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Water as a Strategic Issue in India

Nihar Kuanr Writes: Steps need to be initiated on war-footing to address the water issue in a holistic manner. Water is a strategic asset for India. The Government, policy-makers, think tank and the public need to be sensitised on this issue. The National security and strategic narrative be framed accordingly.

Nihar Kuanr Writes: It is imperative to treat water as a strategic issue in India, suggested Dr Brahma Chellaney in his very incisive and revealing talk on “Water challenges for India”, delivered at USI on 17 Aug 17. The statistics presented, paint a rather grim picture of the water scenario in South Asia in general and India in specific. Inactivity and nonchalance by the countries, may lead to an imminent disaster which is scarier.

The per capita water availability is extremely low and dwindling rapidly in South Asian countries. Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Nepal and Bangladesh are already experiencing water stress (per capita availability dropping below 1700 cubic meters per year). A number of rivers that supply water to South Asia originate in China and hence China needs to be very much in the scheme of the hydro-politics of the region. In fact, Tibet, home to vast reserves of glacial water and source of ten of the largest rivers in Asia including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Hindus and Sutlej, is known as the world’s water tower. Water issues between India and Pakistan, as well as between India and China are emotionally charged, not well defined and are yet to be analysed in a holistic manner (based on facts and ground realities). The water insecurity in the South Asian countries and China has manifested in various forms both tangible and intangible, resulting in a very strong undercurrent in the relationship between these Nations. Even, the ongoing face-off at Doklam may be seen in the light of China’s quest for control over Mount Gipmochi, since the crest of these mountain ranges separates the Tista water flowing to Sikkim and Tibetan Mochu.

In this context, Dr Chellany’s prescription to treat water as a strategic issue is quite instructive. So, what are the implications of treating water as a strategic issue? Should water be treated as a strategic asset or as part of the security architecture or form a chapter in the National Security Strategy for India? The threats and challenges to a country’s national interests in the prevailing geo-strategic and regional security environment guide its national security objectives. Where does water fit in these schemes of things? Water, no doubt, is of vital national interest and may be considered to be of overriding importance for survival, safety and vitality of our Nation. We need to do what we must to defend this interest, including, when necessary and appropriate, using or leveraging our military might!

Water wars. Disputes, skirmishes, confrontations and conflicts over water resources at local, intra-state, as well as inter-state level are quite prevalent. A chronological list of about 400 water conflicts starting from 3000 BC till date has been compiled by the Pacific Institute. In most cases, large water bodies, dams, hydroelectric projects etc. have been used as military tools or as a target or for carrying out terrorist activities. There are also many instances of civil wars erupting within a Nation over water dispute. However there are hardly any instances of water as the immediate casus belli for war; though there are burning flash points. Confrontation between Central Asian countries of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan over construction of dams by Upper Riparian States (Kambarata-1 in Kyrgyzstan and Rogan Dam in Tajikistan) provokes Uzbek’s president, Islam Karimov to state, ‘the dams could cause not just serious confrontations, but even wars’. Long standing tension over the Nile between Egypt and Ethiopia led to pronouncements, ‘the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water’ (Anwar Sadat, 1978) and ‘the next war in our region will be over the waters of the Nile, not politics’ (Boutros boutrous Ghali, 1988). There are also disputes over water sharing between Argentina-Brazil-Paraguay, Iraq-Syria, Egypt-Sudan, Ecuador-Peru, Singapore-Malaysia, Mali-Burkina Faso and Iran-Afghanistan. Palestine-Israel conflict over water is another serious flash point. The Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the Six Day war of 1967, is still occupied by Israel, may be because of the origin of Jordan River there. In some circles, the territorial dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is assigned to control of the headwaters of River Indus, on which Pakistan’s agricultural economy downstream has become ever more dependent, though the issue has been addressed adequately by the Indus Water Treaty of 1960. Building of number of dams over River Brahmaputra by both China and India(over 150 dams planned), China’s South-to-North Water Diversion Project(a scheme to divert the waters of River Yangtze to the arid north of the country) are already cause for concern and are potential flash points.

India would ignore these water issues at its own peril. In addition to considering water as an important resource (Goldman Sachs describes it as ‘the petroleum of the next century’), steps need to be initiated on war-footing to address the water issue in a holistic manner. Water is a strategic asset for India.  The Government, policy-makers, think tank and the public need to be sensitised on this issue. The National security and strategic narrative be framed accordingly.

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