‘business as usual’ scenario. As rising atmospheric temperatures continue to melt glaciers and other frozen water across the HKH, the runoff of which sustains the lives of nearly two billion people, time is running out to create an effective water resource management system for South Asia.

The first systematic study of glacier mass change in the extended HKH region, The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, was conducted in 2019 by over 350 leading researchers, practitioners, and policy specialists working for the Hindu Kush Himalaya Monitoring and Assessment Program. Using satellite data and digital elevation models, researchers found that 15% of the HKH ice sheet has melted since 1970, with Himalayan glaciers losing up to 55% of area in extreme cases. The study identified changes in hydrological systems, deposition of black carbon on non-debris covered ice, and increased temperatures as the main drivers of glacial shrinkage, trends which imply “an irreversible melting scenario for the HKH glaciers in the near future.” These observations suggest a strong possibility that changes in glaciers will impact the timing of river flows in the region with serious implications for water consumption, energy needs, and agriculture during the dry season. The loss of HKH glaciers could decrease summer river inputs in major river basins, such as the Indus and Aral basins, by half, lowering the energy output of dam catchments and causing water scarcity for hundreds of millions of people.

That the HKH ice sheet is a critical geo-ecological asset for South Asia means water resource management is not only just an engineering problem, but chiefly one of conflicting economic and political interests. On the one hand, upstream countries rely on meltwater for power generation. A 2017 study by glaciologist Hamish Pritchard found that 121 of 143 hydropower facilities in the Indus basin are glacier-fed because most summer precipitation evaporates. On the other hand, downstream countries, which are particularly vulnerable to constraints on freshwater supply, use meltwater for agricultural purposes such as food and cotton production. The lack of a centralized body in the HKH to impose allocation quotas incentivizes each country to unilaterally strive for privileged water access. According to the Stimson Center, Chinese dam construction has already triggered recurring droughts for some 60 million people in the Lower Mekong region, even during months of record rainfall. Worries about future water availability intersect with increasing populations, ethnic fragmentation, and disputed borders among HKH countries, creating a divergence of interests that may precipitate in violent conflict.

Climate projections and growing demands indicate that regional water insecurity will increase, and possibly emerge as a potential flashpoint, unless HKH countries take appropriate countermeasures. Limited and erratic water availability fuels destabilizing migration and ignites competition for scarce resources. The first step toward reducing the risk of climate-related conflict in South Asia is establishing an institutional mechanism to regulate the management of water resources. Institutional arrangements could set sustainable quotas and back them up with enforcement mechanisms and sanctions against violators. Additionally, they could address the problem of limited data-sharing agreements and underinvestment in field research. According to Mohammed Farooq Azam, a glaciologist at the Indian Institute of Technology, India has no weather stations higher than 4,000 meters, above which most glaciers form. By pooling resources, an institution for transboundary water cooperation could bolster the capacities of local climate services that lack the funds to invest in water conservation and provide seasonal forecasts to support decision making on river administration.

As environmental pressures and political tensions mount across the HKH, it has never been more important to achieve tangible progress on multilateral water-sharing cooperation. The HKH Call to Action as well as the creation of a task force, which has met four times since 2020 to discuss the feasibility of establishing a regional institutional mechanism, signal that all eight HKH countries are willing to collaborate. However, competition over water access will only increase over the coming decades, raising the risk of mass migration, civil conflicts, and, if water becomes scarce enough, violent clashes between state actors. Building on their current momentum, HKH countries should move quickly to create institutional arrangements that facilitate cooperation in the face of their collective action problems and vast array of divergent interests.