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South Asia’s Water Problem

Raj Kumar Sharma writes: South Asia is home to quarter of world’s population but has less than 5 per cent of the world’s annual renewable water resources. This makes South Asia one of the most water scarce regions of the world.

South Asia is home to quarter of world’s population but has less than 5 per cent of the world’s annual renewable water resources. This makes South Asia one of the most water scarce regions of the world.[1] Per-capita water use remains low and is rapidly declining in Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. With the South Asian population projected to rise by 32 per cent from 1.68 billion in 2010 to 2.22 billion in 2040, per capita water availability is likely to remain under stress in the absence of a major technological breakthrough such as, for instance, low-cost desalination.[2] Afghanistan, India and Pakistan are already nearing the water stress level in per capita water availability. A country is said to experience water stress when annual water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic metres per person per year. A number of rivers that supply water to South Asia originate in China and it is therefore, logical to treat China as part of South Asian hydropolitics. Given this grim picture about future water problems in South Asia, it is important to examine the drivers of water problem in the region. These drivers can be classified as external and internal. Externally, there are problems over water between India and Pakistan and India and China. India’s external dependency on water is 33.4 per cent, Pakistan’s is 75.59 per cent, Bangladesh’s is 91.3 per cent and China’s is 0.9 per cent.[3] This shows that China is almost water ‘sovereign’ while India, Pakistan and Bangladesh depend on water sources originating in other countries.

India-Pakistan: Water issues between India and Pakistan are historically constructed, emotionally charged, and politically divisive. The Indo-Pakistan water relations are governed by Indus Water Treaty which came into existence in 1960. The eastern rivers (Ravi, Satluj, Beas) have been assigned to India under the treaty while the control over the western rivers (Chenab and Jhelum) has been given to Pakistan. The treaty has survived three wars and is often cited as an example of ‘cooperation’ among the states who are sworn enemies. Being a lower riparian country, Pakistan objects to India building dams on rivers in Jammu and Kashmir, for example, Baglihar Dam on Chenab river. All fears raised by Pakistan including the height of the dam were allayed by a World Bank appointed neutral expert, giving a go-ahead to Indian project. Water insecurity also spawns different manifestations of militancy and nationalism in Pakistan. Extremists in Pakistan’s Punjab province have issued violent threats, angrily blaming India for ‘stealing’ Pakistan’s water and vowing aggression against India. This is despite the fact that the Indus Water Treaty allots it 80 per cent of the total Indus basin river flow to Pakistan and India has not interfered with it.  The people and the government of J&K are generally against the IWT as they feel that the treaty was a great injustice to the State and it is against their economic and energy interests. There is unhappiness in the State at the fact that the restrictions placed on India in relation to the Western rivers make it virtually impossible for the State to derive any benefits by way of irrigation, hydroelectric power, navigation, or other, from the waters of the Indus and its tributaries that flow through the State. The feeling is shared by the people, media, academics, and others in the State. In fact from time to time there have even been calls for a scrapping of the Treaty.

India-China:  China is constructing a 38,000 MW dam planned on the Brahmaputra at Metog, close to the disputed border with India. The Metog Dam will be twice as large as the 18,300 MW Three Gorges Dam, currently the world’s largest dam on Yangtze River in China.[4] Considering the massive size of the dam, India fears that huge amount of water will be diverted from the river causing problems for north-east Indian states. Indian fears are not without basis, as there is no water sharing treaty between India and China, unlike the case between India and Pakistan. Bangladesh is another lower riparian state which will feel the heat of Chinese dams on Brahmaputra river. Media reports also say that China has constructed hydroelectric station on Sultej at Zada county in Tibet.[5] This could further create friction between India and China on water issue.

Internal Water Problems:  Apart from the external drivers, the water problem in South Asia is also driven by domestic issues. China has 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its fresh water. Most of this resource is concentrated in south and far west while most of the population lives in north. There is water crisis for northern areas due to rapid economic development taking place there. China has launched massive engineering projects to divert water from south to north which have social and ecological implications. The southern regions themselves are facing water shortages. In the long run, warming in the Himalayas is likely to reduce the flow of China’s major rivers, increasing water scarcity throughout the country.[6] The massive diversion of water from southern rivers in China is a cause for concern for lower riparian countries like India and Bangladesh. China’s present approach to water crisis focuses on increasing supply of water and neglects the demand side solutions. The government should reduce consumption of water to make better use of limited supplies. Water is too cheap in most cities, usually costing a tenth of prices in Europe. Such mispricing results in extravagance. Industry recycles too little water; agriculture wastes too much. Higher water prices would raise costs for farms and factories, but that would be better than spending billions on shipping water round the country.[7]

Per capita annual water availability in Pakistan has dropped, fundamentally due to population growth, from 5,600 cubic metres at independence to the current level of 1,017 cubic metres. Demand for water is on the rise, projected to reach 274 million acre-feet (MAF) by 2025, while supply is expected to remain stagnant at 191 MAF, resulting in a demand-supply gap of approximately 83 MAF.[8] There is urgent internal reform required in Pakistan to sensibly use this precious resource. Most of the dams in Pakistan like Tarbela are silted; consequently flow in Indus in lower reaches has reduced to the extent that sea ingress has affected the fertile Sukkur belt in Sind. Mismanagement is the root cause of such a state. Indus River System Authority (IRSA) and Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) the two organizations responsible for the management of water resources in Pakistan are highly corrupt organizations.

India has only 4 percent of global water resources, but 16 percent of the world’s population – which means it faces serious challenges in meeting water demand. Preserving the quality and availability of fresh water resources has now become a pressing environmental challenge for India. Growing pollution of water sources, inequitable exploitation of ground water, mismanagement of water resources, low awareness about water scarcity and lack of a holistic and inter-disciplinary approach to water related problems are the main water issues faced by India.[9] Water scarcity will also lead to problems of food and energy in South Asia. With around 90 per cent of water used in agriculture, the relationship between food and water is seen as paramount in all South Asian countries. The linkages between water, energy and food are most clearly identified in India, where the provision of subsidized or free electricity to farmers to pump groundwater for irrigation is seen as unsustainable.[10]

Given the internal and external drivers of hydropolitics in South Asia, water will become an issue of friction between India-Pakistan and India-China. Cooperation is the only way forward as all states will be impacted by effects of climate change. At the same time, internal challenges to water security should also be addressed for a sustainable solution.



[2] Gareth Price (2014), “Attitudes to Water in South Asia”, Chatham House Report,


[4] Brahma Chellaney (2012), “Asia’s Worsening Water Crisis”,

[5] China Defends Dam on Sutlej, July 7, 2006,

[6] Scott Moore (2013), “China’s Massive Water Problem”,

[7] Water in China: Desperate measures (2013),

[8] Anwar Iqbal (2015), “Water scarcity may threaten national economy: IMF”,

[9] Freddy Svane & Anshul Jain (2014), “India — Water challenges and the way forward”,

[10] Gareth Price Op. Cit.

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