Thirsty South Asia’s river rifts threaten “water wars”

A private vehicle crosses a bridge as excavators are used at the dam site of Kishanganga power project in Gurez, 160 km (99 miles) north of Srinagar June 21, 2012. REUTERS-Fayaz Kabli

KANZALWAN, India-Pakistan Line of Control, July 23 (AlertNet) – As the silver waters of the Kishanganga rush through this north Kashmir valley, Indian laborers are hard at work on a hydropower project that will dam the river just before it flows across one of the world’s most heavily militarized borders into Pakistan.

The hum of excavators echoes through the pine-covered valley, clearing masses of soil and boulders, while army trucks crawl through the steep Himalayan mountain passes.

The 330-MW dam is a symbol of India’s growing focus on hydropower but also highlights how water is a growing source of tension with downstream Pakistan, which depends on the snow-fed Himalayan rivers for everything from drinking water to agriculture.

Islamabad has complained to an international court that the dam in the Gurez valley, one of dozens planned by India, will affect river flows and is illegal. The court has halted any permanent work on the river for the moment, although India can still continue tunneling and other associated projects.

In the years since their partition from British India in 1947, land disputes have led the two nuclear-armed neighbors to two of their three wars. Water could well be the next flashpoint.

“There is definitely potential for conflict based on water, particularly if we are looking to the year 2050, when there could be considerable water scarcity in India and Pakistan,” says Michael Kugelman, South Asia Associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“Populations will continue to grow. There will be more pressure on supply. Factor in climate change and faster glacial melt … That means much more will be at stake. So you could have a perfect storm which conceivably could be some sort of trigger.”

It’s not just South Asia — water disputes are a global phenomenon, sparked by growing populations, rapid urbanization, increased irrigation and a rising demand for alternative power such as hydroelectricity.

Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq quarrel over the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. The Jordan river divides Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank. Ten African countries begrudgingly share the Nile.

In Southeast Asia, China and Laos are building dams over the mighty Mekong, raising tensions with downstream nations.

A U.S. intelligence report in February warned fresh water supplies are unlikely to keep up with global demand by 2040, increasing political instability, hobbling economic growth and endangering world food markets.

A “water war” is unlikely in the next decade, it said, but beyond that rising demand and scarcities due to climate change and poor management will increase the risk of conflict.


South Asia’s water woes may have little to do with cross-border disputes, however. Shortages appear to be rooted in wasteful and inefficient water management practices, with India and Pakistan the worst culprits, experts say.

“All these countries are badly managing their water resources, yet they are experts in blaming other countries outside,” says Sundeep Waslekar, president of Strategic Foresight Group, a Mumbai-based think-tank.

“It would be more constructive if they looked at what they are doing at home, than across their borders.”

Their water infrastructure systems, such as canals and pipes used to irrigate farm lands, are falling apart from neglect. Millions of gallons of water are lost to leakages every day.

The strain on groundwater is the most disturbing. In India, more than 60 percent of irrigated agriculture and 85 percent of drinking water depend on it, says the World Bank. Yet in 20 years, most of its aquifers will be in a critical condition.

Countries must improve water management, say experts, and share information such as river flows as well as joint ventures on dam projects such as those India is doing with Bhutan.

“Populations are growing, demand is increasing, climate change is taking its toll and we are getting into deeper and deeper waters,” says Verghese, author of ‘Waters of Hope: Himalayan-Ganga cooperation for a billion people’.

“You can’t wait and watch. You have to get savvy and do something about it. Why get locked into rhetoric? We need to cooperate. Unless you learn to swim, you are dead.”


Reuters has the full article

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